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On the smooth, dark highway leading out of Sri Lanka's Bandaranaike International Airport, Zaheena Rasheed slumped into the back seat of a taxi. Large fruit bats swooped under the streetlights. Out in the mangroves, egrets tucked their necks into moon-bright feathers. As the car sped through the cool September night toward Colombo—a city with about twice the population of Zaheena's home country, the Maldives—her shoulders finally began to relax. For the first time in months, she felt safe.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Zaheena had been in her office at the Maldives Independent, waiting to see if the Maldivian government would fall. While the Maldives slipped away from democracy throughout the latter half of 2016, journalists around the country had faced escalating legal and physical threats.
As rumors of a potential military coup swirled, staff reporters texted Zaheena, the paper's editor-in-chief, with updates from the streets, where citizens protested government corruption and recent crackdowns on free speech. The mood in the office grew somber. "The police were beating everyone, using pepper spray," Zaheena says, "but that was it. There was really no critical threat to the president's hold on power."
Zaheena had recently been a source for an Al Jazeera documentary that claimed members of President Abdulla Yameen's administration profited from a money-laundering scheme—an alleged abuse of power that had inspired protests. (In an email exchange with Pacific Standard, a spokesperson for Yameen denied all allegations of wrongdoing.) The documentary was due to air later that week, in September of 2016, and she'd been trying to decide if she needed to flee the country before it did. Yameen's government had recently passed a law criminalizing defamation, in a move that David Kaye, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression, called "a direct attack" that would make "reporting and criticism truly risky." The day before the protests broke out, a member of the governing party delivered a warning shot on state television, suggesting contributors to the documentary would be arrested.
Until that evening, Zaheena had been ignoring the advice of concerned friends and family to leave. "I think it felt like backing down. It felt like giving into them." But as she wrapped up editing the paper's report on the failed protest, "It hit me how strong the government was. It suddenly felt urgent." She called her fiancé to accompany her home from the office. "I was like, 'OK, I have to leave now.'" Because of the risk of abduction—she had once been surrounded by a group of men trying to intimidate her on the street—Zaheena had to be careful not to go anywhere alone. The next morning, in her big, open, white-tiled kitchen, she told her parents about her decision to leave. "What she was doing was very risky," Zaheena's father Ibrahim Rasheed says. "I knew the threat she was going to face, but she wanted to [participate in the documentary], so I had to be OK with it."
She packed a small suitcase—just her laptop, a couple of books, and some clothes. "I left thinking I was coming back the next week," she says, hoping to give the documentary time to blow over. "Even as the plane was taking off, I didn't think this was the last time I'd see my home."
About 500 miles southwest of Sri Lanka, more than a thousand islands rise from the warm, clear waters of the Indian Ocean. White sand beaches give way to palm trees, and coral reefs bloom in colorful bursts. Although the Maldives are a famed holiday destination, most of its resort-bound visitors don't know that the Arab Spring came early here. In 2008, Asia's longest-serving leader, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, was pressured by activists and international human-rights agencies into holding the country's first multi-party elections, ending a rule of 30 years. Gayoom, who'd never previously faced an opponent, lost to Mohamed Nasheed, a journalist and activist who had been jailed several times for vocally opposing Gayoom's regime. The non-violent transition, Zaheena says, imbued the capital island—a chaotic jumble of buildings, boats, and motorbikes—with a sense of hope. But democracy was short-lived.
As President Nasheed set out to investigate alleged abuses by the previous regime, he quickly tangled with the country's top judges. Then, in the 2009 elections, Gayoom's party won more seats in parliament than Nasheed's, leading to political gridlock. "The people hadn't changed," says Aiman Rasheed, Zaheena's brother, a former communications manager for Transparency Maldives, one of the primary non-governmental organizations in the country that focuses on human rights. "You can have a good constitution, you can have people working to change the system, but you can't bring about change unless there's a change in the attitudes and belief system—which doesn't happen overnight."
