A cry in the dark
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Chances are you haven't heard this 16-year-old's story. Three days after the brutal attack on her, the Delhi bus gangrape would happen, and a grieving nation's conscience would not find time or space for this distant town in remote Meghalaya.
It was a dark, moonless night on December 13, 2012, in Williamnagar in East Garo Hills district. Most of the houses in the town were empty as people had gathered for the annual winter 'Simsang' festival. Like every year, the star attraction was a fashion show-cum-beauty pageant. That evening, among the jostling audience of youngsters were three teenage girls. They were excited, having convinced family members to let them go without male relatives.
Rabolin K Sangma, 16, says it was she who had convinced the other two, her closest friends, to come along. "We weren't really interested in the festival. But I had to see the fashion show," she says.
They left at 8.30 pm, before the show had ended. Fog had crept in by then and turned the trees on the isolated stretch they took past the Sacred Heart Church to soft shadows.
They had walked just a short while when they saw a group of boys coming towards them. "They were behaving strangely. I thought, this is not okay... but I didn't say anything," says Rabolin. Seconds later, the boys charged at them. "We started running and turned into a narrow lane. We cried for help," Rabolin says.
One of her friends, also her cousin and neighbour, fell down and got left behind. "She got up but the boys had by then started pelting stones. One hit her and she fell down again. When they got her, they stopped chasing us. We hid inside a garage for hours. We heard her screaming but we were too scared to go back."
Sixteen boys are believed to have proceeded to rape the victim, nine of whom were minors. The victim can't say as she blacked out. The oldest of the rape accused is 19 years old, the youngest 12. Six are 18.
Defence counsel M L Thangal admits some of them participated directly in the assault, but adds others "just hung around to watch it". "According to the FIR and the statement of the victim, the leader was 19-year-old Laston Marak, who told the others what to do. Laston was the victim's brother's friend but apparently did not recognise her. She was pinned to the ground, kicked and hit. They tore off her T-shirt and started knifing her through her jeans, only later taking it off. The victim remembers the first three boys who raped her, after which she lost consciousness," says Thangal.
When she stopped responding, the boys stuck a knife into her vagina repeatedly to get her to react.
The victim regained consciousness at some point and realised she was lying naked. Laston allegedly started to rape her again, at which point she called out his name and asked him why he was doing it. "When she said his name, he asked, 'Who are you?'. She told him and he realised he knew her brother. By then, there was just Laston and another boy there. They helped her put on her jeans and gave her a T-shirt and they dropped her back home," says Thangal.
Meanwhile, as an eerie quiet fell again over the lane, the victim's friends came out of hiding and stopped a biker for help. "He took us to the spot but by then she had disappeared and so had the boys. He then dropped us home," says Rabolin.
All 16 accused have since been arrested and booked for rape, "common intention" and criminal conspiracy. On April 3, the trial commenced in a fast-track court with the examination of five witnesses. Interestingly, the police are not showing the FIR to anyone, including the victim's family.
What has since emerged about the accused's alleged behaviour has only added to the shock. According to the police, like the girls, the accused were present at Simsang. At the festival, they attacked a schoolteacher (no one knows why) and were carrying him to throw him into the nearby Simsang river when they spotted the victim and her friends. As they got distracted, the teacher fled. He was present at the hospital when the victim's family brought her there later that night. He told the family about the attackers. The teacher has since disappeared.
The hospital medical report lists injuries on her neck, face and back as well as cigarette burns on her right hand. Her vagina had been mutilated. However, the attending doctor, says the family, just gave the victim an i-pill, eight stitches, some first-aid, a few painkillers, and sent her home.
The next day, a women's rights activist, Jaynie N Sangma, took the victim back to the hospital. She would remain there for two weeks.
"She hadn't been eating or drinking and couldn't pass urine. I asked the doctor why she hadn't been admitted and she said she had administered first aid. Initially, even the administration took the incident lightly and only after we held protests did they take up the case," says Jaynie.
When the victim's mother, who stays in Rongongre village, heard what had happened, she fainted. "I couldn't recognise my own daughter. Her body was swollen. I asked what had happened to her. She started crying."
"I expect to get 100 per cent conviction," says public prosecutor P L Sebastian.
The victim has since moved out of Williamnagar. She had left her parents' home in Rongongre, on the other side of the Simsang river, to attend school in the town, staying with her married older sister and her in-laws. A Class IX student, she had failed her final examinations and was looking to switch schools.
