Saturday, 27 January 2007

Sometimes the sound of gunshot isn't a misfiring car

It’s Saturday lunchtime. I’ve jacked up my coffee table on piles of books to form a makeshift desk so I can work. True to most Sierra Leonean carpentry, my kitchen table is too high, making me feel like Goldilocks and giving me backache. So the coffee table it is. I’ve got work to do and should be doing it. I’m to write a synopsis of the ‘media landscape’ in Sierra Leone. I could probably write it in two words: ‘woefully inadequate’. But I don’t think that would quite cut it with Head Office or our Country Director. Instead of starting on that, I’m starting on this.

I just got off the phone from Simon, an old colleague from our Head Office, who now manages one of VSO’s programmes here. He lives opposite Atsons, one of Freetown’s better supermarkets – they sell nice beer, cheap cheese. Atsons is on one of the main routes in Freetown, running between two major roundabouts, in parallel to the beach road. You need to use it to access a lot of the places we expats hang out. This morning I texted Simon to warn him to stay indoors. He didn’t need me to tell him that.

At 6am a scuffle began outside Atsons. Conflicting reports establish roughly the following series of events: a street-vendor/taxi driver was seen by police with a jerry can of fuel. The police suspected it was stolen. Somehow (either accidentally or purposefully) the individual was set on fire. A mob gathered and fighting broke out between police and citizens. I remember waking blearily to a sound like gunshots, but they were muffled, probably a worn out old car. They were real all right; live ammunition, fired on a crowd from behind riot shields, the sound carrying on the cloudless morning air, from down in the valley up to my hill.

At 9am I received a message from our logistics team to say that strikers were protesting outside Atsons and to steer clear. I contacted my friend Ian, ex-army and Head of Security at the British High Commission. Naturally he knew about it and told me more, tear gas had been used; things were calming down now. It was a no go area. Brian, our logs manager called to say IRC and Care had told their people to stay indoors until midday. I tried to contact key people in all the houses in which I have friends, aware at the same time that this might be a bit over the top and that probably it would be over and done with by now. A friend from the Special Court called back and sounded as concerned as me. But he planned to be in the office all day – the most secure place in Freetown, the Court, guarded by Mongolian blue helmets. My closest friend called and oblivious to the apparent danger, said he was at the other end of the road with Atsons on it, and that all was calm. I was torn between thinking I was probably a touch excited (and enjoying it), and deciding that I was being appropriately cautious, this being Sierra Leone, this being the election year. I ate my boiled egg, thought little more about its implications (aside from not food shopping today) and sat down to read a report.

Half hour ago, Rob from Medicin Sans Frontiers called to thank me for texting him, and without sarcasm said he kind of knew what was happening though, thanks. MSF’s warehouse is behind Atsons; he had first hand reports from his guards, one of whom had run to their office in terror. It wasn’t just one-way fire, the crowd had guns too. He had it that ’30 minutes ago a policeman was killed by the mob’. It felt immediate, lawless. Dare I say it felt exhilarating? I have never been in a situation in which the police are as out of control as the crowd. I’ve never thought through to conclusion the what-ifs. And like most Sierra Leoneans, I just pray that if it got bad, the military, backed up by the largely British military training team (IMATT), would intervene and crush it. But here it was, for the first time in my six months. Fighting on the streets, the stuff of news stories. The stuff of news stories from Guinea every day for the last fortnight in fact; and now it’s on my doorstep. And here I was, here I am, sat in my house and glad of it. And if I’m serious about becoming a photojournalist, shouldn’t I be out there with a camera? Am I not a little relieved that my organisation would probably sack me for going near the area against orders?

Rob said that each time things calmed down they seemed to reignite again. In his affable Dutch way he said ‘But you know, we’re not getting overly-concerned. We’ve been planning a big staff party on the beach for tonight, so today we are busy getting all the food ready. Luckily we did the shopping yesterday.’ You can always rely on MSF to keep perspective in a crisis! This is a minor scuffle compared to the situations in which they usually put themselves. If he was MSF France not MSF Holland he’d probably be in the thick of it setting up a tent to treat the wounded and negotiating with the mob. They’re a bit GI Joe from all accounts. As a friend, I’m glad he’s not. We arranged to meet for a drink this week before we both go up line to the countryside. I wished him a good party. I told Brian about the armed civilians. ‘So much for disarmament eh?’ he chuckled in his usual Texan manner. He’s probably seen it all before. It’s just me getting overly excited.

