Monday, May 17, 2010

Maintaining Integrity During Detention

Sometimes we forget that our brothers in other lands have already been undergoing one form of "tribulation" or another, for many years now, especially for maintaining their Christian neutrality. In places like South Korea, it isn't just isolated incidents of hardship, since large groups of brothers, of military age, are serving prison sentences right now.
The following experience (on pgs 114-117 of the 2007 Yearbook) is about a brother who was imprisoned in South Africa as a conscientious objector.

(first, here's some backround info about the political situation in South Africa at the time, on pgs 109-110)
A Test Of Neutrality
South Africa left the British Commonwealth and became a republic in May 1961. This was a time of political turmoil and increasing violence in the country. In efforts to contain the situation, the ruling government stoked the spirit of nationalism, and this caused difficulties for Jehovah’s Witnesses in the years that followed.
For many years Jehovah’s Witnesses had not been required to perform military service. This changed in the late 1960’s when the country became increasingly involved in military operations in Namibia and Angola. New legislation required that every young, white, medically fit male perform military service. Brothers who refused were sentenced to a military detention barracks for 90 days...
Shortly before they completed the 90-day sentence, the brothers would be taken to court again because they would not put on the uniform or train with the other military prisoners. Then it was back to detention. The authorities made it clear that they intended to resentence the brothers until they reached the age of 65, when they would no longer be eligible for military service.
In 1972, after strong public and political pressure, the law was changed. Brothers received a single prison sentence commensurate with the length of military training. The sentence was initially 12 to 18 months. Later it was increased to three years and eventually to six years. In time, the authorities did make some concessions, and the brothers were allowed to hold one weekly meeting.
Maintaining Integrity During Detention
(Interview with Rowen Brookes)

What were conditions like in a detention barracks?
The barracks were long blocks, each with two rows of 34 cells facing a passage with a storm-water furrow down the middle. In solitary confinement, we had our own seven-by-six-foot [2 x 1.8 m] cell. We were let out of our cells only twice a day: in the mornings to wash, shave, and clean our toilet pans and in the afternoons to shower. We couldn’t write or receive letters. We were allowed no books other than the Bible and no pens or pencils. We could not have any visitors. Prior to entering the detention barracks, most brothers had their Bibles bound together with other books, such as Aid to Bible Understanding. The guards were none the wiser because it resembled their large, old Afrikaans or Dutch family Bibles.

Were you able to obtain Bible literature?
Yes, we smuggled in literature when we could. All our possessions were kept in suitcases in one of the empty cells. This included toiletries. Once a month a guard would let us go to our suitcases to replenish our toiletry supplies. We also had literature in these suitcases.
While one of us distracted the guard by talking to him, another brother would hide a book under his shorts or undershirt. Back in the cell, we divided the book into signatures, which were easier to hide. We passed these around so that all could read them. We found many hiding places. Some of the cells were in a neglected state, and there were holes everywhere.

Our cells were frequently searched, sometimes in the middle of the night. The guards always found some of the literature but never everything. One of the more sympathetic soldiers often warned us when there was going to be a search. We then wrapped literature in plastic and pushed it up the drainpipes. One day there was a tremendous storm, and to our dismay, one of these packages came floating down the furrow inside the cellblock. Some of the military inmates started playing soccer with it. Suddenly a guard appeared and ordered them to get back into their cells. To our relief no one paid further attention to the package, and we were able to retrieve it when we were let out of our cells shortly afterward.

Was your integrity tested while you were in detention?
Constantly. The prison officials were always trying something. For example, they would be very nice to us—give us extra food, take us out to exercise, and even let us lie out in the sun. Then after a few days, they would suddenly command us to put on the khaki military overalls. When we refused, they treated us as severely as before.
After that, we were told to wear the plastic army helmets, which we refused to do. The captain was so enraged that from then on, he didn’t even allow us to have showers. We were each given a bucket so that we could wash in our cells.
We had no shoes. Some brothers’ feet were bleeding, so we made shoes. We collected pieces of old blankets that were used to polish the floors. Then we found some copper wire, flattened one end, and sharpened the other. We made a hole in the flat end with a pin and used this wire as a sewing needle. We stripped threads out of our blankets and sewed moccasins from the pieces of blanket.
Without any warning, we were once ordered to go three to a cell. Although we were cramped, this proved advantageous. We arranged that spiritually weaker brothers went in with more experienced ones. We had Bible studies and field service practice sessions. To the captain’s dismay, our morale soared.
Realizing that this scheme had failed, the captain ordered each Witness to share a cell with two non-Witness inmates. Although they had strict orders not to speak to us, they started asking questions, and we had ample opportunity to witness. As a result, one or two of these inmates refused to engage in certain military activities. We were soon back to one to a cell.

Were you able to hold meetings?
We held our meetings regularly. Above each cell door was a window with a wire mesh and seven vertical bars. We knotted two ends of a blanket around two of the vertical bars and made a little hammock that we could sit in. From up there we could see the brother in the cell across from us, and we could shout and be heard by the others in the block. We did the daily text each day, and if we had the magazine, we did the Watchtower Study. We closed each day by taking turns in offering a public prayer. We even made up our own circuit assembly program.
We weren’t sure if an elder was going to get permission to come in and observe the Memorial with us. So we made our own preparations. We made wine by soaking some raisins in water, and we flattened and dried out some of our bread ration. On one occasion, we were given permission to receive a small bottle of wine and some unleavened bread from the brothers outside.

Did conditions change in time?
In time, conditions did improve. The law changed, and our group was released. From then on, religious objectors received one sentence of prescribed length, with no resentencing. Later, after our group of 22 brothers was released, the remaining 88 brothers in custody were granted normal prison privileges. They could have one visit a month and could write and receive letters.

When you were released, did you find it difficult to adjust?
Yes, it took time to adjust to life on the outside. For example, it was quite unnerving to mix with crowds of people. Our parents and the brothers kindly assisted us to take on more responsibilities in the congregations gradually.
While those were difficult times, we benefited from the experience. The tests of faith strengthened us spiritually and taught us endurance. We really came to appreciate the Bible, and we learned the value of reading it and meditating on it every day. And we certainly learned to trust in Jehovah. After having made those sacrifices to remain faithful to Jehovah, we were resolved to carry on, giving our best to him, doing so in full-time service if possible.