Rabolin prefers that her friend keep away. "One day in February, the two of us had gone to the market and the family of one of the accused started abusing her. Another day, the sister of another of the accused took her photo," says Rabolin.
"When I realised the danger to her and us, I asked Jaynie to take her to Tura. One of the accused's father is a surrendered militant and had threatened to take up arms again," says the victim's mother.
Jaynie took the girl to her home in Tura. "After several weeks, child protection officers came and took her away," she says.
On March 25, the State Women's Commission took up the case and took the girl into "protective custody". Member Gamchi Tamre insists the commission acted for "the girl's own protection" and to ensure her identity wasn't exposed. "I couldn't go the day of the incident, but I went as soon as possible," Tamre says.
However, even the victim's mother found it difficult to meet her in the commission's custody. "I went to the shelter but after I had waited four hours, they told me I couldn't meet her... I was never allowed to meet her alone," she says.
The mother also claims that Tamre warned her that should she take the girl out of their custody, the government would not support the family. "I am a vegetable vendor and my husband doesn't work. What option did we have?" she says.
Women's groups say the reason for the commission's actions was that one of the accused—a juvenile—is the nephew of Williamnagar MLA and Cabinet Minister for Social Welfare and Justice in the Meghalaya government Deborah Marak.
Asked who the Women's Commission reports to, Tamre says, "We are a branch of the National Commission for Women... but we report to the social welfare department."
On March 28, after much pressure, the victim was brought to Tura and allowed a five-minute interaction with a woman activist from Shillong, Agnes Kharsiing, and this journalist. "You can see she's doing fine," Women's Commission member Angela Ingty said, ruling out any questions for the victim. "What is the need for talking?"
The victim was accompanied by three women protection officers. Her head covered with a dupatta, she sat huddled in a chair in a guesthouse in Tura, eyes downcast.
Looking small and frail, she said she was okay. "I like going to school. My favourite subject used to be science and I wanted to grow up to be a doctor," she added nervously. She only looked up once and broke into a smile when she was told that Kharsiing had come from Shillong to meet her.
However, at least three schools in Tura refused to take her. "The headmaster of the Garo Union School said since she was an undertrial, they could not accept her. How can she be an undertrial when she is the victim?" says Jaynie. The headmaster, Stanley Momen, told The Sunday Express admissions in the school had finished by the time they were approached. "Why is everyone targeting me?" he said. "We are a semi-government school. There are government schools which these people should approach—this is a government matter. There is no question of admission in my school."
After a PIL was filed alleging sloppy handling of the case, the girl was taken out of the protection of the Women's Commission and handed over to the care of East Garo Hills District Commissioner V K Mantri on March 31. Mantri organised for the victim to attend school in Williamnagar.
The victim's parents, however, felt she wouldn't be safe in the town. They handed her over to a women's group. On April 5, the girl finally got school admission with the help of the Garo Students' Union. For her safety, it is not being revealed where.
At Williamnagar, the lane where the rape occurred remains isolated. Moss-covered walls block it from view of both the huts on the left and the government colony on the right.
At her sister's home, the mother remembers the things her 16-year-old liked. "She is a good girl. She loved cooking, especially dried fish. In the evenings, she would watch Hindi serials on television. She wouldn't understand the language but she loved them. She also liked dressing up and would save up to buy new clothes."
Now, she adds, "I want her to study hard, get a job, become independent. There is no other future for her."
She demands that the culprits be jailed for life and that Laston be hanged. "I have watched him and another accused grow up. They were my younger son's friends. My eldest son warned me about them. They were the town goondas... I can't believe that this is the guy who used to accompany my son on his fishing trips."
Life has changed for Rabolin too. "I have gone out only a couple of times (since the incident), but I never leave home after sundown," she says.
Talking about her friend, Rabolin says: "She never talked about it... withdrew into herself. Only once she told me, 'I should have died on that very spot. I should have died right then and there'."
At her sister's home, one part of the victim's past has already been erased. The bedroom that she used has been converted into a kitchen. Two tables with gleaming steel pitchers and a stove stand where her bed once was.
* The oldest, 19-year-old Laston Marak, is alleged to have been the ringleader, instigating the boys to commit the crime.
* He and co-accused Patrick Sangma, 18, were her brother's friends.
* Five other accused are 18, including Platon Marak, Chengchow Sangma, Rikrak Sangma, Kisen Marak and Chingkam Marak.
* Of the nine juvenile accused, the youngest is 12.
* The gang was known to get into streetfights and rob truck drivers and shopkeepers.
Meghalaya saw 158 rapes