|Prison Walls of Africa|
|Written by Allison Pearl Erickson, edited; translated by Takeshi Tajima (japanese), Julien Millot (french)|
|Wednesday, 18 November 2009|
An adventure of diamonds, women,
danger, and suspense.
Sierra Leone, a country noted lowest on the Human Development Index, is where Sascha Grabow found himself in April of the year 2002. Arriving in Freetown, the country’s most populated city and capital at just over a million people, after getting there from Guinea via his usual overland traveling, he met a Dane commissioned by the Sierra Leonean government to excavate the harbor. The country is very-well known for its diamond mining and exporting, widespread knowledge of this most recently from the movie Blood Diamond. After becoming tennis buddies, they started to stay together. On one particular day, his host was approached by a girl who had in her possession a matchbox filled entirely with diamonds. Sascha, ever curious, stepped out onto the balcony in an attempt to observe the rare items, hoping to at least see them, and even more so to touch the jewels. She was selling them, said the whole box was for $5,000 U.S., and in Antwerp they could easily go for $20,000 ...
Near the end of June, Sascha found himself at the Liberian Embassy. Inside the whole building there were tents for refugees put up, and the ambassador stayed in a room which he described as “tiny with a couple of bunk beds and a rice cooker.” There, the ambassador repeatedly declared the safety of traveling to Monrovia, said there was no danger at all in traveling overland, but Sascha held suspicions about the verity of the persistent declarations. After all, the man was selling visas to tourists for a living. The visas were normally $50, but knowing there hadn’t been many travelers through the area lately, Sascha decided to brush-up on his haggling skills and asked to give him the visa for $35. The ambassador felt harried and tried to hold his ground with the price fixed at $50, but after he acknowledged his lose-lose position, he gave in and sold the visa for the asked for price.
New visa in hand, Sascha still had to wait at least another week before his departure due to incessant rain (they are having 4660 mm a year!!). Eager to set off, tension and frustration began to mount as the rain persisted and the countdown on the Sierra Leone 90-day permit was nearing its end. Luckily, the weather finally cleared, before visa-expiry, and again, the overland traveler was on his way. He’s traveling with a secret this time, though. In Africa he has learned not to trust the government with anything that they might find valuable on his person, so at the very bottom of his oversized backpack, in a sailing jacket, Sascha stashed $3,000 cash in the innermost pocket and hoped his payment for NGO work would go undiscovered. He didn’t even know if it would make it to a safe bank.
Secret in the bag, the bag on his back, and his back to Freetown, he struck his best hitchhiker’s thumb and friendly smile at a crossroads; he was aiming for direction Kenema in the extreme South-East of the country. Who would’ve thought that a goofy grin and yank of a crooked thumb would carry a person all around the globe even? Well, in this instant, that’s exactly what happened. His ride came in the form of an army truck, and in the loading bed, he remarked the surprising comfort of the “bumpy pot-holed road” while he stretched out on food sacks. He first stopped for a night in Kenema with local young men who were eager and more than willing to show him around their village.
The next day on his journey, this time continuing on foot, he gazed idly around himself, the unobstructed view affording his eyes “an area dozing in rural remoteness, adorned with breathtaking beauty.” To further play into his idyllic experience, he observed a woman doing laundry, bare-chested and well-endowed with a lush, full bosom. She was young, and Sascha kept his eyes fixated on her lightly veined breasts, moving, they appeared, as one muscle with the motions of washing as she bent over her task.
The experience was pleasurable, but short-lived as he managed another ride with a jeep, and finally arrived at a wooden shed marking the Sierra Leonean side of the border. At this checkpoint of course Sascha’s main concern was getting across without the $3,000 being discovered, as he hoped they were securely hidden in the depth of his bulky burden. The checkpoint guards searched nearly everywhere for hidden diamonds, even his shoes, but his cash remained undisturbed. He passed the search!
By this point, he had lost his ride, and began to venture the remainder into Liberia, from time to time refugees passing him, on foot. About five miles further, he arrived at the bridge crossing the river that marks the border, and in the middle of it he was stopped by a 15-year-old child soldier. The boy had a look of challenge in his eyes, carrying some sort of kalashnikov rifle over his shoulder, and Sascha could sense the unpredictability typical of such a young soldier. He pushed him to a mud shed, where he had to hand his passport into a dark hole of a window to be stamped.
Unable to shake the sense of unease, Sascha had nothing on his mind but to get out of the frontier ASAP, though finding difficulty in the process. With a traffic density of about one car every 30 minutes, hitchhiking was out of the question for a quick escape, especially since no one seemed very willing to pick up a stranger, a white boy even, meaning you would get hassled at every single roadblock ahead. But money always seems to help move things along, so he paid $5.00 to take a taxi to Monrovia, but again, encountered difficulty. For the nearly 200-mile trip, it seemed that about every fifteen miles there was a checkpoint, and Sascha was searched at each one. His four other taxi companions were none too happy about the constant delays, and their disgruntled demeanor made for an all too unpleasant car ride. The worst was yet to come for the “joyride.”
