|Sierra Leone & Liberia Adventures|
|Written by Sascha Grabow & translated by Dieter Grabow (english)|
|Tuesday, 29 January 2008|
In April 2002 I live in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, with a Dane who was commisioned by the government in order to excavate the harbor. Some day a girl turns up with a matchbox full of diamonds. She is talking to my Danish host on the balcony, and when I come by, anxious to catch a glimpse of such precious stones or perhaps even to touch them, she tells us that they are on sale at the price of 5000 US$ - in Antwerp they would easily fetch a price of 20000 $.
End of June I turn up once again at the Liberian Embassy, a tiny room with a couple of bunk beds and a rice cooker. The ambassador declares time and again that there is no danger at all in travelling to Monrovia overland. After all he must say that because that´s what he is earning his living on: selling visas to tourists - a job which is not very profitable at the time being. So I ask him if it´s ok me giving him 35 $ for the visa which normally costs 50. "You can´t do that, bargaining & haggling with me like that", he says, but in the long run he agrees - what else is there to do for him ...
... After that - with the new visa in hand - I still have to wait for more than another week before I can get going because of incessant rain that keeps me from setting off. But I´m in a hurry since the last day of my 90 days´ permit for this country is coming to an end soon.
At last the sun is back shining. I stow away the 3000 $ cash, earned with an NGO involved in refugee repatriation, in the inside pocket of my sailing jacket, which I am carrying around with me since an attemted Atlantic crossing terminated at the Capverde Islands, and folded carefully I put it deep down at the bottom of my backpack.
On my way hitchhiking at the crossroads direction Kenema I get a lift with an army truck. In the back on the loading area and bedded on food sacks, the 200 km trip on a bumpy potholed track is actually reasonably comfortable. At Kenema, in the extreme East of the country, I stay for the night with some young guys who in the evening proudly show me around in the village.
The next day, south of Kenema, the road runs along the Liberian border, passing an area dozing in rural remoteness and one of breathtaking beauty.
And not only the landscape is beautiful - a young woman, she has this very rare, incredibly full bosom, barebreasted and thus looking like one big muscle with the veins showing, is kneeling at the side of the road and bending over her laundry...
Arriving at the wooden shed which marks the borderline between Sierra Leone and Liberia, my shoes are searched for hidden diamonds, but the 3000 remain undiscovered. When after another eight kilometers of walking in no man's land I reach the border bridge at last, there is a nice reception waiting for me:
Standing halfway between the bridge and a shed is one of these typical child soldiers, about 15 years old, very unpredictable, a challenging look in his eyes, defiant and provocative, mostly in shorts and higher up with the typical outfit: either a Bazooka or an AK-47-Kalashnikov hanging over his shoulder.
I show my passport, handing it into the dark hole of the shed where it is stamped (a photographer, by the way, who published a photo of this same window won a first world prize with it, endowed with 10 000 $).
After that I try to get out of the frontier area as quickly as possible since the soldiers around look as if they were already racking their brains for ideas what they can do to me as soon as evening comes and darkness falls over the land. But getting away from here turns out to be rather difficult: Hitchhiking is almost impossible at the moment, with a traffic density of about one car every 30 minutes, and even these trying to do everything to avoid giving me a lift. When at last I get on a taxi together with four more passengers (at a price of 5 $ each for the 300 kms to Monrovia), I soon find out why: There are street barricades and roadblocks almost every twenty kilometers as rebels not long ago managed to push the front forward, occupied the main road and burnt down a whole village. As soon as the militias of President Charles Taylor, mostly stoned on drugs, see me - a white person - they wake up from their dull sleepiness and become especially curious, and in case I am not willing every time to let them search my backpack there will be penalty fees invented at random. They are particularly interested in my camera, fortunately enough I can keep it, but my fellow passengers are understandably not enthusiastic about these continuous delays caused by the 'white boy'.
Five o´clock in the afternoon, arriving at the main checkpoint at the big crossroads where the road from the north and the road from the central parts of the country join together, and nothing goes any more. I am being pulled out of the taxi, which goes on without me. One of the soldiers, there are about 15 of them, with a Kalashnikov pointed at me, demands bluntly: "Give me ten dollars and not any small shit, or else I´m going to pump some bullets into your stomach."
