Returning to the hot seat was not expected.
I was ready to go for my reporting the next morning. There was a big trial concerning eight journalists who were accused of disseminating false reports and sedition. Trouble awaited me, but I did not know.
I had to be there in court to satisfy my boss and colleagues at The Point newspaper, who comprised the eight. The journey from Dakar, Senegal’s capital, had not ended. We were at Barra (Niumi, Gambia), where there were police on the ferry and at a checkpoint. It was evening, and the water was seemingly calm.
I used the most dangerous way of going across: the dugout canoe. It was overloaded with bags of rice and a few men. The water became turbulent and we were in apparent trouble. A few bags of rice were thrown in the sea, which made our boat calm down. There was no life jacket … and no engine. Only paddles.
I survived and crossed over to meet my family. It was a breathtaking event. I wished I had never tried going by dugout canoe — though I was ready: I had no luggage and could swim well.
We got a taxi home and relaxed, ready to answer questions from liars.
Read Augustine’s last installment, The Toughest Interview Brings Success, or scroll down to begin from earlier in his incredible journey
Morning came. It was cold by West African standards, and the sky clear with a cool breeze blowing. We all went for morning Mass. Many were surprised to see us again after all the news they had heard about me, that I was deported to Senegal by the government. It was all false. I challenged a group who gathered to harass my family. Those people left in shame after I made it clear to them.
Life started again after cleaning our house. The others were tired, but not me. I had reporting to do.
I went to the street and got a taxi to The Point newspaper. Friends and neighbors close to my house were surprised to see me. They asked me directly if it was true that we were going to America. Well, it was easy to lie.
“No, Mr. Sheriff Gomez, we are not going anywhere just now. Maybe in the future as destined by God. But Gambia is very nice, why leave it for uncertainty?” I said gently.
At the junction of the Observer newspaper were traders, most of whom I’d made my friends, as they enjoyed my [speaking] Mandinka. They too confronted me with a similar question. But they were uneducated and even easier to fool.
I met all my colleagues ready to go to court. They were shocked that I was back because they’d heard news that I was already gone with my family. We spoke a while, then I ran to the newsroom to report on the border town of Amdalai. It was a critical news with photos.
My editor thought publishing it would undermine journalists’ positions when travelling to Dakar. He spoke to me about it and we agreed not to publish it. I was not happy. Corruption was the order at the checkpoint there. I knew my hot news might be filtered, which is why I also began to write for the critical online paper Freedom Newspaper.
“The case in court today is for sedition against The Point newspaper staff. There are eight of them in custody for just one article. I would not let you publish this one for fear of you, too, following them to the prison. So I will not publish this against the police,” said Senghore, my new editor.
I arrived at the court at 9:30 a.m. There was ample time before the 10 a.m. start, but the court was nearly packed full. There were bystanders in the corridor. Other journalists were occupying the front seats, but there was a place behind them. I looked all around to see where I could fit easily.
Just on my right there was a place big enough for three people. I smiled at those sitting nearby and moved easily into place. As I made myself comfortable, a police officer came and asked me to get out of the court. I had opened my notepad to start jotting details.
“OK, sir,” I said. I got up and tried to ask him why I should leave the seat. He did not pay attention to me. He grabbed me by the hand to pull me outside.
“What is the reason for taking me out?” He quickly answered that they did not want another journalist, since the court was full. I said I had already occupied a place with no comment from anyone.
He left me at the door and I walked gently outside. The police came again, asking me to get out of the court premises. “We don’t want you around here,” the police stressed.
I left the court building and decided to go out of the main gate. The side of the gate was full of plants that formed the fence. I quickly saw police to my left and right. They were armed with AK-47s and tear gas, each holding a shield. It was apparent they were expecting a fight from the journalists in their detention.
After just five steps I saw more emerging from under the trees and behind the flowers. I secretly took their photograph with good shots, about six. I was just about leaving when I saw another angle that could have made a good headline. I went across the road, a road that leads to Banjul, the capital city. It was a bit elevated so I could see the crowd, the policemen and the courthouse. I stood properly and gave it another shot.
