Banged up Abroad

As the officer dropped Ansinu’s wedding ring into his hands at a remote police check point outside Moyamba it brought to a close the longest twenty four hours I’d spent in Sierra Leone.

I looked at the tired faces surrounding me and realised there and then we needed to abandon this supervision trip.

It had begun when we pulled in to the edge of the main road that cuts from the north to the southern and eastern districts. We had just heard that there was one confirmed case of Ebola and 4 suspected cases in Kailahun district and the east.

We had set off in the direction of Kailahun a few hours earlier and now, with this, we needed to quickly decide whether to push on despite the news or instead re-reoute to Moyamba district.

A gathering storm

The nurse in Moyamba is happy to hear from us and very accommodating, and in fact we all feel quite relieved at our choice as Moyamba is much closer than Kailahun – although we still have to drive on poor roads it will only be for a short time, unlike the 7-8 hours we had envisaged.

We arrive and Moyamba is fine – there is an enormous ornate roundabout being built with large oversized statues of traditional warriors, lions, hippos, waves and what appears to be a big pineapple on the top. It is a work in progress but strangely heart warming.

It is the first time I have seen a district capital focus on anything aesthetic. Naturally it has become the focus point of the town and the typical sight of ocada drivers stretching out on their motorbikes in the sunshine at the feet of these warriers and lions is nice.

We go straight to the hospital and meet with the medical superintendent who says how happy he is to have mental health in his district. He assures us that an office space has been identified and the nurses will be installed in it soon. We then visit the DMO who also is a wonderful man. I make the faux pas of launching into our reasons for being in the district before I do the round of introductions.

He politely stops me after 5 minutes of talking and says:

“Let us do the introductions first…” He pauses long enough to shoot me a mildly disgruntled look – and then introduces himself.

My mistake – Protocols Must Be Followed.

With his approval we plan our trip. Despite the fact that we were not even supposed to be in Moyamba, within a few hours this already feels like the most organised supervision we have done.

At the guesthouse Katy and I sit on the veranda and worry about the risks of travelling with Ebola, but decide that we will reassess the risks regularly and take it one day at a time.

The rain, the lightning and the thunder that have threatened all afternoon finally comes and we watch – unaware that in the next 90 minutes everything will change.

“Be careful”

The rain, lightning and thunder still come down as the phone rings.

Martin the nurse says “I can’t talk. We are at the police station – bring our bags” Habib the driver, and Ansinu my counterpart in our partner organisation are with him. My mind is racing with questions.

“Be careful,” He says.

The line drops out.

Katy and I look at each other – the rain, lightning and thunder shaking around us.

The battery on my phone is about to die. I call the other nurse who is permanently based in the district but there is no answer.

Still the rain lashes down.

Another guest is just arriving at the guest house – the headlights and the driving rain make it hard to work out what kind of vehicle it is or which organisation it belongs to.

As the car comes to a stop and the headlights are dimmed we can make out the Unicef sign. We have no idea how to reach the police station so we ask the driver if he will take us. While he goes to check with his boss we attempt to prepare ourselves. When we get to the car the lady from UNICEF is there waiting for us. Get in, she says.

With the ominous final message from Martin to “be careful” ringing in our ears we are glad that we are not alone.

The Police station is heaving with people – few of them apparently uniformed policemen – but a lot of people are shouting instructions and telling us with authority that the people we have come to see have been arrested because they were found in the ghetto.

The word ‘ghetto’ sounds in my ears with a loud thud and I feel a knot in my stomach. Ghetto in Sierra Leone means they were found smoking marijuana in dodgy dodgy places.

Behind the reception desk I can see one of my colleagues. He is being processed and they want to take his finger prints.

He looks like a rabbit caught in headlights. He stares at me in silence.

The plain clothed officers ask who we are here to see.

I say “This man,” – pointing at my colleague – “and two others, our driver and another nurse. Ansinu where are the other two? “

Ansinu stares at me in silence. The plain clothed officers/people who just hang around and talk with authority say these men were in the ghetto, you can not get them out. We will be carrying out our investigation.

Finally Ansinu speaks to deny this. He looks at us with pleading eyes before he is taken away.