At five o’clock p.m., much later in the day, the taxi reached the main checkpoint & junction where northern and western roads meet. Sascha was pulled from the vehicle, and the taxi sped off without him, leaving him to the will of the soldiers. There were about 15, all of them armed with either bazookas or assault rifles, and one of them held his Kalashnikov aimed directly at Sascha and demanded bluntly, “Give me ten dollars and not any small shit, or else I’m going to pump some bullets into your stomach.” Struck by the obvious calamity of the situation, Sascha tried pleading with an albeit younger, though more in-charge looking soldier and told him to keep the hot-head away from his body. The leader complied and the group of men began searching Sascha again, still missing the $3,000 he kept deeply in his bag.
After this search, the point man warned Sascha of the endless barrage of checkpoints to come down the road to Monrovia, and that there was no way he could get through it all in a private car. He went on further to advise him to wait for a special forces Toyota Land cruiser of theirs, which Sascha later found brought supplies of ammo, marijuana, and gin to assuage the anxieties of those being deployed to the jungle to deter rebels from traveling across the main roads using the blanket of night. He waited, even went for a sleep in the soldier’s shack, and eventually made it to his destination in the city’s center, unhindered by barricades, being brought by them to a cheap $8-a-night hotel. When leaving the checkpoint in the specials forces car, as an offering of gratitude for the guards’ decent treatment toward him, he offered a single dollar as a tip, which was gratefully declined with grins. Reflecting on the moment, Sascha said “Looks like nothing can impress [those] kids more than showing courage – a philosophy which is not without risk as you might well object and which I know very well myself.”
The next day was a historical one, at least to all the soccer fans in the world. It was June 30th, the Football World Cup final, Germany vs. Brazil, and Sascha went in search of a viewing place where he could better see the match on television. Disappointed by the 0:2 result, or in his words “fiasco”, he made his way back to his hotel where he was addressed by a strange and curiously dressed man with a safari waistcoat. He was sitting next to the reception desk and the waistcoat seemed suspiciously well-padded and upholstered. After the guy involved Sascha in small talk for about two minutes, Sascha gets up the nerve to ask boldly, “Any chance that you are Intelligence or something of the kind?” The man responded with a smile, “You are not quite wrong in that. We simply want to check you before anybody else, a private army or anyone like that, could do so. So the best thing for you and your own safety is to come with me at once. It will only take a few hours.”
Sascha thinks he knows the reason for the caution. A white man and tourist in a country where there are few white men and no tourists. “That’s where many people in Africa become suspicious, because they think they can smell the mercenary, ready to fight undercover and for anybody if the money is right.”
Before the imminent interrogation Sascha stopped back upstairs into his hotel room to figure out what all he should take besides his passport, leaving the $3,000 behind and hoping it would still be there when he got back. He hoped they wouldn’t search his room and bag in his absence, and anyway the odds were better if the money stayed off of his person under an interrogation. He left the room.
The “Intelligence” man took Sascha through the city from one government building to the next: a stop at the President’s Palace, entering this and that Intelligence highrise. He said this situation gave him insight into the paranoiac system of state security of Charles Taylor, which otherwise he felt would have been unattainable. Charles Taylor, it was rumored, had been arrested in the U.S. for embezzlement of $900,000 dollars, then later managed to bribe the US prison keeper with $30,000 effecting his escape, and subsequently made his way to become President of Liberia. In true Sascha Grabow fashion, he notes that Taylor is said to be a passionate tennis player and fan. Sascha and Taylor had another chance to meet up five months later while Taylor was on the run between Nigeria and the hills of Eastern Cameroon and Sascha crossing the same border, legally(!!), at that time, but they never actually found the time to share & exchange tennis ‘niceties’. Definitely a lost opportunity.
Back to the interrogations. At five o’clock p.m. the official interrogator had yet to arrive, and Sascha caught these words as a key turned in the lock, “Well, I’m afraid that’s it for today. We cannot find the official in charge, so I’ll see you again tomorrow morning at nine o’clock.” They left Sascha in the interrogation room, with no bed, no blanket, and no food or drink. He was accompanied solely by his thoughts, and the only thoughts that bogged his mind were the delayed trip through West Africa and making it all the way down the western coast to Namibia. These plans seemed further and further out of his grasp.
All alone in his cell, a young boy, about age nine, hang around in front of his cell. Sascha signaled the boy to come over. “You must get me something to chew and some water,” he said, reached out his hand to drop a few coins into the boy’s hand, and watched him scamper off. As the boy left, Sascha took the time to peruse the condition of his prison room. He found two weak benches standing along the wall, the way you find them in public showers, and a curtain in front of the window of the outer wall. He pushed the two benches together to form a make-shift bed and took the curtain down from the window to use as a blanket to shield himself from mosquitoes, not wanting to risk Malaria.
In such inflexible circumstances, he made the best of the situation and waited for the boy to return. He came with what was asked, water and something to bite.
Sascha says he is over the incident and explains, with this principle, his ability to cope with a stressful situation:
“Whatever people think they must do to you, obviously they will just have to do it, and so there is no reason for me to be outraged or angry with them. I tell myself that I am only here to have these experiences in order to learn from them, to get a better understanding of human beings and the way they act and the reasons why they do so. That way human life is nothing but a collection of (more or less) exciting experiences.”
I truly wonder what other adventures he will encounter in the future ...