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Getting the picture: working as a new detention delegate in India

06-06-2014 Feature

In his second diary entry, new delegate Mark Thomlinson explains his detention work for the ICRC. Mark, who is from Britain, visits people detained in connection with the situation in Jammu and Kashmir – this often means those who are accused of having taken up arms in pursuit of an independent or Pakistan-administered Kashmir. The goal of ICRC prison visits worldwide is to ensure those detained are treated with dignity and humanity, have access to family contacts and are subject to due legal process.

Read the first part of Mark's diary here: Diary of a new delegate, part I

Our delegate Mark Thomlinson, on the road in Jammu.

Go to jail  

Another prison visit and there is a certain rhythm and familiarity building to the work. As well as studying our findings from the last visit, my preparation might involve scanning the local press for stories about the jail. Sometimes, families or individuals come to us saying that a friend or relative is detained in a particular place. But only when we’re inside can we know who is actually there and what the situation is really like for the detainees.

Most of the visits take several days to complete, because you cannot build up an accurate picture of the conditions only speaking to one or two people. We have to understand the situation as the jail authorities see it, the situation as the detainees perceive it, and on top of this, our own observations of the facility. Every day, after we leave, the team meets alone to discuss interviews and thoughts from the day, and over time I get an idea of what issues I want to mention when we meet the Superintendent of the prison (Indian title for prison governor) in the “Final Talk” – that is, the meeting in which we confidentially discuss our findings from the visit.

It is always an interesting experience and each jail has its own personality. But there are, alas, two cultural features I have been struggling with regardless of where I am: firstly, when we interview detainees, we usually sit cross-legged on  the floor (local custom regards it as offensive to show the soles of your feet). For me, this results in groans and stiffness more familiar to those of a more advanced stage of life than me. The other challenge is one I will have to adapt to: the frequent call of nature, thanks to the welcome yet copious offerings of tea, from prison staff and detainees alike. Well, it would be rude not to accept…


At the weekends, I normally cycle around different parts of the neighbourhood for an hour or so. The work of a detention delegate isn’t merely visiting prisons – it requires a good understanding of the context where he or she is working. Two key principles of the ICRC are neutrality and impartiality: simply put, this means not taking sides, and helping people on the basis of need alone, without discrimination. Being neutral, oddly enough, means you need to know a lot about the politics. And being impartial means you must understand as well as possible the difficulties faced by local communities. Our goal is to ensure that detainees are held according to international standards, but our recommendations also need to be in keeping with the realities and needs of the local context.

So as well as reading newspapers, books, and talking to people, I cycle around. I am gradually expanding my borders, discovering new parts of the town bit by bit, much like a cat exploring his territory. The chaotic life that I see buzzes and blooms at almost every turn. The Jammu that I have seen so far is a city of small workshops; cottage tailors, cottage welders, cottage carpenters; little shops line the streets: stationers, clothes stores, newsagents.
It all helps form a view of life outside the prison walls and offers a peg for comparison. It would be sad to go home knowing a place only by its jails.

 An ICRC vehicle beneath the mountains of Jammu and Kashmir

A matter of interpretation

My role in Jammu is to organize the ICRC programme of detention visits in the region, and I have a counterpart in picturesque Kashmir who does the same over there. Most of the detainees we meet are Urdu speakers. While all ICRC delegates speak several languages, Urdu is not one of mine. In this part of the world, the ICRC uses interpreters. They are, like delegates, all from places whose governments don’t involve themselves too heavily in the political situation – in my office, it means having a German, a Brit, and someone from Japan. This helps reinforce the neutrality of our staff and, more importantly, helps the people we meet feel that they can speak to us in confidence. As it does all over the world, the ICRC takes care to make sure that employees engaged locally are not burdened with the sensitive information we collect, which protects them from potential outside pressure.

The presence of interpreters is essential for effective communication. It isn’t always easy, because frequently it is necessary for an interpreter to convey more than just words; customs, culture, and the meaning of gestures are all part of the package. They have taught me when a shake of the head means “yes” instead of no (but also when it really does mean no); what will pass for small talk; the etiquette of accepting or not accepting tea, and other cultural particularities. Along with the indispensable resident staff, they are a vital piece of the ICRC jigsaw in Jammu and are a window into a complicated, fascinating place.