I remember the exact moment when I first saw Ahmed Rilwan. It was late 2009, and I had just arrived in the Maldives. Some bloggers had gotten together to sort of welcome me and get introduced. We were sitting in a sea-side café at night, when he walked in with two other well known bloggers.
We hit it off instantly – and met several times in the subsequent weeks. I remember it all. The free flowing conversations; his brilliant mind brimming with ideas; his incredible knowledge and insight into Dhivehi culture and language; his unique, delightful sense of humour; the silver caps visible when he grinned. I became immediately hooked.
Looking back, I’m reminded of the great Jalaluddin Rumi’s teacher who once prophesied to him:
‘…a great friend will come to you and you will be each other’s mirror
He will lead you to the innermost parts of the spiritual world..‘
That lyrical foreshadowing of Rumi’s momentous encounter with the mysterious Shams of Tabrez, could just as easily have applied to my first encounter with Rilwan.
Right from some of our earliest conversations, he has been my moral compass. Over long coffees – tea for him – he would deconstruct Maldivian society for me, a clueless outsider who had just set foot on his own homeland after over two decades.
He shoved me straight into the deep end. Revelation after shocking revelation hit me like a pile of bricks.
It was Rilwan who first told me about a well known pedophile sexual predator, whose horrific crimes family and neighbours were fully aware of, but had chosen to turn a blind eye to.
It so happened that much to society’s admiration (and presumably in those endless, dull moments when he wasn’t fucking children-), the man had also managed to memorize the entire Qur’an.
I was aghast. At the time, I simply couldn’t wrap my head around the idea. ‘How on goddamn Earth,’ my naïve self asked then, ‘could any decent society tolerate the rape of children?!’
Rilwan just shrugged. ‘It is fucked up here. You will learn eventually.’
One day, I did. The answer struck me as I saw the same paedophile qari walk out of a house, hop on a motorcycle, and speed away nonchalantly into the arms of a welcoming society.
As he sped past, free as a bird, I happened to be carrying in my hands a heavy bundle of posters with Rilwan’s photograph on them, with the word ‘MISSING’ on top in large bold type.
It is now six months since Rilwan disappeared.
Over these difficult months, I have finally learned what Rilwan had meant. It is simple, really.
We do not live in a decent society.
Until I met Rilwan in person, I knew him as moyameehaa – (mad man) – the pseudonym he adopted on the Internet. I knew him from his wonderful blog, and the insightful comments he would leave on other blogs, including mine.
In his avatar as moyameehaa, Rilwan is a pioneer of Internet activism in the Maldives, and one of the earliest and most popular bloggers in the country.
It was clear very early on that Rilwan never got the memo about swimming together with the rest of the school.
In the early 2000’s, when the Gayoom dictatorship had a vice grip on the country – and Gayoom’s version of “moderate” Islam was rigidly enforced by the state, Rilwan’s idealism, sense of rebelliousness and search for truth led him towards radical Islamism.
He once told me that his slide into – and out of – Islamist Jihadism followed a smooth gradient.
He had sworn his allegiance to the Islamist cause along with others, including H. Moscowge Ali Jaleel, who was subsequently involved in the 2009 Lahore bombings.
But unlike them, Rilwan was unable to let go of his love for poetry.
He found himself unable to obey the stringent orders to avoid reading ‘forbidden’ material. His thirst for knowledge was too strong, and he continued reading, and gradually – he told me – he began to see that Islamism was not just morally bankrupt, but dangerous and evil.
It was, he said, a tool to prey on the young and vulnerable, who became foot soldiers in a political power struggle between corrupt forces – one made even more distasteful to him because it invoked the name of God and employed it for the basest of human desires. He came to realize that, just like Gayoom, the Islamists had been invoking God and religion to pursue selfish political goals.
So with the same courage that it took to voice out against Gayoom in his heydays, Rilwan spoke out fervently against religious extremism and politicization of religion.
Ignorant critics try to paint him as anti-religious, but Rilwan has always been a highly nuanced commentator. He defended faith and morality with the same vigour that he defended the rights of others to pursue their own paths. Indeed, if there is one driving force in his life, it is his eternal quest for morality.
“Maldives no longer has a value system”, was one of his most common complaints. “Our people have completely foregone all morality”
Rilwan was self-confessedly lazy when it came to meeting calendar appointments, but his morality wasn’t the sort of lazy ‘donate-to-Gaza-then-go-back-to-watch-football’ brand of concern that Maldivians have gotten accustomed to.
He actively, passionately invoked and practiced his values in everything he did.
I have yet to hear anyone speak up for expatriate rights as passionately and forcefully as Rilwan did, even over casual meetings with friends. His empathy for the downtrodden and underprivileged is universal. His love for simplicity, his scorn for unfairness, his angst at injustice pretty much defined him.