I complain to another one who is obviously the leader of this gang, although even younger, but clearly more intelligent than the other. I tell him to keep this fellow away from my body. After another searching ( and again missing to find the 3000 ) the leader tells me that there are so many barricades on the road between here and Monrovia that there is no chance for me to get through all that in a private car. Instead he advises me to wait for a special forces Toyota Landcruiser of theirs ( which in the evening brings new ammunition together with marijuana joints and 90 percent gin to make the kids forget their anxieties before they are being transported into the jungle in order to fight against the rebels and to keep them from proceeding to the main road in the night ). This car, on its way back, would take me along and bring me to the capital. As there is nothing better for me to do, I retire from the sun and lie down for a nap in the shed at the side of the road until the car comes back from the front. On my departure, in view of the decent treatment I had after all received from them, I offer them a single Dollar as tip, which however is declined gratefully and with a grin. Looks like nothing can impress these kids more than showing courage - a philosophy which is not without risk as you might well object and which I know very well myself.
In the special forces car we pass all road controls without having to stop, and still that evening the boys drop me at a cheap hotel (the room at 8 $ the night) in the city centre.
The following day, june 30th, the Football World Cup Final Germany versus Brazil is on, and I set off in search of a better hotel, where in the bar I can watch the match on TV. After the 0 : 2 - fiasco I return to my hotel, where I am addressed by a gentleman sitting next to the reception, strangely curious and dressed with this safari waistcoat, suspiciously well padded & upholstered. Two minutes later I ask him frankly: "Any chance that you are Intelligence or something of the kind?" - "You are not quite wrong in that", he says with a smile. "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."
A white tourist in a country in which there are 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 money.
I pay a short visit to my room, consider well what else to take with me besides my passport (the 3000 better not; nothing left to do but praying that it will still be there when I get back, in case they'll search my room & bag in my absence), and then off we go.
We drive through the city from one government building to another, stop at the President's Palace, enter this and that Intelligence Office. I get a good insight into the paranoiac system of state security of Charles Taylor, which otherwise I would never have been able to obtain. According to rumours he had been arrested in the U.S. for the embezzlement of 900.000 $, then later managed to bribe the prison keeper there with 30.000 $ for his escape, and subsequently made his way to become President of Liberia.
Taylor - by the way - is said to be a passionate tennis player and fan (being as paranoid as he is - justifiedly probably as he became apprehended & arrested for The Hague War Crimes Tribunal less than a year after, while being on the run between Nigeria and the hills of Eastern Cameroon - he never gave me a chance to tell him or took the trouble to find out about my Ex-ATP-tennisplayer-status, and that we could have probably had some great match with subsequent infamous, debaucherous 'girl-filled' party in his palace :-).
When the clock strikes 5 p.m. and the person responsible still hasn't turned up, the key in the lock is suddenly being turned with the words: "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 9 o'clock."
This now really takes me by surprise: There I sit locked up, with no bed for the night, no blanket, nothing to eat or to drink either - so what can I do? My aim of crossing West Africa by land and thus pushing forward as far as Namibia where I hope to visit old friends - all that seems to disappear in a vapor of fog and incertitude ...
Then a boy turns up on the ground in front of the prison, about 9 years of age. Through the bars of the window I give him a sign to come over to me. "You must get me something to chew and some water", and, me supplying him with a few coins, he goes away to buy some food. After that I start inspecting my cell: There are two weak benches standing along the wall, like the ones you can find in a dressing-room cabin in bath houses or sports clubs, and the only other equipment is a curtain in front of the window of the outer wall. So I push the two benches together to form a plank bed, take off the curtain which I can use as a blanket, not necessarily for warmth, but as minimal protection against moskitoes and, as that, against malaria. According to circumstances, you sometimes have to be satisfied with little comfort, and when just afterwards also the boy returns with something edible for me, I feel quite happy after all.
As my principle is: Whatever people think they must do to you, obviously they just have to do it, and so there is no reason for me to be outraged or to be 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, 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 events.
Waking up the next morning ...