I refused to be a coward and ended up as the prime suspect of a theft
The first of January in Sri Lanka, is a typical tradition of starting the day at a religious place (could be a church, Buddhist or hindu temple, mosque any other, depending of whatever faith). People are usually attired in new clothing after which visit the work for a half a day’s session of sticking to some traditional customs (boiling of milk over a firewood three stone make shift stove) bonding with colleagues while snacking with local food usually prepared on days of celebration. After wishing each other for a great year ahead and some informal chit chat, staff usually leaves to celebrate the dawn of a new year with their families.
January 01st in 2009 was just one of those days, the only difference being I was fortunate enough to spend it at one of the Police stations in Colombo. It’s a long story, I’ll try to keep it short. As I walked into the workplace that morning dressed up, I had a friendly pat from another colleague. We shared the work space and knew each other well. We wished each other and walked in together chatting about the previous day’s fireworks, the star studded musical shows aired on TV the previous day.
As each of us sat to take out the laptop that we usually leave in locked cabinets, I heard my colleague let out a gentle shriek saying “hey my laptop isn’t around”. Completely ignoring him for his usual silly pranks, I said “yeah maybe Santa Claus took it away”. I had to take him seriously when he began frantically pulling out all the drawers of the cabinets, mumbling, sweating and shivering all at the same time. Rising from my seat I asked him ”Are you sure you left it in here or took it home for the vacation” to which he just said “How can I afford to leave my laptop at home, I have so much in there that I came today to start off right away”. The joy of walking into a brand new year vanished instantly and I helped him to look in every possible place that the laptop could possibly be. Neither of us had the traditional food or bothered wishing anyone. I felt bad for him and worried about walking in the next day to find my laptop gone as well. My colleague slumped into a chair and went into a deep distant thought. The rest of the colleagues popped in and out of our room asking, sympathizing and shrugging their heads and walking away. Everyone was baffled and didn’t quite know how this could happen.
I asked my colleague quietly if he could point his fingers to someone who possibly could do this. Or was it that someone was after the information that was lying in his laptop. Together we pondered over all the possibilities and impossibilities but failed to find answers. The management was informed about the theft and in a while they had collectively decided to make a formal complaint to the Police, as it was not the first time equipment had gone missing. I had lost a voice recorder with a lot of sensitive information. My colleague at the IT unit had lost 2 laptops and some electronic devices. Something struck me right then, Obviously someone was after the information that was stored in the devices. The equipment that went missing were either kept in the room that I was in or was/owned used by colleagues whom I interacted with. Could someone be trying to screw me in a way that I would be considered careless? or in this case was it that the person just wanted the whole office to see me as a possible suspect?
Some hours later the Police turned up at work and began questioning my colleague and me. I observed that my immediate supervisor and another management member were hovering around too often. The questioning never ended. My colleague was taken to the Police for further questioning and I followed in a while. We spent many hours clearly explaining the sequence of events that had taken place. It was the first time I had walked into a Police Station for questioning. The OIC (Officer in Charge) was stone drunk, probably after the previous evening’s New Year dawn celebrations and he couldn’t sit still. After a while his conversation switched to my mobile phone, it’s features, technicalities etc., I couldn’t understand how that connected to the theft. We were kept in different rooms and questioned all over again. I have to admit that this was getting very exhausting and was not leading to anything positive (at least in my mind).
We got back to office towards late evening without an inkling of a clue. The next few hours were spent in silence and once more many colleagues popped in and out of our room asking us how it had all gone. We were really worn out. After everyone had left, I asked my colleague what he thought about the entire saga to which he replied “I have a gut feeling that someone is trying to create a rift between you and me or they are after you, because you are voicing out the truth in all your reports to the head office”.
I nodded and acknowledged his assumption.
Just before I left home, I was summoned to the office of the Country Director who was a nice woman. Expecting the worst to happen, I walked in only to be greeted politely. The first thing she did was to lock the door and draw the shades. In a quiet voice “In my mind you are not a thief, I know you will never do something miserable as that, but getting the Police was a way to put a stop to the string of thefts that had been happening, as you know you have been a victim many times” Although I had nothing to worry about, only then I breathed a sigh of relief assured that my pay cheque was intact.
Some months later the Country Director who was a bold woman always standing up for what was fair and right was expelled from the country, because she choose not to bow down to some management members that were working for the organisation and were silently supporting the government, passing on sensitive information that was good enough to trap her on the grounds of being a traitor. The few colleagues who appreciated her forthright ways were penalized, victimized for daring to challenge the extremism. I was sad that we lost a brave woman but was happy for her that she was in her homeland safe. For over a month I went to work, spent more time in the room in silence knowing that there was someone out there waiting to get me. In their eyes, I was the odd fish out daring to voice out the corruption, wastage that was going on under the guise of social development. Many times I had been told to tone down my direct approach of expressing and talk of only nice things. I ignored the cowardly requests because my task was to report on actual progress of the several projects undertaken by the agency, to the head office. I never accepted gifts from a very powerful figure in the management for the simple reason I never liked the idea of working like a puppet to please her. Perhaps my challenging behaviour may have really irritated her and her faithful disciples to an extent that I was to be taught a lesson ? Maybe that’s why electronic devices that were sitting in the room I occupied suddenly went missing or even those of the colleagues I associated. I guess the idea was to make me a potential suspect and get everybody to instill disrespect towards me. What happened was exactly the reverse. I didn’t have a penny but integrity to me was something very precious.
The deportation of the Country Director shook the head office of the agency so much that after a long dialogue with their funding partner, they decided to wind up from this country, leaving 110 employees out of a continuous pay cheque. I was down again, sorry that the whole thing had to end up so sourly and irritated that despite not being one of the government’s informants I lost my livelihood (as the agencies term).
I was job hunting and learnt that the powerful woman serving the management had ended up working for another aid agency in a more powerful position. I wondered why donors never understand the political dynamics in this country and continue to shower perks and privileges on people who decide to act on double standings.