In early 2012, after Nasheed ordered the arrest of a criminal-court judge who he believed was working to protect Gayoom's allies, protests erupted on a daily basis for weeks. Following a final showdown in the capital city between protestors, the military, and a police force apparently loyal to Gayoom, Nasheed claimed that he signed his resignation at gunpoint. The former vice president, an ally of Gayoom, took over and denied Nasheed's account of his ouster.
In 2013, Nasheed staged a comeback, winning preliminary voting rounds in the presidential election before the Supreme Court delayed voting and annulled results amid accusations of vote-rigging. At one point, according to the New York Times, police blocked a rescheduled vote, surrounding the election commission's offices. Eventually, an election commission appointed on the eve of the final vote declared a half-brother of Gayoom's, Abdulla Yameen, the winner.
After Yameen took office, Nasheed was convicted and sentenced to 13 years in prison, under broadly written anti-terror laws, for the arrest of the criminal-court judge. Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, characterized the trial as "a rushed process that appears to contravene the Maldives' own laws and practices and international fair-trial standards in a number of respects." Zaheena covered the trial. "It happened really late at night, because they didn't want people to know what's happening." She'd enter a small courtroom that had a big plaque on the wall "with a Byronic phrase, you know, something like 'rule justly.' You'd witness this great injustice under these words. I was just flabbergasted."
Nasheed didn't seem to be the only Maldivian who felt threatened by the new president. "The president is going after each one of his popular rivals,” a former member of parliament told the New York Times in 2015. Even during the 2013 elections, Zaheena says, "People were still talking on record, still willing to have their names published. It changed quite quickly in the couple months after Yameen took power." (Yameen's spokesperson told Pacific Standard that his administration has "consistently shown commitment to multi-party democracy.")
In 2013, the new president appointed a man named Ahmed Adeeb as tourism minister—a powerful position given the country's economic dependence on visitors. Fond of flashy watches and the sobriquet Bro, Adeeb called himself "boss of all gangs in the Maldives," according to text messages obtained by the Al Jazeera documentarians who interviewed Zaheena.
Under Yameen, the country's judicial system continued to receive criticism from Western observers for its lack of independence. Corruption charges against a Gayoom ally were dropped. According to financial and legal documents as well as cell phone records also obtained by Al Jazeera, only a few months after Adeeb's appointment in late 2013, he and other government officials began selling government-owned islands, allegedly pocketing millions from the proceeds. In email exchanges with the documentarians, Adeeb's attorney denied any wrongdoing; the attorney did not provide responses to Pacific Standard's written list of questions by press time.
But years before the Al Jazeera documentarians began looking into the alleged embezzlement scheme, Niyaz Ibrahim, the country's auditor general (appointed by Nasheed in 2011), came upon suspicious financial transfers and began to investigate where the government's money was going.
When I met Ibrahim at a Colombo Burger Hut diner in February of 2017, he recounted how it all started, speaking in a solemn whisper at odds with the cheery red pleather décor. Back in 2014, about a year after Yameen took office, Ibrahim's office conducted an audit of the tourism ministry after a member of the public filed a complaint. He found that the ministry used Excel to maintain records of payments—meaning there was no easy way to trace changes made over time—and provided receipts without dates, stamps, or signatures. His audit report in October of 2014 stated, "Corruption suspected."
Ibrahim had uncovered part of what the 2016 Al Jazeera documentary would later reveal to the world: Around $80 million intended for the Maldivian government—proceeds from the sale of small islands to luxury hotel chains—was deposited into a main account before being siphoned off into private accounts owned by members of Adeeb's family. When Ibrahim first started prying, according to Al Jazeera, Adeeb texted his collaborators: "u guys need to focus on this auditor general." A member of the Maldives Police Service warned Adeeb that Ibrahim's office had security cameras. Adeeb didn't care. "Need to blast it at any cost," he texted.
Ibrahim was alarmed by the outcome of his investigation, but "I never imagined the scale," he says, shaking his head. On the night the report was initially published, several of Ibrahim's family members were texted death threats. Shortly thereafter, the parliament passed an amendment that gave the president the option of cutting Ibrahim's term short and appointing a new auditor general. Yameen took this opportunity and selected the brother of a man implicated in the money-laundering scheme with Adeeb.
