I go back up to our apartment and a few minutes later May follows with the two children and the younger woman. The other is too frightened to follow, so she stays in the car with the new driver where we think that, for now, she will be safe behind his heavily tinted windows. It’s painful under these circumstances to see this young woman whom I have known since she was a teenager. Had I passed her on the street I’m not sure that I would have recognized her with all that fear etched into her eyes and written on her face. The two children—oohhh, it’s heartbreaking to look at their innocent faces. They are so frightened that I can almost feel it. But no time for that, we have to move quickly.
I get their full story. Soldiers entered their quarter at 9 last night searching for them. Their names were on a list. At 11 the soldiers appeared in front of their house but didn’t realize it—amazing because although they had searched the neighbourhood for two hours, no one had given the women up! Then the soldiers stopped a young guy who lives directly across the street and asked him if he knew where they lived. They told him that they already knew that he was going to claim ignorance, but if he did they would arrest him. He didn’t betray anything so, as promised, they took him, threw him in their truck, and drove off, completely unaware that they had been within a few feet of their quarry!
In the early hours of the morning the ladies received a visit from the young man’s mother, who had learned that her son had been beaten while in custody and had no choice but to reveal the women’s whereabouts. She instructed them to leave immediately. But with the martial law curfew in place they couldn’t go anywhere outside, so they hid in the back of their home and phoned around trying to find a safe house. Unsuccessful, they called us.
Most important in finding a safe haven for people is knowing why they are being hunted. I hate to ask the question, but for the safety of those offering shelter they need to know how “hot” their guests are. Understandably. Before I even ask the question I make it clear to the young woman that the information she provides about them must be absolutely accurate. She cannot lie to me. People know why this question is asked and so they can be tempted to minimize the level of risk.
I am stunned by her answer. She has been helping an important national figure who went into hiding shortly after the February 1 coup, and who remains on the junta’s most-wanted list. This young woman’s husband also disappeared some time ago. He is someone whom I continue to talk with from time to time, but for his safety and mine I have never asked the reason why he is hiding. Now I know. The other woman in the car has, since 2015, been this prominent individual’s assistant. I also learn that they don’t need safe shelter for just one night, but rather for an indefinite period.
After I get that necessary personal information I continue to search for a place for them to stay, but given how “hot” they are and the length of time that they need to be hidden, it’s bound to be difficult. Eventually though, I make contact with a prominent member of the first group that I was introduced to. He cannot say immediately whether they have space available, and at the moment he is about to attend a meeting. He promises to get back as soon as it’s over, and in the meantime I shall send him the pertinent information about our guests. I instantly feel comfortable with this guy because he conducts himself in a very professional manner. I am left with the solid hope that he will be able to assist us. As a backup, I continue to try the other contact I have, but still no luck.
I begin to feel very nervous about the woman waiting out front in the car. We know that the soldiers billeted nearby have already had their shift change, and so the new contingent will be out on their rounds for at least a few hours. Then we learn that just now there was a flash-mob demonstration on the edge of our quarter, and on account of that soldiers will be thoroughly searching every street trying to arrest the participants. We decide that May and our guests need to clear out of the area immediately, and so with our guy on the bicycle serving as advance security for them, they head over to a busy eatery where they can blend in with the crowd.
I finally reach my second contact who will be a backup in case the first doesn’t have space. But suddenly I am plagued with problems on my encrypting app and our connection gets really weak. I try my best to discover whether she has space available, but in the middle of our conversation the call drops. Did she lose the connection or, after I named the individual connected to the women, did she hang up not wanting to take the risk? (I found out later that in fact she lost her connection and her vanishing had nothing to do with the sensitive status of our guests.)
At around 1 pm I get a return call from my first contact. He and his group have reviewed the information I sent earlier and are willing to help us out, but want to know the degree of urgency. I tell him that we need a place right now. He says he will get back to me shortly. I remain very impressed by their efficiency and this helps considerably to reduce my own stress level.
I phone May and explain the situation to her. At 2 pm she returns to the apartment with the younger woman so that I can lay out the rules for the four of them. I explain that there has been no agreement with my contact about how long they can stay with his group, therefore I assume that it must be open-ended. I have no idea where they will be going, nor about the conditions under which they will be living, nor how they will be able to get food. I ask if they need money. Her answer is not reassuring. We might have to deal with that later, but now is not the time. We need to move them as quickly as possible. She happily agrees to everything as long as they will be safe, which is precisely the answer that I want to hear. While I continue making arrangements, she and May discuss what food and supplies they will need to buy to last them for the next three or four weeks, then they head out to the nearby shops.
My contact calls back with assurances that everything has been worked out. He gives me the encrypted name and password for the next person, who will take care of arrangements for transferring our guests to their safe house. I thank him and he’s gone. I immediately text the encrypted name with the password and then I wait. After 15 minutes I receive the password back from him. We iron out the “delivery” details. They will need to park on a busy road during rush hour and wait for a driver who will call with another password.
May comes back upstairs after picking up the food and our guests wait in the car out front. I explain the arrangements and give her the password. Now comes the risky part—getting them out of our quarter safely. We call our advance guy and he and a friend, a taxi driver, head off to scope out the roads and the usual police checkpoints. As he travels along he calls letting us know that May and our guests can proceed while he heads toward the next potential checkpoint. It is now out of my hands. All communications will have to go through May.