Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. April, 2016. Story & Photo by Madoka Ikegami, published at Malaysiakini on October 20, 2016
No visitors are welcome in the collapsed world that used to be the thriving family home of Dr Shaariibuu Setev in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. The angry professor says the devastation caused by the still-unexplained murder of his daughter, Altantuya Shaariibuu, 28, by two policemen in Malaysia a decade ago has been too great.
Even relatives may take only a few steps inside to the kitchen, where water drips from a frail ceiling of their rundown, rented dwelling. Setev explains that his wife has a heart condition due to acute stress and is likely to shout at someone invading their space; while the lives of his two, motherless grandsons are too pathetic to be shown.
“There are windows at home but the darkness is beyond imagination,” he says, of the relentless gloom. “You won’t see any beauty there. It is a hard and dark life ... The murderers didn’t only take her life, they destroyed the whole family… They shouldn't have to live in a world full of tears." With clenched fists planted on the desk in front of him, and tensely erect, this expressive Professor of Film Study is explaining why our interview needs to happen in his university office.
It is enough for him to tell of a family still crushed by unresolved grief and still craving answers for a crime still without a known motive and with the source of the killer’s orders still a mystery. And still needing to "properly" bury Altantuya, who was blown to bits by military grade C-4 plastic explosive wrapped around her body by the two policemen who shot her twice in the head in a forest on the edge of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on the late night of Oct 19-20, 2006.
Sensationally, the both killers, Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri and Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar, turned out to be members of a police commando unit that protected Malaysia's top leaders, including then Defence Minister Najib Razak, now prime minister. Najib has strenuously denied knowing Altantuya or any part in the atrocity.
Today, the motive for the murder and the source of the policemen’s orders remain unknown and Sirul marks time in Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney, where he has spent the past 21 months. Sirul is there because the tourist visa he used to enter Australia in October 2014 had expired early last year, about the same time Malaysia’s highest court, the Federal Court, re-convicted him and former police Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri, of Altantuya’s murder (They were first convicted and sentenced to death in 2009 but were acquitted in 2013 and released).
“In Mongolian tradition the ceremony and burial should be done within 49 days after death but we haven’t done her funeral for the past 10 years,” Setev continues, before recalling how a Malaysian lawyer helped them to receive a “small box” of remains sent by the Malaysian government to the Mongolian embassy in Thailand.
The “bits of bone” were cremated at a crematory, as were some of Altantuya’s personal belongings. The ashes container stayed in a temple at the cemetery for seven years until the storage fees were too much for their fragile finances and were taken home.
They had already sold their apartment to pay for the legal fees, airfares and accommodation needed whenever Setev travelled to Malaysia to try to ensure justice was being done.
“It is disgusting,” he says of the decision forced upon them.
“I basically sleep with her remains in my home now. Having her before my eyes is hard. Where is democracy?”
Setev left some of her remains in Malaysia as evidence in case, he hopes, more prosecutions will eventuate.
Meanwhile, although in his retirement age, Setev still teaches. “The life wheel of my family will stop if I die,” he says. He tells how, at home, his youngest grandson, 14 crawls about the floor because his arms and legs lost function because of an illness in infancy. Altantuya took him to an overseas clinic for treatment and he began to walk with the support of walls. But Setev says the lad’s condition has deteriorated because "economically and emotionally” he has not been able to do the same.
His oldest grandson, 19, spends most days lying on his bed, while the younger sister of Altantuya is required by Setev to mostly stay in her own home, when not at work: “I provide her food. One is already dead. What if she gets run over by a car?
Setev seizes a chance to talk about Altantuya, the person. He says nobody, including no journalist, have ever asked him about her “true nature” and claims her reputation was wrongly “tarnished” by others. He tells of a natural-born go-getter who once boasted to him, fatefully: “I’m a girl born in the Year of Horse. I will make noises worldwide” – he explains that Mongolians believe that women born in that Chinese Zodiac year, associated with race and war horses, are destined to become “hard” and “go far”. But she was stopped, permanently, 10 years ago.
A “really fast learner”, she quickly adapted to major change as a first-grade child moving to the former Soviet Union with her translator and teacher mother and father, whose jobs were to assist some of the many Mongolians working and studying in the vast communist state. Altantuya was speaking Russian within a few months and hosted and International Women’s day stage organised by village children. Her teachers praised the high-performing Mongolian girl.
In arts-rich Petersburg, Russia, she developed a passion for fine art and other classic culture. She loved attending opera and became an enthusiastic collector of vinyl records that remain stacked high in a room of the family home. Her passion to foreign languages later extended to English, Chinese, some French, Korean and Japanese, apart from her native Mongolian, and was the basis her globetrotting, translating career.
“It’s my fault to I let her study so much. Her life would have been different if she had just remained in Mongolia,” Setev laments.
Altantuya was fully “Russianised” when the family returned to Mongolia at the start of the 1990s democratic revolution which ended 70 years of socialism of the Soviet era.
“People, raised under well-controlled socialism were in a shock when suddenly everything became possible for them,” says Setev, but not Altantuya. Setev recalls how, when most typically gentle and conservative Mongolians were fumbling with new freedoms, she spoke Russian at home and exhibited the “fast, open and direct” traits of a Russian. She was driving a car in Ulaanbataar when female drivers were rare in Mongolia.
But the protective nature of the socialism ingrained in her since childhood led to her death, Setev believes: “We were naïve. We knew nothing of kidnapping, drugs, corruption, and cheat for monetary gain.”
Altantuya was 18 when her first son was born into a brief marriage. “I want to age with my son. He will be growing up when I’m still young,” she once told her father.
Both sons have been deeply damaged by her murder, Setev says: “When the kids grow they want to call someone mum. Who stopped their rights to call her mum? What can I say to those Malaysians? Really, what can I say?”
After years of schoolyard and other bullying over his mother’s highly publicised murder, the eldest grandson now shuts himself away from the small community of Ulaanbaatar.
“A goat baby with no mother would even seek help from a wolf,” says Setev, who once had to move fast to save him from a jail sentence after a street fight.
“He can’t live in Mongolia,” says Setev, who adds that his youngest daughter’s son had experienced “severe outrage” from peers and from his mother’s co-workers.
Setev further tells he lied to his youngest grandson for three years about the murder. He would buy gifts for him and say, “This is from your mum”, but the boy kept asking for her until he finally was told “she will never come home” - so as to explain the meaning of death to a child’s mind. “You have to be responsible,” says Setev.
“Democracy is not a humanitarian society,” he continues. “It is a money-oriented society where money comes first and people second. If there was humanity people should talk about the kids and help them.
“Why should they talk about Altantuya (now that she was gone)? They only talk about how much money is involved in this case. Where is the integrity? If we are learning a lesson from this society, it is teaching us to get a lot of money by whatever it takes.”
But, he does not want her killers executed. He explains: “The death penalty is an irresponsible act. One should feel sorrow for what one has done throughout his lifetime. Thus, killing is an act of resting that animal. Killing those two murderers is also the act of getting rid of the witnesses”.
Setev firmly believes Sirul and Azilah “just followed their order without knowing what they were really doing” and he fears all key evidence and witnesses, including the two killers, are under threat to vanish.
“This is a society that is so used to killing people,” he says. “As long as evidence or witnesses disappear, the case is no more, and they think all this would go away and no one would know.”
Convinced that Malaysian authorities “have no interest in resolving the case”, he is counting on the opposition winning office someday soon and having “the integrity, the fairness and the power to makes things right”.