As the Maldives Independent covered the unfolding scandal, Zaheena frequently called Ibrahim, but cooperating with the media felt like a risk. Ibrahim told Zaheena he couldn't comment on particular lines of questioning because he had three young children at home to protect. When the documentary journalists asked Ibrahim for an interview, he knew there'd be repercussions. Still, he agreed. "I had a moral responsibility," he says.
Even Yameen's closest political advisor turned out not to be safe. In 2015, Adeeb—by then the country's youngest vice president in its history—was arrested on charges of treason for allegedly planting an explosive device on the presidential yacht. Evidence from two separate forensic analyses, including from the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States, suggests that the blast was accidental and that Adeeb was imprisoned on false pretenses. When Adeeb was arrested, an anonymous source managed to get the data from three of his cell phones to Will Jordan, an Al Jazeera journalist. The unprecedented evidence prompted Jordan to direct the feature-length documentary on the state's alleged acts of corruption. (In press reports, Adeeb's attorney denied the treason allegations.)
Stealing Paradise aired in early September of 2016, a few days after Zaheena fled the Maldives. She had just finished watching the documentary on YouTube in a friend's living room in Colombo—and was on the phone with her office trying to decide how to cover it—when the police pounded on the paper's door. The Independent’s headquarters were raided. Because the search started in a different part of the building, her colleagues had time to hide their laptops in a third-floor advertising agency, saving them from confiscation. "I was in shock," Zaheena says. "When you are far away out of harm's reach and feel like you're putting other people in danger...." She trails off.
She texted the former auditor general, who, as the other primary Maldivian source for the documentary, was now in danger. She warned Ibrahim that he needed to flee the country immediately.
Ibrahim says he headed to the airport, but had trouble checking in. Airline staff at the counter looked him up in their computer system. There was a hold on his passport. Ibrahim demanded to see a court warrant and anxiously texted friends. He was kept sitting in a corner for 30 minutes. "I thought, This is the end of the story," he says, but since no one had the appropriate paperwork, he was eventually allowed to leave. He got on the next plane out of the country, a flight to Singapore, and then boarded another for Colombo. "Some of the officers must have been sympathetic," Zaheena says. "He was lucky."
Ibrahim stops talking as the waiter approaches our table at the restaurant, and continues only when we're alone again. "Some of the murders linked to [the Maldivian] parliament took place here," he says, explaining his caution. He and Zaheena are two of roughly 10,000 Maldivians living in Colombo, and violence from home has reportedly followed people to Sri Lanka before. Ibrahim tries to avoid going out alone, but he has a family to support and is still looking for work. "I have to take them to school," he says. "Things have to be done."
We leave the café into the afternoon's dusty heat. A tuk-tuk selling baked goods tootles by, blasting electronic "Für Elise" through tinny speakers. "Every project they take is underlined with corruption," Ibrahim says, making it difficult to foresee things in the Maldives getting better. "Either you're with the current regime, or you're with the opposition. Very few people are in the middle."
Though many are fed up with the political system altogether, the opposition is disorganized and fractured. "All the options are bad. You don't find many sources of information. Very few people are willing to speak up." He steps into the crowded street to try to flag down a ride, to no avail, and returns to stand in the shade, staring out over the chaos. "I don't know what's wrong with the Maldives. I don't know why people tolerate such things."
Five years to the day after Nasheed's fall from power, Zaheena sits on a white couch in Colombo, hunched over an Apple laptop with a sticker commemorating a disappeared colleague. She's trying to prepare for an interview with the former president, who received medical leave from prison to travel to the United Kingdom, where he was granted asylum. Since leaving the Maldives, Zaheena's lived with a rotating circuit of friends and fellow exiles, in London and Colombo. In her current hosts' living room, a hand-penciled sign on a cluttered desk proclaims "Editor"; at a low table nearby, her host's young son has set up another desk with toys and his own name on it. As Zaheena continues to edit the Maldives Independent remotely, she spends hours every day in the living room, working on Skype, WhatsApp, and Google Drive. A dog whines intermittently at the door; her hosts come and go. Though Zaheena has managed to restore a semblance of normality, the smallest things are off: She works on Sundays because the Maldivian weekend is Friday and Saturday. Sri Lanka is a half-hour ahead of the Maldives, so every time she schedules a phone call with a source she's reminded that she's reporting on her own country from abroad.
