A boy named Abdul: Sierra Leone's child inmates

Sierra Leone's Freetown prison is a hell-hole where both children and adults suffer appalling deprivations. John Carlin tells the story of one young inmate's bid to escape

Saturday 05 March 2011 01:00

There are worse ways to die. He could have bled to death, as thousands of Sierra Leoneans did after having their hands chopped off during the war by men, or specialist child soldiers, who went about their task with the rhythmic professionalism of butchers working their way through legs of lamb. But the circumstances in which Steven Lebbise met his end were bad enough.

My friend Fernando Moleres, an intrepid and much travelled photographer, met him in the main prison at Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, just over a year ago. A court had sentenced Steven to three years for stealing two sheep. Being 17, he shouldn't have been in an adult jail, but there were plenty more teenagers there, all of them at the bottom of the pecking order for rice, water and soap. His life's chief preoccupation, by the end, was scratching his scabies sores. Just about everyone in the prison had scabies, a contagious skin disease that flourished in cells where people lay packed at night like fish in a trawler's hull. But no one was in worse health than Steven, who had a medical encyclopedia of other infections and illnesses to which his vitamin-deficient body had no reply. I saw some photographs of him. He had the glazed eyes you see in children who are starving, or feverish, or abandoned. Steven was all three: a prime example of the human debris of a civil war that began in 1991 and ended in 2002 – claiming 50,000 lives and as many rapes and driving half a million from their homes. The boy had had no visitors during the nearly two years he had been locked away, both his parents having died. The rest of his family – far away in the interior – had long forgotten him.

Fernando, who in a previous life had been a nurse, went back last August and found that Steven had died. "Like a stray dog," Fernando said. There were plenty more strays where Steven had come from. Abdul Sesay was the one that caught Fernando's eye this time: the same sickly, vacant stare; rampant scabies. He said he was 16 but, from another photograph Fernando showed me, looked 12. Again, he was from the countryside and, again, both his parents had died, his father killed in the war; his mother, of disease. He had been living alone on the streets of Freetown, the capital, since the age of nine. Sierra Leone, as I was to discover when I travelled there late last year with Fernando, is a nation of Oliver Twists, of wandering orphans who hustle to survive in conditions Dickens might have recognised in the darker neighbourhoods of Victorian London. Or maybe not. The 19th-century capital of global empire would have boasted more bustle and wealth, more opportunities for the wretched to build lives that went beyond mere animal survival.

The officer in charge at the entrance to Freetown's grey prison building, known to locals as "Pademba Road", asked Fernando and I to hand over our mobile phones and our cash. "For your security," he said. I handed over the mobile phone but not the abundant bills in my jeans' pockets. A blackboard chalked the number of prisoners at 1,307. A guard in green uniform was appointed to accompany us and the prison chaplain, a distinguished older man, came along too. It was 11am; we had till 4pm inside the prison. Our objective was to break away from our escorts and meet alone with Abdul Sesay and other under-age kids in the prison. First we'd have to go along with a guided tour.

The gates were opened into a compound dominated by four large squat buildings. The colours on view ranged from dark grey to light brown: the walls, the corrugated iron roofs, the shorts and tops the prisoners wore (even the Barcelona FC and Inter Milan shirts that some had on seemed to have faded to grey), and the prisoners' skins. Hundreds milling about a large yard stopped what they were doing and gathered around us, most of them grinning broadly. "Fernando!" cried one. "Fernando!", another. "Fernando! Fernando! Fernando Torres!"

He is not called Torres. But for the inmates here he was just as much of a star as the man who would shortly become Britain's most expensive footballer. He had spent the whole of the month of February photographing them, talking and laughing with them. And he'd been back again for 12 days in August. They loved him because he treated them with respect and good humour, and because he brought them medicines. Fernando paused at the centre of the yard, unzipped a pouch attached to his jeans' belt and a crowd gathered around. He brought out a tube of cream and the prisoners took turns to receive a squirt of the cream in their hands. Each promptly pulled down his shorts and smeared the cream on their itching groins. To some he also gave a little red pill, an antidote to scabies. In every corner of the prison we went to the scene was repeated.

We were among the most wretched of the wretched, some of them dangerous criminals, in a country that during the Nineties witnessed the most brutal acts of human cruelty of any country in the world except Rwanda. But instead of danger what I sensed, for now, was curiosity and goodwill. One prisoner after another came up to me to shake my hand, introduce himself and ask my name. Our guard, who was unarmed, appeared relaxed.