Simon was calling to thank me for making contact as he cowered in his house and listened to gunshots ringing outside. He had no credit on his phone (a situation in which I frequently find myself) and couldn’t get any information on what was happening. All he knew was, he could see an angry mob and the police firing on them, NOT into the air. Tentatively linked to our past lives as we are, Simon and I share some unspoken connection; he seemed as disoriented as me by this.

I’ll readily admit that I probably dwell on the danger of this country when I talk about it at home, and yet when I’m here I’m probably far too blasé about it. I’ve driven past police roadblocks at 2am, been pulled over by the cops late at night, come upon large processions of young men celebrating the last days of school holidays, and driven right through them, parting them around my car. And every time something happens I feel naïve and foolish for not thinking through the what-ifs. That roadblock that I drove past stopped the car of friends behind me. The police had four foot long guns. It was 2am on a lonely beach road. One guy and five women in the car. Naturally they were fine. Naturally.

It’s embarrassing that it takes something bigger to happen for us to sit up and remember where we are. That the danger and the violence truly are under the surface, waiting. The warmth and near apathy of everyday Sierra Leoneans belies the unreasonable mob aggression which can quickly develop. Are we back to education again? Is it patronising and even racist to suggest that the inability to calm down and reason in a crowd is due to ignorance? Almost certainly yes. And maybe it’s just that people know the authorities only listen to aggression. That they will be fobbed off with empty promises if they petition. And maybe we as the international community reinforce that. You can be damn sure that the UN will meet with government to discuss this, and that the police will be chastised. And that they wouldn’t give a second glance to an orderly group with a clipboard.

This weekend was going to be unremarkable. And probably still will be. I stayed in last night listening to opera, drinking a Peroni and reading a book. I could have been in London. My book is about the UN, called ‘Emergency Sex & Other Desperate Measures’. Pretty famous here. It charts the journeys of three individuals – how they got into this game, and their developing impressions of the leviathan that is the UN. Two small letters, one semi-state. I cringe on reading it as I find myself associating with them, with their excitement at living in a country on the cusp of change, where unpredictability is the norm. And where frequently we’re too green or too determined to party to realise the danger we’re in. Where we can’t shake the ingrained democracies from which we hail, and blithely believe chaos cannot ring out. “Just like home really isn’t it?”

I want to be more urbane than the characters in the book, more understanding and culturally sensitive. More cautious and serious. But this book is clever. One of the characters takes a job little knowing where Cambodia is, and revels in the fact that with dollars she can command four star treatment. Another is seduced by the danger and by becoming extraordinary by virture of his location. And finally the third was in Cambodia before the UN and resents them, has Cambodian friends and stands apart, but is equally intoxicated by the otherness of the country, equally compares it to home. Equally cannot go home. I’m a blend of all three and don’t I just know it.

Two nights ago I cooked for a friend. We had a glossy red fish called grouper on puy lentils with a tomato and lime salsa and a half decent white wine. We sat up til two a.m. talking about photography – my friend used to be a fashion photographer in Tel Aviv – and drinking Lavazza when we started to flag. Then yesterday, hungover and sweating, I found myself on a comfortable sofa in the office of the Hospital Manager of Freetown’s teaching hospital, the Connaught. We had no appointment, but were immediately granted an audience. Because he wasn’t busy? I doubt it from looking at his desk. Because we were from an INGO and because we were white. The irony of these events is not lost on me.

I don’t discuss Sierra Leone with friends here because, well, we all live here. No-one needs me to critique this place for them. And it would just depress us. Going home I find myself ranting about this country, good and bad. Half an hour will go by and I’m still trying to explain to friends, to get them to see even a piece of what daily life is like for Saloneans. But it’s near-on impossible. It’s a million miles away. Even sitting here, it’s a thousand miles away for me too and always will be. I’ll never live like a Sierra Leonean. I’ll never do what Sierra Leoneans do. If I called my dad he could stop it all.

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