The booming voice of the short man was starting to draw a crowd. Abdul Wahid was calling me an opposition “puppet” and belligerently threatening me after launching into an expletive-laden tirade. Standing beside him in the dark and narrow alley was a former policeman who was sacked over brutality in February 2012.
“Why the hell are you here? Why don’t you write about the other projects of the government? I’ll destroy your camera. I’ll throw kalhu theyo [used engine oil] at you,” he screamed at me.
To say that I was scared would be an understatement. I feared for my life. I expected blows to land on my face any second as Wahid literally blew smoke in my face.
My colleague Hassan Moosa and I were on the island of Nilandhoo in Faafu atoll to seek public opinion about a multi-billion investment deal with Saudi Arabia, which has sparked fears that the entire atoll or parts of it could be sold.
I was not expecting hostility from the small population of Nilandhoo. We arrived at dawn on Wednesday and proceeded to interview as many of the island’s 2,000 inhabitants as we could. Unsurprisingly for a stronghold of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives, most people expressed support for the government’s plans despite the lack of details about the forthcoming mega project.
During our two days on Nilandhoo, we met with the atoll council president Abdul Hameed Mohamed, former council member Ahmed Shiyam, hospital manager Ahmed Nazim, school teacher Ali Mohamed, and several other prominent figures.
All of them treated us with respect and kindness. We were even invited to dinner. The people of Faafu atoll are not used to media attention and most people were eager to share their views. Our encounters reinforced the much vaunted basic decency of the Maldivian people.
That was until I met Wahid.
At first, I tried to explain that I came to do my job as a journalist and listen to the voice of the people. But that proved to be ill-advised. Wahid only grew more enraged. I told him I did not want a confrontation and walked away.
“I will confront you. I will confront you. Get the f**k out. Right now,” he kept screaming.
Back at our rented apartment, I told Moosa about the threats. We informed our colleagues at the Maldives Independent and called several people for advice, including the atoll council president, a businessman from the island named Ibrahim Khaleel, and a friend of mine from Faafu atoll.
Before we could decide what to do, we heard a commotion from the street. A small mob was gathered outside. One man actually came inside the house and knocked on our door.
Khaleel, the local businessman, called me back and advised us to report the threats to the police. He offered to accompany us to the island’s police station. But he was unable to get past the mob. He left and came back with the police, who cleared a path and took us out on their van.
We arrived at the police station around 11:30pm, expecting to leave in a few minutes after making a simple statement. But much to our surprise we were treated like criminal suspects. Our phones were confiscated and we were kept apart.
The police then began to ask strange questions.
“Where is that white man who came with you? Are you planning to cover the protest? Are any other media going to be travelling here?” asked a policeman who did not tell us his name.
The officer informed us that plans were afoot on the island against us and we were now under protective custody.
He denied my request to contact my editor or colleagues at the Maldives Independent. We were not allowed to speak to each other. A polite request to have a cigarette was also turned down. We were kept in plastic chairs in the backyard of the police station for three hours, surrounded by chain-smoking policemen.
I later learned that phone calls to the officer in charge of the station prompted a change in our treatment. After three hours, we were allowed to smoke. The police officers gave us coffee and food and offered small sofas to sleep on.
We were not asked a single question about the threats of violence from Wahid during the 10 hours we spent at the Nilandhoo police station.
Wahid, as we came to learn, is the brother-in-law of Dr Abdulla Khaleel, the PPM lawmaker who represents the Nilandhoo constituency.
After we were “released,” the police officers wanted to check our notes and examine the photos we took during the trip. Despite the highly irregular request, we complied. We had nothing to hide.
We left Nilandhoo on the 2:00pm ferry, shaken by the unexpected ordeal but undaunted and determined to press on with our task.