Only complete idiots think his demand for freedom of religion in the Maldives was led by some kind of aversion towards Islam. Quite the opposite.
He couldn’t stress enough that Islam and its Prophet guaranteed that all men have freedom of conscience, and that no one – and certainly not the Maldivian state – could take that away.
When literalism collided with principles, he discarded the former in favour of the latter. Like me, he found literalism hollow and devoid of any depth, spirituality or beauty.
Using his trademark humour, he once illustrated his disdain for literalists by interpreting William Blake’s The Tyger as:
@yaamyn a scary tiger commits self immolation in a dark forest. Stars were throwing spears at it. It was horrible! 🙁
— مجنون (@moyameehaa) June 15, 2013
Rilwan’s courageous writing, his unwavering stand for what is right, sadly, didn’t go over well in a land where the reality is toxic, and facts burn.
He received threats, and reported being followed by known local, religiously radicalized criminals.
At 00:44 hrs on 8th August 2014, after having spent the evening with family and friends, Rilwan walked into the Hulhumalé ferry terminal to go home.
5 days later, I got the phone call.
“Have you seen Rilwan?”
“Nobody seems to know where he is”
“What do you mean nobody knows where he is?”
“Nobody has heard from him. His family called his office to find out if they had heard from him”
My heart began racing. A dozen explanations sprang up immediately to try ease my mind that this was all probably harmless.
Surely, it was going to be okay.
I immediately checked his twitter – he had gone silent 5 days ago.
I then learnt that nobody – not his friends or family – had heard from him in a few days.
This was wrong. Somebody knew.
Somebody always knew.
It wasn’t unusual at all for Rilwan to drop out of touch for extended periods.
He craved solitude and often took time-out from socializing. But somebody always knew.
As the day progressed with no more news of his whereabouts, I desperately clung to this hope that he had just taken off to some island. Or was at a friend’s place.
Nothing bad could happen to him. It just could not be allowed to happen. Not to Rilwan, of all people.
A police report was made. Everything went by in a daze. The nightmare was just beginning.
100 days of nightmares
That night, I saw him in a dream. I had found him – grinning sheepishly, obviously embarrassed by all the commotion he had inadvertently caused. Waves of relief swept over me and I was glad that it was all over. I pretended to be mad, and wanted to playfully punch him for his cheekiness.
But Rilwan was fine. He was safe and I could see him, and it was all that mattered.
And then, cruelly, painfully, the mists of sleep lifted – and a harrowing, unbearable reality sinked in.
He was still missing. Family and friends were desperately, separately, searching for him everywhere. It became impossible to sit in peace. If he was taken away, I wanted to take him back.
The next day, I sent out a call for volunteers on twitter with a hashtag #FindMoyameehaa. Another concerned friend and I sat down and made a map. If he was abandoned somewhere, I would find him.
Rilwan’s employer, Minivan News, made a public appeal to help in our efforts. That night, dozens of volunteers turned up at a park in Malé to help with the search. We organized, set up a communication channel, distributed maps, and agreed to meet at daylight. As I was briefing those who had come to support us, I saw out of a corner of my eye the slight silhouette of an old lady silently watching from a little bit afar in the dark.
I dared not look more closely at Rilwan’s devastated mother that night.
On 15th August 2014, friends, fans, and well wishers gathered at Hulhumalé. Organized search teams went out with maps, and scoured the whole island and all its inaccessible areas. The HDC and MTCC generously offered their assistance.
We did aerial surveillance.
We left nothing unexplored.
We didn’t find him.
Police investigators in charge of Rilwan’s case came to meet us at the end of the day – and spoke words of appreciation. Then they feigned to share some information that we had, by then, already established wasn’t accurate.
The Red Car
The search in Hulhumalé was still in progress when we first started hearing rumours about an abduction. Eventually, the rumours were confirmed.
Early on August 8th, at around the time Rilwan would have reached home, eyewitnesses reported to the police that a man was abducted at knife point from near his front door, and taken away in a red car.
Police had arrived at the scene and even recovered a knife.
Somehow, the police had failed to mention any of this to us, or to his family.
The time of the abduction neatly coincides with the time Rilwan abruptly stopped responding to a chat conversation he was having with a friend. We found out later that the police even intercepted a car, but the Sergeant on duty didn’t authorize a search.
The police made no attempts to identify the victim.
They made no attempts to seal the exits from the island.
They made no public announcement about the abduction – so his family and friends could have been alerted.
They didn’t mention this abduction at Rilwan’s doorstep to his family, even after his disappearance was reported.
Instead, what followed instead was a week of inexplicable silence.
