Dolma Sherpa wipes tears from her lashes and recounts how she landed in a Kuwait jail for 10 years. A lot has changed in that time. For example, she cannot speak her Sherpa mother tongue very well anymore and the Nepali she learnt is now has been Hindi-flavoured. She has picked up Arabic instead, and ends her sentences with “Insallah”.
Dolma was born in Chumchet of northern Gorkha, seven days walk from the nearest road. Remoteness and poverty prevented her from learning to read and write. At 15 she moved to Kathmandu in search of work, met Ang Tenzi Sherpa of Sindhupalchok, and got married. Her in-laws convinced her to go to the Gulf to work, so she left her two-year-old baby with relatives taking with her a dream that she would earn enough to send him to a proper school. Dolma was supposed to go to Oman, but recruiters took her across the border overland to Delhi, and then to Kuwait. The fatigue and trauma of 10 years is evident in her voice: “All I remember is going far away in a big plane.”
She did not know the language, had no skills, and she had no experience in an alien land. She first worked night-and-day for a Kuwaiti family, but the employer returned her to the agency after five months. She was then placed with another family where there was a Filipina maid named Mayleen who had also left her baby behind. It helped that Mayleen spoke Arabic: she taught Dolma the language and trained her to do the housework. “We became close, we even shared a comb,” she recalls.
One night while her employers were away on holiday, Mayleen and Dolma were going up to their room when someone put a gloved hand on her mouth, while three others dragged Mayleen to her room. Dolma remembers struggling, but the man was too strong. Mayleen was shouting “Help, help” from her room for about half an hour.
“Then they pushed me to the other room, and forced me to touch Mayleen’s face and neck. She was quiet and her eyes were staring out,” Dolma says, sobbing. All the men were wearing gloves and were pretending to be police. They tied her hands and pushed her into the boot of their car, drove off, and threw her out by the side of a road near a canal.
Shouting for help, she walked for a long time before finding herself among people who all just stared at her. Among them was a Nepali woman who spoke to her and told her employer in Urdu what had happened. A Pakistani named Sagir Ahmed, he took Dolma to a nearby police station the next morning. Before leaving, he gave her his card and told her to contact him if she needed any help.
Police started investigating, taking her from one station to the next. For a year, she had to go to court frequently, where a Hindi interpreter never adequately translated Dolma’s statements. On the day of the verdict, the police asked her to put her fingerprint on a document. It was the order for her execution.
Not knowing who to turn to she called the Pakistani who had rescued her, and told him that they had sentenced her to death for a crime she did not commit. He introduced her to Mitra Sinjali, a Nepali who helped Nepali workers who got into trouble in Kuwait. Dolma found out only later that Nepalis around the world had started a ‘Save Dolma’ campaign.
Jailmates told her she was all over Facebook and YouTube.
“It is like they say: when there is no one, there is always someone up there who helps. I couldn’t reach anyone, but Nepalis all over the world reached out to me. When I found that out, I shed tears of happiness for many days,” recalls Dolma.
She kept her hopes up all those years with memories of her mother in Chumchet, whom she hadn’t seen in 22 years, and her son. Film-maker Kesang Tseten (who made the documentary Saving Dolma) sent her an album of photos of her family. She found solace in news clips of Govinda Mainali, who was falsely accused of murder, spent 15 years in a Japanese jail, and was finally released after being declared innocent.
The Embassy in Riyadh didn’t do much to help, and staff would hang up on her when she called. Other nationalities got daily allowances, but not Dolma and other Nepalis. They had to wash clothes of Kuwaiti prisoners to be able to afford their own soap. It was Mitra Sinjali who kept her spirits up. She found out her death sentence had been commuted only 3 years after the decision, and learned her life sentence had been reduced to 10 years only 2 years later. She found out 3 months ago that she would be sent back to Nepal.
Dolma returned to Kathmandu on 1 July. She says: “I will now go through any hardship to raise my son, I know what suffering means. I have endured enough.”
Dolma is thankful to her Pakistani benefactor Sagir Ahmed, Mitra Sinjali, Kesang Tseten, her fellow jailmates in Kuwait, and the thousands of Nepalis around the world who helped her.
Her advice to her Nepali sisters: “Try not to go abroad, especially avoid Kuwait. Even if you don’t have enough to eat, stay in Nepal. If you have to go, make sure you learn the language and a few skills. Only take the official route. There is no place like your motherland.”
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