Illiberal democracy is not a new concept for Zaheena; she was born on Rathafandhoo, a small fishing island in the southern Maldives, and grew up in the heyday of Gayoom's rule. "We had electricity four hours a day, no running water, no toilets. I had a very idyllic childhood, playing on beaches," she says. But her parents wanted their children to be properly educated, so they moved to the capital island and rented a small place. "Like living in a slum," Zaheena's brother Aiman recalls. "That's where we grew up. There were certain things you saw that had a lasting impact on you."
At 15, Zaheena won a scholarship to finish high school at a United World Colleges school in the hills of Pune, India. "It was the first time I'd left the country. I'd never had a passport or been on a flight. I was like a sponge, absorbing everything." It was this world-expanding experience that piqued her interest in fighting injustice at home. At the time, the Maldives didn't have a degree-awarding university and, when she graduated, she was accepted to Middlebury College (an institution I also attended) in Vermont.
After her freshman year, she decided to take a year off, and returned to the Maldives in time for the country's first free presidential elections in 2008. She took an internship at what was then called Minivan ("independent" in the Maldivian language Dhivehi) News, and which was later renamed the Maldives Independent. From the start, she focused on abuses of power, including corruption in a tourism wealth-redistribution project. "I could see what potential she had," says Will Jordan, then working as an editor at Minivan. (Jordan respected her work so much that when the British journalist returned to the Maldives to produce the Al Jazeera documentary, he tapped Zaheena as one of his primary sources.) As a result of covering the elections, Zaheena learned the constraints that come with journalism are important. "People put blinders on the moment they are part of a cause," she says, and her experiences reporting on politics demonstrated the importance of unbiased sources.
But when she graduated from Middlebury and returned to the Maldives to work for the paper again in 2013, Zaheena soon learned that, when your own publication is under attack, remaining impartial can be hard. In 2014, her colleague, Ahmed Rilwan, disappeared. After criticizing both government policy and radical Islamists, Rilwan was forced into a car at knifepoint, eyewitnesses told the press. "The government refused to acknowledge he'd been abducted, even though it was reported within minutes, and a knife was recovered from the spot," Zaheena says. Just before Rilwan disappeared, they had collaborated on a story about vigilante mobs that were carrying out abductions of online activists advocating for secularism. (As the deputy editor, she had often worked closely with Rilwan.) "He was a great writer, always quite interested in stories that had to do with disadvantaged groups," she says.
People were "very quick to dismiss what we write as alarmist, but history has proven us right," she says. "In many ways we weren't alarmist enough. This is something American journalists will have to keep in mind."
Zaheena and a group of Rilwan's friends and family took the lead in finding out what happened, tracking down witnesses, but the official investigation proceeded slowly. Almost a year later, the police suggested that a reported kidnapping near Rilwan's apartment on the night of his disappearance wasn't linked to his case. Local reporting on the case says it wasn't until 600 days after he was last seen that the police even referred to the incident as an abduction.
When Zaheena uncovered new information, "we always reported it to the police and didn't report it on our website until some [other media outlet] reported it," she says. "When you're the one countering the [official] narrative," she says, "in many ways, that's what journalists do. But when it's a member of your team, and you're emotionally invested in the story...." She pauses, before adding that covering Rilwan's disappearance was "the most difficult thing I've ever done." After the Maldives Independent published a third-party report on Rilwan's disappearance, Zaheena says, a CCTV camera outside the paper's office was destroyed, and a rusty machete was found lodged in the door. An eyewitness saw two men flee on a motorbike after leaving the machete in the early afternoon. The same day, Zaheena says, she received a text message that read: "you will be the next one to be killed/disappeared."