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Little did I know they had planted plainclothes police officers behind me. It was unfortunate to be targeted for no apparent reason. As I stood, done with any pictures, three people came close to me arguing about the crowd, the court, the police, the journalists, etc. They touched on topics that provoked an answer from anyone standing near them. But I knew they were trying to lull me into their conversation and then apprehend me for some simple thing I might say.
I moved a bit, and they moved. As I attempted following my wife and sister who had moved earlier on, one of the men called me to attention, asking what I had in my hand. I said reluctantly, “a camera, as you can see it.”
The other man asked, “Why did you take pictures of the police out there?”
“When?” I asked.
Then the other one demanded the camera. I told them I was only playing with my chip in the camera because it was not functioning. I tried removing it and hiding it, but I changed my mind. I looked for my wife, Theresa, and my sister Rachael.
My camera was seized and I was whisked out of the crowd to the court straight away. There was a deep gutter. We had to cross and they grabbed me roughly, running with me very fast. “Is this the man for the pictures?” one of them asked. He continued to threaten me in a very angry voice. “You are lucky. If I were the magistrate of this court, you would never again smell the air outside here. You know you are a foreigner here involving yourself in our internal business,” he said.
He ordered his men to take me to the nearest police station. The police van was there waiting for me.
My bag contained more dangerous SIM cards with photos I got in the past. I had a photo of the president’s State House where I had gone for coverage in the past. That would have been very dangerous if they had seen it then. There was a GAMTEL, state-run telecommunications, building that had been on fire once and I happened to be there. I took its photograph and sent it to the Freedom Newspaper and it was published the same moment. That paper was the best for breaking news.
There was no way to escape from them this time. But an idea came to my mind.
I held onto my bag and took out its contents, but two of my SIM cards fell in the sand. I eventually stepped on them, covering them in the sand, while my bag was taken away from me. As I moved toward the car I managed to bow down and pick them up again, hiding them back in my bag after it was returned to me. I was virtually free, I thought.
But there would be one more search before I entered the cell.
The police van moved very fast, and the crowd cheered and clapped hard for me, chanting my name. It would have provoked a demonstration if they had done anything to me. The bystanders said in a cheer, “Don’t be afraid, Augustine, you are a true journalist.”
At the station, I had nothing to say so they kept me in the corner. I eventually gave my statement, which I dictated to the uneducated policemen. The first two reports were full of lies. I did not sign them. I finally had to write them myself, and it made a difference. I was sent behind bars among real hardcore criminals.
It was evening and it was time to get into the cell. The criminals had a visitor.
My bag had a picture of a man who disappeared at the president’s farm. He was the president’s cousin, Yasajar. He worked on Jammeh’s farm in Bwiam. There was suspicion that he was killed by the president’s men. His family was in distress. I was asked to interview them and write about them.
It would be difficult to get the card out of my bag before the search. My sister was granted a visit, though, and I got relieved. I had spoken to her in Mende, telling her to steal the picture from me. She was quite afraid but she took it without any police noticing us. I was packed in the cell and my things were kept. I met new friends. We were about 17 in a very tiny room. I could not sleep until I bribed one of the bad boys to guard me.
I had mosquito gel to repel mosquitos from me. I was waiting for late at night before I used it. It did not work: As I slept, my bodyguard managed to steal it. I woke up and it was gone.
About 2 a.m., there was an episode. There was a very long knife in the possession of one of our cellmates. It scared me to death. I depended on my hired guard.
I was quick to say, “Surrender the knife to me or else I will make it known to the authorities.” They gave it to me and I decided to throw it out of the window. I did not report it, and we all kept quiet about it.
Meanwhile, it was not clear whether I was going to court. Many of my friends feared that I would be “disappeared” by some secret agents of the government. At the same time, many of my countrymen did not come to visit me there. They feared showing the president any support for me. It was a case between the government and me.
I had no visitors but my family. I spent four days in the cell.
The American Embassy and the British High Commission wrote a communiqué for my release. It played like magic. I was released, and not abducted to a secret location.
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