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.

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