Nevertheless, Rilwan's family tried to keep pressure on the government, but they began to fear that they were becoming targets too. Rilwan's brother Moosa was assaulted and then, after fleeing on his motorcycle, chased through the streets. After narrowly escaping, he heard from a girlfriend of a gang member that another attack was planned, and fled the country. "I no longer feel safe," Moosa writes in an email.
"That's the thing," Zaheena says. "That's why it's so fishy. Everyone who's tried to find him has also come under threat."
Through a spokesperson, Yameen denied playing any role in the intimidation of journalists or the auditor general. "This Administration is under no illusion that it somehow has the authority to orchestrate such actions—nor would it take example from previous administrations in exceeding, or going beyond, such authority," the spokesperson wrote.
Rilwan's case is technically still open, but it has been months since the family has heard from the police. The waiting is hard. "When someone's dead, we know that it's over," his brother writes in an email, "but in an abduction case like this, there's no closure." Moosa still sometimes talks about his brother in the present tense, explaining that journalism is an important part of who he is. "[Rilwan] can see clearly how things are going wrong in our society," he says, "which he believed can only be changed by confronting them. He can't stand to watch people suffering. Let's say he believed in humanity.... My brother was working toward a more tolerant society than what we are today."
But tolerance under an autocrat has been in short supply. The month before Stealing Paradise aired, Will Jordan, the Al Jazeera producer, says he received a tweet reading: "U will die soon. We have hired some gunmens to shot u. & we r not afraid of fucking anyone or any country. See the bullet." The words were followed by a gun emoji.
Just weeks before this story went to press, 29-year-old Yameen Rasheed, an outspoken political blogger who was also a friend of Rilwan's, was stabbed to death in the stairwell to his apartment. The last time Zaheena spoke to Rasheed (no relation), "we talked about marking the 1,000 days since Rilwan disappeared," she says. Rasheed had made repeated reports of death threats to the police, but, he told the New York Times before his murder, the government was unresponsive.
"Western journalists for a long time could afford to have a distance to crazy political issues," Zaheena says. But with rhetorical and procedural attacks against the press in democratic countries becoming more common, that distance may become harder to maintain. "Obviously you can still hold fast and true to principles of journalism, but unless it happens to you, you don't know [what it's like]. You also have to grapple with your own ... 'Shit, what's happening to me? What's happening in my country? What's happening to the people I love?'"
Yameen's drift away from democracy seems to reflect an evolution in the dictator's playbook. The old totalitarian model—the one taught in high school history—was based on a Stalinist state ownership of means. The 21st-century model is quasi-democratic. "Now comes the illiberal version," says Miklós Haraszti, director of research on human rights at the Center for European Neighborhood Studies of Central European University—and a Hungarian who watched his own country transform into a populist autocracy. "There are plenty of names for it, but they all mean the same thing. It's a new state culture, operating through the semblance of democracy." A strongman raises red-herring issues as he consolidates power, while citizens stand by, either too side-tracked or too attached to a blind faith in an increasingly corrupt government. In this kind of regime, "civil society is the main obstacle," Haraszti says—and therefore an early target.
Haraszti's theory seems to neatly fit the Maldives' political revolution. "Dictatorships find their biggest enemy is the truth," Zaheena says. "So they go after the people who criticize them."
The 2016 edition of the World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders, suggests a "deep and disturbing decline in respect for media freedom at both the global and regional levels." The report states that "independent news coverage is becoming increasingly precarious." Governments are purchasing media outlets, and courts are penalizing journalists on spurious charges. "There's an increasing desire worldwide to control the narrative, and it often puts journalists at risk," says Courtney Radsch, advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists. "We've seen historic levels of killings of journalists, historic levels of imprisoning."
In response to such risks, Haraszti explains that journalists inevitably begin to fall into two categories: toeing the line by creating propaganda for state channels and regime-supporting oligarchs—"Food for the machine," he says. Or sheer escapism, media "that's serving the system by excluding all politics, creating the semblance of pluralism. It's shiny, celebratory."