A week after his disappearance, we came to the realization that Rilwan hadn’t just disappeared. He was abducted by criminals – and the police had the opportunity to stop it, but they didn’t.
Over the next hundred days, we explored every avenue that we could humanly think of. We tracked down eyewitnesses and sent them to the Police to give statements.
We identified Rilwan from CCTV footage when the Police couldn’t. Friends willingly sacrificed all their free time for him, meeting every day – comparing notes, planning public events.
We got thousands of posters printed, and plastered them all over Malé. We made social media kits, and hung banners. We created a website, findmoyameehaa.com, to share news, information and resources.
We made video spots and aired appeals on TV.
We spoke on TV programs and to people on the streets. We reached out to media and arranged press conferences. We distributed fliers and information about him. We arranged funds to declare an MVR 200,000 reward for information, which to this day, remains unclaimed.
We reached out to other grieving families dealing with loss of their loved ones to serious, violent crime. We met every single political party, and MPs and youth leaders from all of them. We gathered at the Majlis to ask for answers.
We wrote letters to the Human Rights Commission, to the Police Integrity Commission, to the Parliament, to every state institution that we could think of that could possibly help.
Every Friday we gathered at the Artificial Beach in Malé, and told people about Rilwan. We shared his poetry, his verses, his humour. We told the public of this kind, gentle soul who craved nothing more than the simple life – for black tea, for joospetty. We printed t-shirts and gave them away. We had artists create artwork to raise awareness.
We created a petition to the Majlis that over 5000 citizens lend their signatures to. We rallied on the streets with hundreds of other citizens demanding answers and accountability.
International media – from Al Jazeera to BBC to Forbes and the Guardian – picked up on the story. Journalists associations worldwide released statements. Diplomats and foreign embassies made noises expressing concern.
And despite everything, it feels like we have done too little.
How could we have possibly done enough if he still isn’t back with us?
None of this matters until he is returned to us.
Six months later, I still haven’t found Rilwan.
But I have seen and observed closely all the ugliness of Maldivian society that Rilwan spoke of.
I have experienced the depths of despair dealing with an all pervading immorality that I couldn’t previously imagine, but Rilwan was fully aware of and spoke about.
To this day, the President has ‘no comments’ to make on the first enforced disappearance of its nature in the Maldives. He has rudely turned down every request from the family to meet him – but still finds time to pose with random street gangs and open local restaurants.
Similarly, the open mockery by some MPs when asked about Rilwan is cartoonishly evil – the sheer crassness of it beggars belief. A petition with 5055 signatures – more votes than any single MP got in any election – was callously thrown out.
One would have expected the media to rally together to the aid of a disappeared journalist. Well, they did. But it took them 12 days. And then, the united face of solidarity they put up didn’t exactly last long.
The state broadcaster MBC, funded by the taxpayers, steadfastly refuses to give coverage to the Rilwan case, or the #FindMoyameehaa campaign.
Nevertheless, I did see them dedicate significant screen time one day to air a report about their failed attempts to gain an interview with an Indian actress who was on holiday. (They never sent a journalist to speak to Rilwan’s family or our campaign)
The taxpayer funded mosques, (that usually doesn’t need any encouragement to pack say, crude anti-Semitism into their Friday sermons) have not once mentioned Rilwan or offered a simple prayer for him.
After six months of ‘investigation’, the Maldives Police Service has nothing to show but its contempt for Rilwan’s family and friends.
Their primary concern (and actual stated request to the family-) was to ‘not make the Police look bad’ – this ridiculous plea being made to a family suffering for 6 endless months.
In a series of curiously defensive statements, the police has repeatedly patted itself on the back for the wonderful job it is doing – going so far as to label itself the ‘best police force in the region’ – while asserting that family and friends have hindered their efforts.
The statements are laughable. The Maldives Police Service has a horrifying near 100% failure rate on solving serious crimes, with nearly 40 unsolved murders, hundreds of stabbings and now, at least two more unexplained disappearances.
Their highly odd response to the Hulhumalé abduction is, at best, severely negligent, and – at worst – reeks of active complicity.
After we reported his disappearance, it took the best police force in the region over 29 hours to arrive at his apartment, and over 11 days to search his office for clues.
The best police force in the region somehow also allowed two known individuals implicated in Rilwan’s disappearance to leave the country’s shores to go fight in Syria. A third one was intercepted by Malaysian authorities and sent back.
But it is not just institutional incompetence. I have also seen repeated validation of Rilwan’s analysis of the general Maldivian population.
Once, while we were marching down Majeedhee magu led by Rilwan’s grieving family, this man sitting on a motorbike inexplicably found the scene rather amusing, and made what I’m sure he thought was a hilarious remark about Rilwan.
