'I want to go home'

When children go to jail, we force them to experience death. For them it's the death of innocence.It's the death of their future. For them it's a denial of justice. They have a right to a future, a right to innocence and a right to justice.In jails, we vioalate this sacred trust. It's a violation as violent as murder

The young girl, barely 12 years old stands scared and bewildered. She has been arrested and charged with drug trafficking. While travelling to a border town with her relatives in a bus, the police found phensydyl from her parent's bag. She isn't sure that she is a criminal but nor are others. Was her family framed? Was she helping her family smuggle drugs? Is she a criminal? A member of a poor family, their world of livelihood and crime are barely distinguishable. But she has the stamp of a prisoner now on her face, her eyes dimmed by helplessness. By law she shouldn't be there but she is. But she has now fallen into a condition where no place is safe for her, neither here nor outside. She starts to weep silently.

"I want to go home"

Where is home?

It is the sound of the footloose, homeless children that have haunted many. These children who have no home, no place to return. Life can be so strange that even a jail can be home. Life can be so desperate that even being arrested could be a blessing. Shakir Ali stands with a smile on his face in a Correction Centre. His father who doesn't want him anymore has left him there.

"My mother left my father and married someone else. My father married again. He married twice more. My new mother threw me out. I lived with my grandfather. He loved me. But he was old and had no income. So my uncles threw me out."

"You went back to your father?"

"No I took to the streets. I worked in various places. In factories, in dockyards. But they never paid or gave me food. So I moved on."

"He can act like a beggar."

We all demand that he show us. He smiles shyly then the instinct of child like showing- off takes over. He twirls his eyeballs and begs in a pitiable voice. He has a career in acting, it seems. We all laugh.

He ended up in the correction centre because he had been put there once by his father and knows the place where they want him. The staff here is kind. They like him and wish they could find a way to keep him there.

"Could you find someone who would want to adopt him? If not we will have to let him go. His father came when informed, saw him, promised to return in a month and never did. They don't want him home. But you see he has committed no crime. He has no place to go except the streets."

"Do you want to go home?" someone asks.

He doesn't answer but just stares without understanding. He doesn't know what home means anymore

In places all over Bangladesh, children are held for high crimes. We meet a young boy Adam Ali who has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for murder. We calculate his age from the record and find that four years back when he was supposed to have murdered, he was only eight years old. Under law no one can be tried for a crime if below seven years so he had just crossed the bar. The evidence was the dying confession of the other child, who had said that, he, Adam Ali should be asked. Now law also says that he should be old enough to recognize the gravity of his crime before being punished if he is a child. This law operates for children under 14 years and it would apply for him too. A Sessions court and not a juvenile court as stated in the Children Act, 1974 also tried him.

An eight year old, if he were to appeal, he would get a hearing but there is no appeal yet and he has spent four years already.

"I didn't kill anyone. I had no fight with him. We used to play together. I don't know what he meant when he said about asking him." He offers no elaborate defence.

Jail will be his home for most of his life. Yet he is not supposed to have been sentenced this way. He has none to appeal for justice because the justice delivery system has put him there. He waits to go home but who will take him home?

With his sentence, we too have been found guilty of crime. A crime of neglect, disregard, and denial.

It's not easy inside the jail but even then people do have to go inside once in a while in the hope that children will be set free. In this year of democracy, as we usher in a new government in a glorious display of exercising our will, many children are inside as foot soldiers of various political movements. We glorify the participation of children in violence. In a very strange argumentative manner we say that children have a right to be "patriotic", whatever that means. So we provide examples even of 1971 when children died in the "cause of the motherland."

Adults have a way of letting children die too in their places. The one right we don't want to deny children is the right to die or be maimed. So every procession and rally has children shouting slogans, pelting stones and even hurling bombs. Children work in Dhaka's bomb factories, ferry them and end up getting blown up or arrested. For all of them, this is a paying activity. Children in political violence is a criminal situation which has been encouraged by our political parties. Few if any leaders send their own kids to fight for democracy or liberate the motherland. They ask other kids. And while we can't ensure education, we can at least ensure their death, their injury or being in jail

"We have to sleep in one room. There is not enough space for all. Sometimes you have to provide services to get a decent place to sleep. Otherwise, you have to sleep near the toilets, which is almost impossible. Food is so little. You are always hungry."

And then there is just one carom board for everyone. There is nothing to do so everyone gets into mischief. It's hot, suffocating. Our rulers are the Miansahebs (senior prisoners) who decide everything. I haven't committed any crime. I was in a rally of rickshaw pullers and the police attacked the rally. They picked up many people and I was also picked up." This is jail life.

"We have come from Gournadi. We have lost our home. My father is a TB patient. I earn money and buy medicines and take it to him. If I don't get out of jail how will I earn money and keep the family going."

He breaks down and starts weeping. He weeps and wipes his tears on the clothes he wears.

"Please sir, I want to go home. Save my family. I want to go home."

I asked a friend of mine who was a minister in a certain party cabinet and spent some time inside. I am not sure if he was tried. In many cases, many cases are dropped and allowed to die. If one becomes politically inactive, few cases are kept alive. He is probably one of those who opted out. In his post-political and post-jail life, he would sometimes talk about it. It seemed like a remarkably civilized life now compared to the horrors many go through.

"We didn't have to do work and played badminton in the afternoon. We had our own cells. It was boredom that was the big enemy. Other ministers were also there."

He has no memory of pain or suffering and at least in his case he has been reformed. After all he isn't active in politics anymore

I was once inside and allowed to go and see the hanging platform. It was an eerie feeling to know that many had been hung with dangling feet. It's not scary but a bit of inevitability there. An old prisoner was making hemp ropes. He looked up and smiled despite his dog eaten teeth.

"That's the final home."

When children go to jail, we force them to experience death. For them it's the death of innocence.It's the death of their future. For them it's a denial of justice. They have a right to a future, a right to innocence and a right to justice.In jails,we vioalate this sacred trust. It's a violation as violent as murder.

(Source: The Daily Star, Afsan Chowdhury, 2002)

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