By fostering such polarization, regimes are able to isolate opposition and control protests. "The Maldives is only a democracy on paper," says Mariyam Shiuna, executive director of Transparency Maldives. "There's no freedom of expression, no freedom of assembly, no freedom of press. Obviously you see a lot of media operating, but everyone's drawn certain boundaries for their own safety."
One of the first freedoms to go is what Haraszti calls "the right to know": The government restricts fact-finding by denying access to government-owned data, retaliating against whistle-blowers, and restricting access to information on the regime's behavior. The International Commission of Jurists argued that the auditor general's firing in 2014 was an example of this kind of retaliation. "The failure to adhere to the constitutionally prescribed process for removal of an official," the report states, "raises serious concerns with respect to transparency, accountability, and the rule of law."
Silencing can also occur under less conspicuous circumstances. Haveeru, one of the Maldives' oldest newspapers, published articles on some of the capital island's gang activities. A lawsuit over the paper's ownership before the high court resulted in the deletion of the paper's digital archive. Shortly thereafter, its offices were lit on fire, destroying one of the largest physical archives in the country, covering 37 years of history.
"I was just incredibly paranoid. That's what dictatorships thrive on, uncertainty," she says. "Fear keeps people in line. Fear is so much more important [than actual violence], because it keeps you wondering."
Under these kinds of regimes, leaders with dictatorial aspirations use the trappings of former democracy—like once free and fair judicial systems—to cover undemocratic uses of power. Political scientist Douglas Payne calls this "market authoritarianism," where market economics are still allowed to flourish but power is maintained through corruption of institutions, intimidation of the press, and, inevitably, violence. The Maldives' recent law forcing journalists to face prison time for defamatory speech, and providing a legal rationale for silencing government criticism, is an example of the state using the courts to perpetuate control.
The instability and appearance of corruption has left the Maldivian people disillusioned. While reliable third-party surveys of corruption in the Maldives are notoriously hard to produce, a poll conducted for Transparency International found that 94 percent of Maldivians believe that politicians are ready to lie to get elected. Similarly, 71 percent of Maldivians agree that the government does not care much about ordinary people. According to another poll conducted for Transparency International's Global Corruption Barometer, 78 percent of people consider the legislature corrupt, and 69 percent of people feel similarly about the judiciary. That doesn't bode well for the future. "We need people to trust these institutions for them to work properly," says Aiman Rasheed, Zaheena's brother. "But people can't trust in the systems because they don't function properly."
In this kind of environment, journalists have to learn which battles to pick. "We definitely see self-censorship as a problem," Radsch says. "Why we have a problem with leaders using negative rhetoric or vilifying the press is because we see that having a chilling effect."
When journalists do fight back, it can go poorly. In April of 2016, several months before the documentary aired, Zaheena and dozens of other Maldivian journalists decided to protest abuses of the press outside Yameen's office. "We were pepper sprayed, and pushed back," Zaheena says. She and about a dozen others were arrested and taken to jail. "They gave you half a bar of soap, a worn orange towel, toothpaste, and a toothbrush." The walls of her holding cell were covered in toothpaste graffiti, and among scrawls of gangsters' names and "Fuck the police," someone had written "Happy New Year 2016." "That really affected me," she says, "thinking about that person who'd spent that New Year's night in this cell." Due in part to pressure from international friends—multiple diplomats called the foreign minister—she was released after 10 hours.
Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Department of State brought Sri Lankan and Maldivian journalists together at an event where Zaheena met Dharisha Bastians, a reporter from Colombo. Sri Lanka had recently come out of a civil war in which journalists had been murdered and disappeared. Zaheena found a kindred spirit in Bastians as the pair discussed their respective challenges, and Bastians gave Zaheena some hard-won advice. "You just have to do your job, essentially," Bastians told Zaheena. "And sometimes that also means making sure that you stick around to do it on another day." Though it's easy to get carried away with big gestures of bravery, in Bastians' opinion, the fight against injustice is won through caution. "That's not courage, it's commitment," she says. "Tyrants die by a thousand cuts."