I confronted him, and asked him what kind of fucked up upbringing he suffered to make such a crass comment to a grieving family. He didn’t answer – and hid his face when a camera was pointed at him.
What disturbed me even more was that he made this crude, insensitive remark, while his own five year old son was sitting right behind him.
Such remarks are not uncommon either.
Wherever we went, putting up posters, carrying out marches, some fuckwit would inevitably pass by engaging in some crude mockery.
I really, really do not understand why.
What has failed Maldives so bad? Why are these people so completely unable to empathize with people? What leads them to such wanton acts of uninvited viciousness?
And then I remember what Rilwan said: We have lost all morality. Our people are lost.
It is hard to overstate the toll a tragedy of this magnitude takes on friends and family.
The general public only sees the measured statements from family members in press conferences. It is close friends who hear the painful, soul-shattering sobbing echoing in the empty halls long after the cameras and journalists have left.
I have seen remarkable strength and resilience in Rilwan’s family. His mother, in particular, has been a pillar of strength for the family, as well as me and other friends.
I had never met Rilwan’s mother until after the misfortune struck. But I remember him speak fondly about her.
When I asked him about his impressive dhivehi vocabulary, his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of obscure dhivehi idioms and phrases, he gave all credit to his mother (“Mom used it at home all the time when I was growing up”)
One time, I had to wait for him outside his apartment while he finished praying. He told me afterwards that his mom had asked him earlier if he had prayed. He hadn’t really, but he’d told her he did, just to make her feel better. Moments later, guilt got the better of him, and he did all his prayers for the day to compensate. He said he felt much better for it.
These memories sweep over me when I see the strong, stoic lady holding posters of her missing son. Seeing her on the streets makes me picture my own mother in such despair, and that drives me even more to do all I can.
I think I held myself together pretty well the first few days. I didn’t report to work and set aside all my time for the single pursuit of trying to right this grievous wrong.
Then one day, it happened.
In the midst of the online storm raging on social media about the much beloved blogger’s disappearance, I saw a lone photograph tweeted by Rilwan’s elder brother.
I immediately choked up, overwhelmed by memories of the times Rilwan had spoken to me of his brother; I recollected Rilwan’s struggles with his depression, his loneliness, his need to feel loved; and I broke down helplessly.
During this time, we met other families who have been denied justice.
It was heart breaking to see them having given up all hope, deciding instead to carry the burden of their injustice to their graves, in the vague hopes of some balm in the afterlife.
That is what Maldives has reduced to. A country without hope. A country drowning in “religion”, but where the merest hint of justice withers and dies in the face of unrelenting evil.
Ultimately, a country with no soul.
Dreams and Interludes
In the few hours of tortured sleep that I could cobble together in the first few weeks, I continued to dream of him every single night. In every single one of them, I see him healthy, smiling and being his usual delightful self; every single time the immeasurable joy and relief of finding him first overwhelms me and then gets cruelly snatched away as the mists of sleep clear away and I wake up to a cold harsh reality.
When I am awake, I remember the times he would excitedly tell me about some book he had read that had greatly moved him. Some work of Sufi philosophy that he had, no doubt, spent hours reading, absorbing and relishing. Some verse of Urdu poetry that had deeply resonated with him. Some eBook about the Prophet’s life or such, that he eagerly wanted to share with me. His passion for art, literature and knowledge, absolutely infectious.
I still do frequently dream of Rilwan. Even now, waking up from these dreams is a sickening jolt each time.
I have been waking up to this nightmare for six months now. I cannot even begin to imagine what his family – his old mother and father – must be going through.
I have met some excellent people – Rilwan’s friends and well wishers – who continue to work tirelessly, selflessly, to find answers. Working with them, talking to them, has been therapy that helps me deal with the loss, the frustration, the rage.
I have encountered some touching moments of compassion from strangers too. The pickup driver who refused to accept money for transporting a giant billboard. The complete strangers who offer assistance, lend a hand, lend their voices.
But the search for Rilwan has also forced me to confront the full force of the contempt the Maldivian state has for citizens, the virulent hatred that permeates our society.
I have come to understand what makes Rilwan such a rare human being. He knew a better way, and tried to guide the lost hordes. For me, the search for him has become a search for the nation’s very soul – and I can’t find it any more than I could find Rilwan.
Even as I continue to search for him, I can’t help but recall the eternal Rumi’s words that I know Rilwan, more than most people, would appreciate coming from a friend:
“Why should I search?
I am the same as he is.
His essence speaks through me.
His essence speaks through me”
[To stay up to date about the search for Rilwan, and to find out how you can help, please visit www.findmoyameehaa.com]