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)

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