Thursday, June 16, 2011

The day I was smuggled in the back of a rice van...Final part

I didn’t allow myself to think too much about the situation we were caught up in. Cars kept coming and going through the checkpoint, and we just sat there and watched it all like zombies. It's almost like an out of body experience.
The prospect of having to spend the night in the town was slowly maturing from a concept to a certainty.

When we thought all was lost, a white Suzuki Jeep pulled up to the checkpoint, stopped and two guys stepped out. I remember it was a Suzuki because those Jeeps have a very distinctive shape to them. The back end has a soft top cover with two really tiny back seats.

The younger of the two men, probably in his mid-20s, approached us and started up a conversation in French. After all these years I really can’t remember his name…For the purposes of story-telling I’ll call him Ahmad. He was travelling to Conakry with his driver, he explained, and we explained our situation. We told him that we were Sierra Leoneans and that we didn’t have any Guinean I.D.

At this point, to our relief, he switched from French to Krio. He saw our situation was desperate and vowed to help us get home.The fact that we were from the same tribe definitely helped things. We promised we’d pay him when we got to our house in Conakry and all we wanted was to get the hell out of that town.

His driver returned, after sorting out their ID issues with King Kong and his buddies. Our new friend pulled him to a corner and they had a long chat. They were obviously talking about us and Ahmad was trying to convince the driver to take a couple of “Leonais” (short form for “Sierra Leonais” – Sierra Leonean in French) in the jeep. We could pick up on some of the conversation as they decided on what to do next.

The driver being the older of the two men wasn’t as keen to have us on board, because there were so many checkpoints to go through. Eventually he relented and walked across to find one of the soldiers to talk about them letting us go.
Luckily the driver was from the same tribe as the soldiers and they started having a heated conversation to decide our fate.

Ahmad stood next to us and translated most of what was being said. Apparently King Kong was insisting that we weren’t going anywhere. He went on a rant about how rebels were infiltrating Guinea from the Sierra Leonean side and he was only doing his job and protecting his country…Ahmad’s driver countered by saying we were just kids looking to get to our house in Simbaya (a neighbourhood in Conakry). If we were rebels how would we know details about a place we'd never been to...

This back and forth went on for a while until the driver asked if they could have a conversation in private. They went away to deliberate…I was anxious to leave and prayed that these complete strangers would somehow save us. Ahmad assured us all would be ok and promptly followed the two men.

We just sat down calmly, completely vulnerable and helpless as the minutes ticked away…In such situations you lose all concept of time. All you can notice is your heart beating the crap out of your chest as the tension mounts….They came back, God knows how long later, and Ahmad told us to just follow him. We were free to go!. We didn’t a need a second invitation and quickly tagged along. As we climbed into the back seat of his Suzuki, he whispered that all King Kong’s objections were just to make sure he got more money…

As the driver returned and got us on our way, we talked about the plan for getting through the remainder of the checkpoints. There were bound to be more King Kongs on the road…it was agreed we were going to stay hidden from sight in the back seat.Since the driver was well known in most checkpoints, he would make sure that the car was never searched.

Each stop at the checkpoints was a incredibly tense as the driver would get out, walk over to soldiers to bribe our way through. Most times there’d be another soldier circling the vehicle, awaiting the go-ahead to search the car. Even though I didn’t see their faces, I could see the silhouettes of their bodies and weapons....

We eventually got through the last major checkpoint without being searched.At this point I was so tense and frightened I noticed I was hallucinating. I kept seeing checkpoints at each turn in the road when there weren’t any. I was stuck in that strange place where you can’t really tell if you are sleeping or you are still awake…your body wants to shut down but your mind is racing so fast it’s impossible to do so. After a long period without any stops, I didn’t even notice when I passed out…

The bumps woke me up. I was being pushed hard against my brother every time we hit a pothole. I could barely keep my eyes open but I realised that we were now in the heart of the city. The soft top of the Suzuki was more open now, and I could see more of the outside.We drove by a crowd of young people and i remember the driver mentioning that they were probably coming back from a night of clubbing…I passed out again.

When I woke up this time we were outside our house…it must’ve been at least 3 or 4 in the morning. Those who have been to Conakry will have heard of the notorious “bandits” (armed robbers) that roam the streets at that time of night. The front gate was locked, as expected, so i gave my brother a boost over the fence. He went in, got the gate keys and let us in.