He is taken to the left where all the other men are, where all the shouting is coming from and within moments a heavy clanking sound of a door closing firmly mutes the shouts for a moment until they soar up again like another rumble of thunder.

I feel lost – I have no idea what to do.

I feel a knot in my stomach, but something in my head says phone the University.

I phone the fathers at the university, and tell them what has happened.

I am told to be patient and they will make some calls and call me back.

I triumphantly tell all who will listen who I have phoned as loudly as I can to try to give the impression that I am connected and powerful.

Maybe this does the trick as we are summoned to see the chief of police.

We duck under the wooden hatch that is the only thing separating those arrested from those that are free. And we are taken to the right. There is no electricity in the police station. They must have arrested over 60 men that night, not to mention the ones who were there before, but there is no light.

We are walked down a corridor, gingerly shown the way by dwindling torchlight as we scramble over motorbikes and discarded benches. We are shown through a door way. A thin man sits behind a large desk. A table with six chairs is placed at a 90 degree angle from the desk.

“Take a seat, take a seat” he orders us while speaking on his mobile.

The man introduces himself as the Chief of Police for Moyamba district.

He says that beginning tonight and for the next few weeks they have started to carry out a series of raids on the ghetto.

He says, “Can you imagine, we have so many young, idle, unemployed men who smoke jamba all day and drink all the time in this ghetto. They spend their time hatching plans of criminality and deciding to break into houses and commit armed robberies.They even broke into my house while I was away- can you believe it?”

We sympathise with him and say we know how terrible it is as we work in mental health and are also trying to tackle these drug and alcohol problems.

“But our colleagues only arrived in Moyamba this afternoon, we are not supposed to be here, this is an accident – they could not have been in the ghetto.”

He rubs his face in his hands – “Can you vouch for them and be sure of what is in their minds? You don’t know where criminality is born. They were found in the ghetto – right in it – or else my officers would not have arrested them.”

Another rumble of thunder – I get the feeling we are still in the eye of the storm and there still is a way to go.

“Let me hear from the commanding officers about these men.” A young officer scatters at the command and returns instantly to say that the commanding and arresting officers are out on other raids.

“Let us be patient then.”

We sit in the chief of police’s office and his mood lightens. He asks us if we are from the UK. Tells us that his son is studying in London and his daughter lives in Australia.

We talk about the UK – he tells us about the time he spent there and how he has come to be in Moyamba. He states that he used to run Interpol! I wonder what he means and figure he means the Sierra Leonean part of Interpol – he says he has retired to Moyamba as Chief of Police but he could not cope with the crime and had decided to do something about it. We agree he is well placed and right to do so.

Still no call from the university and no arresting officers.

We talk about his younger days in Bo and Freetown – my phone battery dies – I know waiting times in Sierra Leone and I suspect we will be waiting until at least midnight.

Katy’s phone rings – it’s from the university. Finally. “ I have spoken to the chief of police in Makeni and he will call. I will try.” With that the phone rings off.

I sit back down and more pleasantries are passed.

Within a few moments more commotion in the reception area as more men have been arressted and are protesting their innocence.

My mind wanders and I think, if most of the police are out on raids and there are only a few plain clothed officers here and a growing number of angry, potentially stoned young men, if they decide to riot who will contain them…?

I think Katy and I are having the same thought at the same time but we keep smiling through and the pleasantries continue.

The arresting officer arrives. He salutes his chief and sits down. His eyes are wide open, he is in uniform and he looks pumped up and adrenaline fuelled from his recent round of raids.

At the same time they bring in my driver, Martin the nurse and Ansinu.

The officers repeat that all three were found in the centre of the ghetto and were not just sheltering from the rain as they claim.

Martin and Ansinu disagree and plead innocence. They are told to stay quiet.

We listen to the officers and the chief of police say that it would not be fair to release these three when they have no intention of releasing the others who were found in the same place.

What can he do, we ask.

“Come back tomorrow morning, write a statement vouching for them and then we will release them.”

The phone on the desk rings and all of a sudden the chief of police in Moyamba is speaking to the chief of police in Makeni – and the phone is handed to me. I speak to the chief in Makeni.

