“Haunted by Ghosts: Recollection of a Recent Field Trip to Indonesia” by Hans Ladegaard

Eyes that I last saw in tears
Through division
Here in death’s dream kingdom
The golden vision reappears
I see the eyes but not the tears
This is my affliction

—T.S. Eliot

I could see it in her eyes when we first met that she was unhappy. I didn’t know how bad it was, but I was sure she had a story to tell. One of the painful stories that are so common among domestic migrant workers.

Her name was Maya and I met her on a Sunday morning in early April in a small village in East Java. I had arrived early with my driver and interpreter, and my contact person, the director of a local migrant worker NGO who had been to see all the former migrant women and ask if they wanted to meet with the professor from Hong Kong and tell him about their life as domestic helpers. We were invited to an elderly lady’s house for coffee and food. Her husband had died young so she was left with two small children, no income and no choice but to go overseas to provide an income for her children and her parents. Thirty years later she returned home, and was able to build one of the most beautiful houses in the village, with tiled floors, lavish furniture, and running water. She was not well, had struggled with health issues for years, she told me, but she was happy and proud of her house, and of her children who were both doing well.

But Maya was not happy, despite the smiles and the chit-chatting with her friends. The women came in groups of 4-5, sat outside on the veranda until it was their turn to come in and talk. The questions were short and simple: what was it like to be a migrant worker, and what was it like to come home. For some, the first question took all the time we had. Maya was one of them. When I asked her what life had been like for her in Kuwait, where she had worked as a domestic helper for two years, she told us, in a wobbly voice, a story of constant hunger, sleep deprivation, 16-hour workdays, and underpayment, in combination with loneliness, fear and a constant feeling of sadness. But a life of hunger, long workdays and little sleep is not unusual for domestic helpers, so there had to be more.

So, I dug deeper and asked her how she was feeling now after she had come back to Indonesia. She looked at me and smiled, tears streaming down her face, switched to English and confided in me that she had not told anybody about this. “The pain won’t get smaller”, she cried, “and I can’t stop thinking about it.” Her story was horrifying but not uncommon: Her Indonesian agent had purchased a tourist visa (rather than the more expensive work visa) when she first came to Kuwait, and when she presented herself at the airport two years later to go home for a visit, she was arrested because she did not have a valid visa. She was interrogated by police for hours, and eventually, taken aside to a small, dark room at the back of the airport, and two officers ordered her to take off all her clothes for a full body search. They told her that if she didn’t comply, they would put her in jail.

She was sobbing continuously as she took us through the agonizing details or the ordeal: once she was naked, both officers had sexually assaulted her. When they had finished, she was told that if she reported the case, they would ensure she would spend a long time in jail. She was left alone, burning with shame, but somehow, strangely relieved that she could now go home. But her humiliations had only just started. Half an hour later she was picked up for more questioning. They asked the same questions over and over, and eventually said they had no choice but to put her before a magistrate. “You have broken the law”, they said, “so you have to go to court.” She never saw the two officers again who had promised to help her if she cooperated. After several days in custody, she was sentenced to 3 months imprisonment for breaking immigration laws, and eventually deported from the country.

But she came home with all her scars. Her family said: “Thank God you’re back, and you’re alive”, but they never asked what had happened to her. So, there she was, six months after her return to her home village, wondering if the pain would ever get smaller. I couldn’t answer that question, but only encourage her to keep talking about her ghosts from the past. When I close my eyes, I can still see her sad pain-stricken eyes, her blue head-scarf that she used to conceal her red swollen face when she left the house, and her warm smile through the tears when she said her barely audible ‘Buy, and God bless’.

I wonder why some people’s lives are so cheap? Why does nobody care that a devout Muslim woman’s rights were violated so abominably? Why will the men who destroyed her life never be held accountable? And why does nobody care that Maya’s pain won’t get smaller.


HansHans Ladegaard was Head of the Department of English (2011-2013).

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