"That conversation was so important to me," Zaheena says. As someone with the privilege of an education and international networks that make her a public and thus somewhat protected figure, she feels pressure to use that privilege to stand up to the government, often putting herself at risk. But Bastians' reminder to play the long game was sobering.
If democracy is restored, Bastians says, "the Maldives is going to need people who are independent journalists who can still speak truth to power, because there is so much work to restore those systems after a dictator falls."
In February of 2017, as Zaheena started dinner in a friend's kitchen in Colombo, searching assorted drawers for cutlery, raven-sized bats swooped past the room's large glass doors. What she misses most about Maldivian food is a certain kind of chili. "I think you have to be South Asian to understand all of these countries have a different spice," she says. "I didn't realize that it was a thing until I left. But Sri Lankan spice and Maldivian spice are completely different."
It took some time to feel out the shape of her loss. Meena (whose name has been changed to protect her safety), a close friend, says that, when Zaheena first arrived in Colombo, she was remarkably matter-of-fact. It wasn't until a few days in, after Zaheena helped the auditor general flee, that she broke down. Once Ibrahim was safely on a flight, she started shaking. "I didn't know whether to hold her," Meena says. "Then I went over and hugged her and told her she can cry as much as she wants, and she started laughing. And crying again. And laughing."
After feeling helpless for so long, the anxiety began to take a toll. Zaheena stopped sleeping. She had panic attacks. In her final months in the Maldives, she had stopped seeing friends or going out. "I was just incredibly paranoid. That's what dictatorships thrive on, uncertainty," she says. "Fear keeps people in line. Fear is so much more important [than actual violence], because it keeps you wondering."
Zaheena's wedding, originally scheduled for December of 2016 in the Maldives, had to be moved to Sri Lanka. To make matters worse, her grandmother fell ill. "I lived with her when I was in the Maldives," Zaheena says. "The last time I saw her, she was healthy." Because Zaheena's mother was her grandmother's primary caretaker, her mom was going to have to miss Zaheena's wedding. Then, two days before the event, Zaheena's grandmother died. "Not getting to say goodbye, because I can't go back home," Zaheena says, and then pauses. "It's been really weird to be here." In the midst of everything, she coordinated an investigative journalism class in the Maldives from afar, while Meena went shopping for her wedding dress.
"These last couple of years have just felt like throwing yourself up against this massive wall and not making any cracks," Zaheena says. "I'm just exhausted." She found a knife and diced potatoes into the sink. In a small victory, the Independent’s coverage of judicial trials has been used by non-governmental organizations, including Amnesty International, as evidence of rights abuses in the Maldives. But, Zaheena says, "At the end of the day, I'm here, the newsroom is really struggling, morale is low, everyone's really tired ... and Yameen's still president." People were "very quick to dismiss what we write as alarmist, but history has proven us right," she says. "In many ways we weren't alarmist enough. This is something American journalists will have to keep in mind. Don't give in to those labels."
Her visa in Sri Lanka was running out. She was about to move to Doha, Qatar, where Al Jazeera had offered her a job. "I just need to be able to know I'm sleeping in this room and waking up at this time and have a visa to stay in this country," she says. She wanted to learn Arabic, to spend time catching up on television and reading books, to know "what I'm going to do tomorrow, and come back to my own bathroom, do you know what I mean?"
The potatoes sizzled. The steak roasted. She set the table and a group of friends, all Maldivians far from home, sat down to eat. Inevitably, the conversation turned to politics. Her host, an older man with short-cropped hair who had also fled government persecution, said: "We failed. All of us, the people. We have given Yameen and Gayoom the space to do this." Zaheena, who had been arguing optimistically that there was still a chance for change, shook her head. "I ask myself," she said, looking around the table, "what could we have done differently?"
A version of this story originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Pacific Standard, which was produced in partnership with Magnum Photos. Follow them on Instagram here. Subscribe to Pacific Standard now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.
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