Peace and Conflict

Public Servant or Public Sahib?

I used to think that every little trip away was a wonderful respite from the madness most of us living in Sri Lanka are subject to. A respite whence one can return with an energized and renewed spirit.

I’m rethinking this now. It is a respite. But rather than returning with renewed energy to chip away at the rock that is Sri Lanka’s ailment, I came back to a near nervous breakdown.

Having had my baggage lost, I spent three days anxiously calling up Baggage Services till I was calmly told my baggage had finally arrived on 23rd March 2008. “Thank you!” I responded. “When were you planning on informing me?”

“An agent will inform you Ma’am” the voice at the other end replies. “But I already know now!” I think to myself. Too relieved to voice my thoughts, I hurriedly prepare to collect my luggage.

Equipped with the Baggage Mismanagement report issued by the concerned authorities, obtaining a Pass at the Airport was relatively easy. At the entrance to the Arrival Lounge where I had to go to pick up my luggage, my mother who was accompanying me was told she has to stay behind while I went in. The time was 3pm.

I presented my pass to the security guard and passed through the metal detector without a problem. However, I was subjected to a body search which was invasive to say the least. My abdomen, rear and chest area was repeatedly patted and squeezed by a female security officer in plain view of a male officer who smilingly looked on.

I would have thought that the close fitting T-Shirt and sweat pants I was wearing would not have concealed any weapons underneath my clothes.

The second ordeal was when I entered the area where the customs officers operated. Having presented my pass and documents at the door and being shown in, I was surprised when I heard someone whistle. I kept walking towards the Baggage Services area till the second insistent whistle stopped me. Turning around I was accosted by a man in police uniform lounging in a seat by the exit with his legs stretched out, who raised his eyebrows at me.

Puzzled, I apologized and asked him if I could help him. He raised his eyebrows again, presumably asking me where I was going. I told him I had come to pick up my lost luggage. He motioned me back in the direction I had been headed to before he stopped me. I thanked him for nothing and proceeded.

At the Baggage services counter, I was asked to go back to the customs area and have an official sign and stamp my Baggage Mismanagement report.

There seemed to be no flights coming in as the airport was deserted and the customs officials had congregated at one of the desks. On seeing me standing at one of the empty desks one of the officials came over. I told him I was there to collect my lost luggage and the Baggage Services people wanted him to sign and stamp my claim. He took my passport and checked it.

He asked me if I had anything to declare. I said I did not. He then asked me to fill out a Customs Declaration Form. I walked back, picked it up from a desk mid-point across the hall and filled it in. When I got back and gave it back to him he told me to come back later and gave me back my claim with his signature and stamp.

Back at Baggage Services I found my luggage without a problem. My suitcase was crushed down one side, a wheel was broken along with two zippers. The brand new HP printer which a friend of mine had gotten when she bought a new laptop seemed ok except for torn and patched up packaging. After collecting my Baggage Damage report I left. I was not able to collect my travel reimbursement as they carrier agent was not available.

Back at the customs desks I handed my filled out Customs Declaration Form and passport to the same customs official who had stamped my claim. I was surprised when he gave me a lazy smile and asked me if I was from the UK. I replied I was Sri Lankan and indicated my passport in his hand.

He again asked me if I had anything to declare and I replied in the negative. I didn’t appreciate the way he kept looking me up and down and smiling and I think it must have shown in my demeanor because he promptly stopped smiling and asked me to open my bags.

Struggling with my broken bag I dumped the suitcase on the ramp. A couple of customs officials at the next desk sniggered commenting “looks like the lady is angry”.

The official who was attending to me rummaged around in my bag and finding nothing, turned to the printer box. “What is this?” I explained that it was a printer showing the pictures on the packaging.

“We will have to retain this” he said. I was surprised and asked him why but he wouldn’t give me an explanation other than to say I would have to return with “MOD and TRC clearance”. When I asked him what that meant he proudly stated “Ministry of Defence and Telecom……..”

His colleagues at the other desk stepped in and helped with the rest – “Telecommunications Regulatory Commission”

I asked him if he could explain again as I was not aware that I was unable to bring a printer into the country. He responded saying “No no, we don’t have to. We are the authority”.

Quite annoyed, I responded “That’s fine, you can keep the printer” and mentally cursed the person who had persuaded me to carry the printer.

His colleagues at this point suggested that he would probably need to retain my luggage and have me body searched as well.

Hearing the words “body search” sent me into a panic. For some weird reason I recalled a story I had heard about a lady returning from the Middle East who had been raped at the Airport. I quickly glanced at the official’s name tags which they wore around their necks but they all had them tucked into their pockets.

By this time I was quaking inside and trying very hard to appear calm and collected. “Yeah sure go ahead and search me if it will make your day” I said. “Here you want to check my handbag too? This is crazy. The airline loses my bags and I get treated like a criminal” I said throwing my bag onto the counter.

By this time a flight had come in and the crew of an airline was passing through.

Suddenly to my relief a younger official came in demanding what was going on. His name tag said he was Assistant Superintendent of Customs. He clarified that printers with a capability of less than 2400dpi were allowed.  I was so relieved I could hardly speak! With shaky hands I tried flipping through the catalogues to see what the dpi was.

The official was very kind and inquired if I knew what dpi stood for. I could only shake my head. “Dots per inch” he said. I could have hugged him!

“Are you a student?” again I shook my head though it was quite some while since I’d left school.

I could see that the other officials weren’t too pleased. I turned on the dumb kid look and managed to get out in one piece with the exception of having to fill out another form to humour the official who had been harassing me.

It was almost 4.15pm when I got out and found my mother all anxious at my delay.

After venting my spleen at the absurdity of it all and threatening to report those concerned to all and sundry, I managed to calm down and only recounted the matter to all my friends when I met them.

You can imagine my panic when a few days later, back at work and rushing off to a meeting in a Kangaroo cab (which I am a regular customer of), my cab driver was stopped and abused in the most terrible language by a police officer because he had been on the phone as he pulled away.

All the cab driver’s efforts to explain that he had been on the phone to his base were in vain as the officer shouted at him and motioned to strike him. Bystanders and shopkeepers stood around watching. After around 15minutes when I felt I wouldn’t make it to my meeting on time I got out and tried to explain and got shouted at – “I don’t care if you are getting late! Take a trishaw if you want”

Two more policemen came up on a bike and they stood around the driver shouting. Apparently they wanted to tow the car now.

Feeling slightly alarmed I called the cab company and told them what had happened. They promised to send another car and began paging the driver but he was unable to take the call as the policemen stood around him and shouted at him.

At one point a policeman opened the backdoor and peered in at me. “I’m sorry but what are you doing?” I asked. He responded saying that they would have to take the driver in as he seemed suspicious.

I couldn’t believe my ears. I had travelled with the very same driver many times before! He was a Sinhalese man.

Half an hour later after much shouting on the part of the policemen, mumbled apologies by the driver and frantic calls to the cab company by myself, we were allowed to go.

I asked the driver what had happened. I was appalled at his response – “What to do madam, they are big people”!

Welcome to Sri Lanka where the public servant is actually a public sahib! Cross your arms and look down at the floor and do not on any account offend the Sahib, who is after all “the authority”!

Now I am tearing my hair as I try to explain to the airlines that their offer to “fix” my bags is not welcome as a patch up job will only cause it to break on my next trip and then I will be at a disadvantage.

No a trip away is not a respite where you returned rejuvenated. It is a painful exercise which brings you back to reality much more sensitized to the whole seething mess.