When I return to the room Katy is playing the game superbly.

She says we are happy to vouch for them but we know that they are honest men, if we are to leave Moyamba tomorrow then we need the driver to be well rested and we do not think he will be if he sleeps in a cell.

The police chief rubs his eyes, weary of this. “I will let them sleep in the open and not in the cell. We respect human rights here and so they will not be harmed.”

We look at them and their clothes are all covered in dirt. They look scared.

The chief clocks our looks of concerns ; “We do not do things like that any more – they can sleep in the reception, they will be safe.”

Katy pushes on – “If the driver does not rest and he has our lives in his hands tomorrow we could all be killed,”

The chief’s face changes and he firmly says “Do not push me further. Ok, the driver will be released now, tonight, but the others will stay and tomorrow morning you will come, write a statement vouching for them and they will be released that is the best I can do.”

We should stop – in the circumstances that is a good deal.

Martin and Ansinu look distraught. We give them packets of water and they are led away.

Habib is given back his stuff and he stands mute.

“Take us back to the car Habib – you will stay in the same guest house as us tonight.”

Lets go!

Habib drives us gingerly back to the guest house – he shows us where they were arressted and insists again they were sheltering from the rain – they had no idea it was a ghetto. I believe him.

The rain and the thunder finally let up – it is now about 10-30 or 11 pm.

He describes his ordeal and the fear they felt – especially at being driven at speed through the unpaved, dirt roads of Moyamba, over talking bridges and fearing hitting a bump and being thrown out the back of the trucks to the river water below – all in the driving rain.

By the time we return to the guest house sleep overtakes us all but we rest badly, all feeling terrible for those left behind at the station.

The next morning the skies are clear, we start early ready to do battle again. We can only hope the Chief has not changed his mind.

The chief meets us at the station and it is clear he has had a busy night, too. We complete the paperwork, write statements vouching for the honesty of our colleagues and finally, exhausted and pale, they are released from the clamour of the holding cells into our custody. The chief warns us that we are now responsible for these men.

By 10:00 all three are released and we are collecting their belongings. Ansinu’s wedding ring cannot be found. A fresh argument looks set to erupt but no one, not us, the nurses, nor the police are in the mood for more trouble. The arresting officer removed the rings as they were processed. He must still have them. The chief makes some phone calls and we are given the man’s location. He has the rings with him. In the car we try to make jokes that after their night in the cells they are in good company with 2 psychiatric nurses – we can help them come to terms with the trauma – but although they smile their eyes tell a different story.

Time to leave Moyamba. We will be back in September but for now we just need to leave.


6 thoughts on “Banged up Abroad

  1. Sarah Campbell says:

    Wow – What a story. And did you work your ‘western’ magic and help them come to grips with their trauma? God Bless Father Ben. And I am sure there is one more thing added to the things not to do on a supervision trip – be found in a ‘ghetto’. Don’t know when this happened, but I am glad that all four of you are safe.


  2. murray104 says:

    Yes, there is a great art in speaking/talking to persons in authority in the third world and fortunately you seem to have mastered it! Looking forward to seeing you next month in a different world.
    Xxxx Mike


  3. pipcocampbell says:

    A good thing these blogs are written retrospectively– – how else could they be written – – because, if I were living through these events, it would not improve my heart condition, which I don’t yet have. Well done all of you for: deciding against the Ebola centre, using UNHCR as transport: speaking softly but firmly to the police: being friendly with father Ben: keeping your cool, and getting out fast. I am sure by your return in September, when your mental health nurses are installed, all will be peace and good purpose. Meanwhile, soooooooooo looking forward to seeing you both. Love DD.


  4. Jane Harding says:

    It’s brilliant – it should be on From Our Own Correspondent every week! Beautifully written, can picture it all – makes me long to get back to Africa one moment, then terrified the next (especially the prospect of illness!) Am copying it and saving it to read comfortably at leisure – and share with people – but do please consider turning it into a travel book …
    Thank you … Jane Harding


    • ianlgrundy says:

      Thank you Jane! I’m really glad you’re enjoying the read! The illness part is definitely my least favourite, too, but we haven’t done too badly so far – touch wood!


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