We paid off the guys, got back in the house and crashed. What should’ve been an 8 hour trip had taken close to 24 but we were home and that was all that mattered. If it wasn't for the kindness of complete strangers, God knows what would have happened at that checkpoint.

I just googled the Jeep so you know what kind of vehicle it was. It looked something like this.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The day i was smuggled in the back of a rice van..part 2

The inside of the van was well ventilated but dark. The only source of light came from a little gap that separated the driver’s compartment from the back of the truck where we were seated. We could catch glimpses of where we were going as the van toiled its way through the rough, jungle route. The hairiest moment I remember was when we drove right past a police patrol that was going the other way. I tensed up for a moment but it soon became obvious that there was an “understanding” between the driver and the local police. We passed each other with no incident.

The crossing didn’t last very long (definitely less than an hour) and soon enough we came to a clearing on the other side of the border and merged on to the regular traffic. Apparently the locals really didn’t really bother with borders that were drawn up by Europeans to suit their interests, so to say the border was porous would be an understatement. Soon after the van pulled up into a truck stop, we were let out by the driver and we made our way over to one of the taxis looking to get on one for the trip to the Conakry. When I say truck stop, I’m not referring to some sanitized set of buildings with a McDonald’s and a Wendy’s and a gas station that you pull into off the 401.

I’m talking about a truck stop in the African sense, areas where motorcycles, mini-vans and people mingle in a perpetual haze of dust. I’m talking road side vendors that would be hawking everything from sunglasses, to plantains, to packaged water that you knew was probably unclean but you drank anyway because there was nothing better available for miles. Young people walking with dust covered feet selling chewing gums and cigarettes from little wooden boxes, rather large women selling “beef” on the side of the road…if you’ve ever been to a place like this before you know exactly what I’m talking about…If you haven’t, this would be a great item for your bucket list.

We managed to get in one of the taxis, which was packed with people and we were on our way. We drove for a while without any incident but then we started hitting checkpoints, manned by Guinea’s notorious soldiers… a bunch of sadistic pigs.Some would rather call them orang-utans because they were such brutes…in any case they were anything but human. These were nerve wracking because we had no Guinean ID and our Sierra Leonean ones would subject us to uncomfortable questions about how we came across the border. The first few we came across, we gave the driver money which he used to bribe his way through….no ID checks.

This worked a couple of times until we hit a checkpoint in a one of the larger towns en-route. We knew something was different this time because the driver took longer than usual to return to the car after he went to deal with the soldiers. He came back, looking a bit ruffled and told us we were going to have to see the soldier in charge of the checkpoint. We got out and went over to the side of the road where the soldier was standing.

As if just to fuck with us, he started talking to us in Soso, a language I couldn’t understand even if my life depended on it. We definitely could’ve had a conversation with him in French but a part of me didn’t think that he was the talking type. Built like a gorilla with the brain of maybe a chicken, he towered over us in his army uniform enjoying every bit of power that it offered him. He kept on asking us questions about IDs and where we were from and where we going…at least that’s what I suspect he was asking from his hand signals and occasional French word. We replied with blank stares and just stood there.

He motioned to the driver to walk away and he pointed us to a little wooden bench. We sat down,almost in a trance,and watched as the Taxi driver walked to his cab and drove off. The sun was almost out at this moment and kerosene lamps were lighting up all around us as the locals set up their stalls to sell stuff at night. We had no idea where we were, we had some money but not a whole lot left and we were being detained by King Kong who spoke a language that we didn’t understand. It was gonna be a long night…

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The day I was smuggled in the back of a rice van

I was reflecting on the events that have shaped me so far in life and stumbled upon a memory that i have suppressed for so's been almost a decade. It's incredible really,when i look back at it, that this actually happened. These days, in my sedate surroundings of Mississauga Ontario, it feels like i'm living another life on another planet far far away. Come to think of it, the things that i (and many others like me) grew up with was not normal, but back then it was all we knew. We learned to lay flat on the ground when we heard gunfire, we knew to run whenever we heard someone say “Den dae cam” (“They are coming”). Rarely did anyone ask who's coming? we naturally assumed they meant rebels...Where were they coming from? Where should we run to? We just ran because fear had become part of the routine, a way to survive...better to overreact and live right?

