It was a relief returning home safe after my ordeal in the prison. It was difficult but I smiled anyway. My resettlement program was to be expedited from this point.
I was asked by the police to report every morning at 7:30 a.m. to ascertain that I had not run away from the country. It was another punishment on its own. Many people who knew me very well would avoid me now.
Superstition drew me to the sea to bathe in the salt water. They say doing that helps you leave behind all the bad luck from prison. It was pertinent to leave all the clothes and shoes at the seaside too. I did it and then wore new clothes from home. It made me feel good, but my shoes were expensive.
I went home to relax. I was a proud man. Many stood and watched me pass as I approached, but none said a word. I had to urge my friends to talk to me, not to leave me in times of trouble. After all, the president of The Gambia was not going to kill me.
Read Augustine’s last installment, Augustine is Apprehended, or scroll down to begin from earlier in his incredible journey
Life was quite hard, though, and the police issue made it worse. Those who did not want the police to let me go were disappointed. But taking photos of a crowd — an action that had gotten my camera confiscated — was not a crime, so there was nothing my detractors could say. It was only after a few weeks, when they knew I was not returning to prison, that some of them started talking to me. For me it was late, because I needed friendship most while I was apprehended.
We were all aware of the very hostile situation journalists were under. In fact, one of the journalists had disappeared over three years earlier for writing a critical editorial against the president. He was picked up just after publishing the article in the Daily Observer, then in Bakau. He was called Ebrima Manneh. He was the breadwinner of his family, as his parents were too old to work. He took care of them to the best of his ability. During his disappearance we all learned he was killed as they took him from cell to cell [Editor’s note: Some human rights organizations believe he is still alive]. There was no way out for him; nobody wanted to show that he was with this journalist, for fear of the president’s retribution. Fellow journalists took care of Ebrima Manneh’s parents.
My heart pounded as I made my first return visit to the police station — and my fellow inmates. They had known me well for those few days and were glad to see me back, even on the other side of the wall. For some, nothing much was wrong with being there. It was a shelter for them. And it kept them out of trouble. Instead of going to the Criminal Investigation office, where I was supposed to register, I stayed with my criminal friends before I moved on. The first appearance was not too bad: I was asked to sit and wait. For nothing. I left stealthily and saw my friends once more before heading home.
My friend had news for me. He was my source for most criminal activities.
He gave me a name of a so-called taxi driver, and said the guy was involved in some clandestine business. He drove at night and slept in the day. His taxi was meant for criminal activities. He would take passengers a long distance and tell them to surrender all they have or else they’d die. He harassed everyone who came to his taxi.
There was an underground storage area where all the stolen property was kept. Many did not know about it. I did my groundwork and informed the then-police commissioner, Ensa Badjie, before publication. He gave me a few investigators, plainclothes policemen, who depended on my reporting work to complete their investigation. These guys were anxious to apprehend the group. We set out late at night and I showed them where they could get their taxi easily, where they brought the stolen goods. The driver, upon return there, was apprehended; his group was rounded up.
The inspector general of police, who had become my friend, was quite happy about the development. No one could deny the clandestine activities of those criminals. I published the story in the next couple of days.
My coming to the police was quite fruitful, because I got loads of bad news to publish. I was on top of the news headlines then. There were policemen who also would give me top news items. It worked out well. I never betrayed my good friends. I would not reveal their names for anything.
I did not hesitate going to the police, even though I was fed up with their so-called “reporting to them before I ran away.” I told them if they would not give me substantial news items, then I would rather not come back! They said no, I should still report to them for my own safety. I decided to see them still, but at my own time.
My release from their cell had brought me a renewed zeal to pursue my asylum again. Plus, my son’s illness remained. I collected the newspapers that made me their headlines. I became a celebrity then. Some read like this: “Point Reporter Arrested,” “Arrested Point Reporter Released on Bail,” “Point Reporter not Charged,” and more. I collected the different newspapers and took them to UNHCR, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. I gave them to Fatou Barry, the protection officer. “Your case will be expedited,” she said.
Everyone feared for me, but I did not fear, I prayed very hard for divine protection. I was increasingly not safe. When people got news that could not be published, I was called and asked if I could run the story. “Why not?” they would plead. There was no doubt that my popularity was decreasing as quickly as it had risen.
After my submission of those documents with the resettlement agency, I went to the police to register that I was still there. I was detained. I did not say a word. When the commissioner came in he did not talk to me but asked his subordinates to let me go and not to come back there anymore to report. My problem was solved.
A thought came to me: my camera. It was my younger sister’s camera that I had used for that day and she would want it back. I ventured to ask the police in charge, but I was told that someone higher up was in possession of the camera.
I went to see the minister of justice, who attended the same church as I did. He was quick to find out about my camera: It was with the commander-in-chief of The Gambia. My heart kept pounding hard. I thought they might recall me if the president saw all the pictures. The minister could not get the camera. I went to another person, Henry Jammeh, the nephew of President Jammeh. He tried his best but finally said it was going to be impossible. I lost hope and decided to leave it. This was the highest I could go.
Life had returned to normal after the police encounter. Mostly. I put on a T-shirt that read, “Who Killed Hydara?” He was our editor at The Point, and was killed in cold blood for his beautiful spirit in writing the reality and calling things as he saw them.
I experienced several problems from wearing the shirt. A plainclothes policeman approached me in a car on my way to the newspaper office, asking me the essence of the shirt.
“Well,” I said, “it is a remembrance for me and it also covers my body.”
“It is not sufficient to wear such a shirt. It is provocative,” the officer said.
“But who am I provoking, for God’s sake?”
I got down from the taxi and he followed me. He was a National Intelligence Agency officer. I did not fear him. I was in my workplace territory. He realized that I was a journalist and concluded by threatening me.
“I am glad you are here. You will not go unpunished for your stance in wearing this T-shirt, just remember that. You people are too much.”
I had recorded his voice without him knowing. It was not the complete statement, but his threat to me had been added. But I said to myself, “The Lord is my shepherd; whom shall I fear?”
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