UNHCR, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, was aware of my situation and the health struggles my son was undergoing. But I did not want the police or secret police to know about our resettlement process.
Hatred toward Sierra Leoneans in The Gambia was part of the problem in going for interviews for resettlement. Fatou Barry, the UNHCR protection officer assigned to my case, was clever enough to have transferred our case to Dakar since we were going to Senegal’s capital, anyway, for Glen’s checkup. She made it possible for us to have our interviews there. The interviews were many and long.
Barry had secured our first interview date. We kept it secret. I called my family to attention to warn them strictly that whatever we were going through should be a family secret. Sometimes when my wife is over-happy she says stuff. I told them of examples of how some people could not go and were even killed because of the complications involved in resettlement. It was then sealed between us: Our only reason for going to Dakar was Glen’s checkup.
Barry had also arranged with Gambian Immigration to allow us a United Nations family laissez-passer [Editor’s note: like a temporary passport for humanitarian reasons] as refugees to go to Senegal for Glen’s checkup. It would last for only one trip, so we were supposed to be visiting them each time we wanted to travel. The immigration office knew my son had a very bad heart condition. They sympathized with me too. That was our exit point, Glen’s heart.
Our first trip was glorious!
Read Augustine’s latest installment, Challenging Resettlement Process Begins, or scroll down to follow his incredible journey from the start.
UNHCR gave us enough money to eat, pay our way and lodge. I had a friend from my school days, a classmate, and I had gotten his address from another friend, Medlove Brima, who had slept in his house before through recommendation.
My old classmate was called Fasuluku Sankoh. He comes from a chief family but was languishing in Dakar due to lack of education. He lived on people coming to live with him for some time. His one room was like a motel, but it was a little different because it was to fit as many people as he wanted. We were five, then, but it was OK. He recognized me and shouted my name. He was quite willing to accommodate us as usual. He depended on us to pay the light bill, water bill and his rent while we stayed. He would badger us to pay so he could eat. We survived it.
Our first trip was on a Wednesday, and we were to be there on Thursday morning. At Amdalai, a camp town on the Senegal border, it was a challenge. A plainclothes policeman began talking to me, trying to befriend me. All his questions were leading, but led him to nowhere.
I was asked to wait to see the commissioner in charge.
“Why?” I asked.
“He has a question on your document,” a policeman I knew said.
He was Ensah Faye, but there was no friendship at that time. In fact, he delivered the message and left the scene. He did not want to be associated with me then. I was called to bring my family. “Are you Augustine?” an officer asked.
“Yes, sir!” I said.
“Where are you going to? Where do you work?”
“I am a teacher,” I lied to him.
“At Saint Therese Middle School, sir.”
“Why are you going to Senegal?” he continued.
I tendered my son’s photos and medical letters, and the name of the doctor we had seen before, Dr. Kora Jobe, a renowned heart specialist in Dakar. “Are you coming back?”
“Yes, I will bring my family back. My children are going to school and I am working too.”
“Are you not a journalist?” the commissioner intervened.
“Huum!” I tottered. “Yes, I love journalism and sometimes I report. Anything wrong, sir?”
“Well, you have to be careful with news about our country. You are a foreigner and don’t forget the fact.”
I then asked him for his contact information for seeking advice from him in the future, since he was so kind to give me free advice. He gave me his business card.
We left for the other border post. It was not far. It was like a buffer zone with no person in between. We boarded a donkey cart and paid to go to the other post on the French side. My French was good enough to see us through. We were called in one after the other. I went first, and presented my reporter’s identity. They let us go very fast because they respect journalists. They did not want me to write a bad report. I took my entourage with me. We had survived their ordeal.
Different traders came upon us to sell different items. It was like a film, with the actors hiding amid the hubbub of a market place. We bought roasted meat, hot and very nice to look at. I had no idea about cholesterol in food, especially meat, while in Africa. I ate a lot of the meat and my children too. They enjoyed it.
We all loved going to Dakar. It was wonderful. It was the best part of the journey. My kids enjoyed hearing my French. Glen and Mary were excited about me speaking good French. Mary was in a good French school and she understood some of it.
The journey would last for a day. The place was quite different from The Gambia. I wanted to just live there to avoid the many troubles in The Gambia. But I told myself that I had a responsibility and I must be a winner, I must fulfill it to the best of my ability without quitting. The journey seemed endless but we were steadily moving.