This particular story begins during the rainy season of 2001...the closing stages of the war. School had just finished up for the year and my brother and i were desperate to find out if we would be visiting my mom in Guinea. We'd lived apart for two years at the time since our family had been split up for safety mom, sister and younger brother in Guinea and my older brother and I in Freetown. I saw my mom for about a month each year, hard on a 14 year old who barely knew how to do anything on his own. I had been forced to grow up, fast...

To our delight, we found that we would indeed be going,embarking on the 12+ hour drive from Freetown to Conakry on dusty, treacherous roads. There had been rumours circulating that the border with Guinea was closed, but we were so desperate to get out of Freetown we convinced my Dad that it was worth a shot trying to cross...If it was closed we would simply return to Freetown, if not we would go straight through to Guinea, no harm done. My uncle was driving us, so we were in the safest hands possible. Little did we know that the following 18 hours would be anything but straightforward....

The drive to the border town was long,bumpy, dirty but it didn't matter as all we wanted was to get out of the country. We arrived at the border crossing at Pamelap in the evening, i remember that it was in the evening because the sun was less intense that it would be in mid-afternoon. The mid-afternoon sun in Sierra Leone is uncompromising as it gently cooks anything beneath it.

We'd been stopped at countless military checkpoints manned by fierce looking men with rifles. The same routine would be repeated over and over again...We'd get out of the car, open the trunk, show IDs, get patted down, walk across the barrier and back into the car. Some of the soldiers would have their guns casually laying on their laps, their military boots replaced with casual flip flops or plastic sandals...others would be holed up in fortified sand-bagged positions with their machine guns pointed in both directions on the road. Some may wonder why a 14 year old would be checked for weapons but boys my age were probably one of the most feared combatants of the conflict...Rape, murder, mutilation...they did it all.

We drove up to the last Sierra Leonean checkpoint before crossing into Guinea and were stopped as usual, but this time something was different. My uncle went into the little police hut that was beside the checkpoint, but it took him what seemed like forever to come out. When he finally emerged, you could tell by the look on his face that he was disappointed. He came over to the car and broke the news that the border had been closed and that we probably had to return to Freetown the next morning...i was gutted.

We were just absorbing the news when a police officer walked over to us with the kind of arrogance only a uniform would provide. He looked straight at my uncle and told him that we would have to follow him to the main police station and give statements. Apparently attempting to cross a closed border is an offence and it was his duty to report it to his superiors. We were all a bit taken aback by this because the firm way he put it, we didn't seem to have much of a choice in the matter. His fellow officers weren't eager as they all knew “Timbo” (my Uncle) very well... he had earned a reputation for roughing up Police Officers so they all came to respect him and knew to leave him alone. There was a tense silence as my Uncle considered his next move...He eventually agreed we would go along to the station.

I guess we were technically in custody but we just casually walked side by side with the officer for another half-hour or so to the station. He then sat us down, took our statements and gave us a stern warning not to try crossing again. We walked out of the station in silence, nobody quite understanding what had just happened. To this day, i strongly believe that officer only took our statements because of our last name, he was out to prove a point.

Whilst we were mulling another gruelling drive back, my uncle already had a new plan forming in his head, one that we knew nothing about. We got back to the car, which was still parked at the checkpoint,and he asked us to wait for him there...he had to go see a friend. We sat down and waited, absolutely exhausted both mentally and physically from the whole drama of the day. It was about to get a lot more hectic..

My uncle returned....with a broad grin this time, explaining how he might have found us a way to get through. It boiled down to we were going to be smuggled across the border by the friend of the friend he went to see. The catch was that he wouldn't be coming with us. He explained that it was going to be all fine because his friend had vouched for this guy and as soon we got across the border all we had to do was take a taxi straight to Conakry. All seemed alright with the plan...If he thought it was ok then it was...simple as that.

We walked the few hundred metres from the checkpoint to the main truck stop to meet the guy who would be smuggling us. I don't remember what he looked like but i will never forget his truck. A beastly looking dark blue cargo van, with sliding doors on the side. It wasn't in the best condition but it was in much better shape than the other cars and trucks around it.The deal was done, money exchanged hands and we were ready to go. The driver walked over and slid open the door.Inside, stacked high to the roof except for the front end, were bags of rice...

He motioned for us to get on and we did, slowly and hesitantly sitting on the rice bags which were our “seats” for the journey. I numbed my mind to what was going on around me and just thought about my final destination...The driver slammed the door and plunged us into semi-darkness and I could hear his feet scraping the ground as he made his way across to the driver side...The engine chugged and sputtered to life...We were on our way...(to be continued)