While in the car, a young man who did not disclose his identity but made me his friend, said he was actually from Sierra Leone but also a citizen of England. He spoke to me in Creole after listening to me speak to my wife. I answered and we were all delighted at seeing each other. We exchanged all the pleasantries and continued our journey.
We came upon a checkpoint built under a big tree away from the street. There was no structure; the grass and bushes shielded it from others. It was a very good place to hide. It worked like magic, as it turns out the police were looking for the young man who was loath to tell me his real name. It was Patrick. The police knew. He got down from the car and was put aside.
The police decided to clear and check all the luggage in the car. It was his suitcase they sought. They quickly pulled it out and took it out of sight so none of us would actually see what they were looking for.
Deep within the suitcase Patrick had split it at the bottom and put parcels therein, hidden underneath clothes and such, that were clearly of interest to the police. We were waiting in the car and the police continued to grill him in the corner. He did not know my name but called me with a common friendly nickname used in Sierra Leone, a slang term, “Sam,” which was likely outdated then — we were a long way from home. But we’d still used it during the trip. He called me: “Sam! Sam! Sam!” I gave no heed because I had no idea about his suitcase.
One of the detectives heard the name Sam, came to the car and called me Sam. I did not answer him. He asked for my identity and to get down from the car.
I did. He looked at my passport and saw “journalist” for my occupation. He asked for my identification as a journalist. He saw it and decided to tell his comrades that I was a journalist, that I worked for Vatican Radio and The Point newspaper, whose editor had been killed by the government. They were then quick to allow the driver to move along. We were happy because we had a lot ahead, including searching for the hospital and the doctor, and grappling with those who would extort money from us in case we were not smart enough to fend them off.
It was evening, and cool, when we arrived in the center of Dakar.
It looked very nice and had the taste of a city, unlike that of The Gambia. There was no difference between the city and the main towns of Serrekunda. Conmen rushed to our car angling for their opportunity. We were sharp, and gave them no chance to fool us.
I called a taxi and boarded to Poste Quoranne. That was the name of the area. I was able to trace Fasuluku, our host and my high school mate. He showed me his small room. We had no alternative but to crunch together until we sorted it all out. We were not hungry; the kids were full, too. The goat meat on the way did us well, but Theresa did not eat the goat because she detests goat meat. She bought a different food then.
Fasuluku, our host, was ready to exploit us. He laid down plans for food starting with the night when we did not want to eat anything. It was already 9:30 p.m. We were OK but he had not eaten the whole day so he wanted something now. We gave him some money to buy bread and something.
Morning came, and the kids were anxious to move around town with something in their stomach. We had our breakfast, and we asked Suluku, also known as Fasuluku, to take us to our destination, Sheikh Anta Jobe Hospital. We asked for Dr. Jobe. We needed help since it was our first time. Unfortunately, my host did not speak French or Wollof, the two business languages. His French was broken, and I clearly saw his weak points. My French was quite better than his. He mixed French, Wollof and English. He was not good for an interpreter.
We met Dr. Jobe’s secretary. She was beautiful, Suluku could not resist the temptation of the woman’s beauty. His communications would not work for him.
All diagnosis was done and we got a good result.
We had another interview with the UNHCR of Dakar. The group was large but we had to endure to the end. Many people were dropped from the interview process at this stage, but we made it. We had to talk a lot, from the war in Sierra Leone and the target against me in The Gambia to Glen’s health. We made it through for the second interview. We were given money to pay our fare to return to The Gambia.
The road was swift. We made it through. I was detained at the Gambian border because they were suspicious of my going and coming. It was an order from the top. I felt afraid.
I asked my wife not to identify herself as my wife but to call UNHCR’s Gambian boss, Mr. Sekou Saho, who was always ready to help me out. He responded and called those concerned, and I was allowed to go immediately with my family. Without my wife it would have been a tough game. They can disappear you at night and say, “He escaped.”
Rumors had reached my workplace and neighbors that my family and I had gone for a visa to go to America and that we were not returning again. Some went to convince our landlord that we had left for good. He told them that he would not give the room up since I did not say anything to him. Others said I was jailed by the government.
We were delighted to arrive home in the evening. Everyone was shocked to see us. Our day started the next day and we said nothing about our journey or the central reason. I said only that we went for a checkup on Glen. Our work started amid a lot of suspicions. Thank God no one knew what was our secret.
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