The chaplain led us into a dark workshop where prisoners learnt carpentry, upholstery, sowing and shoe-making. Scattered around on roughly fashioned tables, stools and the cement floor I saw hammers, saws, sharp metal objects: enough lethal instruments to start a small war. The chaplain, far from being concerned, regretted that such tools were almost impossible to obtain for the prisoners when they were released, rendering the skill they were acquiring of dubious long-term value. The guard explained, though, that the flip-flops and the clothes they made were bought by him and other guards and then resold by them in the markets outside. With the money the prisoners bought soap and water – delivered by truck to the prison and sold in buckets – and, if they had some to spare, some tidbits of extra food. Outside in the yard I saw one of the system's lucky beneficaries. Stark naked, watched enviously by other inmates, he was lathering his body from top to toe, the king of Pademba Road. The best season of the year, Fernando pointed out, is when it rains. Free showers for all.

In 'Soldiers of Light', a harrowing book about Sierra Leone by Daniel Bergner, a British army officer talks despondently about the country's chances of creating "in 300 years" an orderly, functioning society but then says, "There's a lot we could learn from them. The kindness." The officer was part of a large force that Tony Blair dispatched to Sierra Leone to end the civil war. One of the few cases in history of an "ethical foreign policy" in action, it worked. Today, Sierra Leone is run by a benign, well-intentioned, properly elected president by the name of Ernest Bai Koroma, whose chief aim is to rebuild the country after the chaos and devastation of a war that afflicted everybody and that everybody seems to wish to forget. It feels like a placid country where tension, in so far as it exists, centres on individuals' daily battles to get by.

The British officer's remark, couched in despair at the poverty and chaos and corruption all around, went to the heart of Africa's great mystery: the extraordinary capacity for kindness hand in hand with so much misery and savagery. Where the kindness expresses itself most starkly is in people's capacity to forgive. Savagery is a constant in the rest of the species, not least in Europe during the 20th century. But only in Africa do they seem capable of overcoming grudges, forgiving and forgetting. Whereas in the Balkans, where they still bitterly remember battles fought in the 14th century, or in the Basque Country or in Northern Ireland, the lust for retribution has vied endlessly with the need for reconciliation, in Africa you have the examples of Rwanda, where Hutus and Tutsis live in peace while the wounds of a genocide in which nearly a million were killed ought to remain fresh, and of South Africa, where the black population forgave the whites after enduring centuries of racist indignity. Part of the answer comes from the imperative that poverty places on Africans to act practically. If survival is the question you cannot afford the luxury of dwelling wearingly on old grievances. A deeper answer, with some connection to the first, came from an unlikely prisoner at Pademba Road.

His name (also unlikely) was Simon Hayman-Goldsmith. He was black but there all similarity with his fellow inmates ended. British, whimsical, smart and extremely well-spoken, he had been doing a Master's degree in business back home in England when he had the unfortunate idea of making some extra cash by flying in cocaine from Sierra Leone, a transit point for Colombian drugs entering Europe. He confirmed that my own sense of safety in the prison had not been misplaced. "Nine unarmed guards, 1,300 prisoners and next to no problems, next to no danger. Africa is amazing!" All the more

amazing because, as he said, there was so much reason for resentment. Many of the inmates, he said, had been imprisoned unjustly, either for things they had not done or because they had received grossly exaggerated sentences, or because they spend so long behind bars before receiving a trial. "What it is," Simon Hayman-Goldmsith said, providing his answer to the African enigma of forgivenness, "is that people here live absolutely in the present. They forget the past, and so they forgive what happened there. The future has little meaning too. They live for the here and now, no more."

Feeding time in the section of the prison where Abdul was kept sheds a less benign light on prison life. The chaplain left us and the guard, reluctant to enter the block where prisoners awaiting trial were kept, abandoned us to our own devices. A frantic queue had already formed at the metal gates of a dark dungeon and the older prisoners, some of them amazingly well muscled, decided who got how much first. One prisoner muttered, "a dog would not wish to eat this". Yet they did eat, and greedily: with their hands, crouching half naked on the floor of a dark dungeon, from plastic bowls. The fare was rice sprinkled with potato leaves. Each prisoner got a small plastic bottle of water, dirty water that would make Fernando and I sick, but that each prisoner cherished, sipping at it with careful economy through the day and night until the next bottle materialised in 24 hours' time. On each side of the dungeon were rows of cells designed for two people in which eight slept. Not for the first time in years of travel around Africa I was struck by the resilience of Africans, their capacity to keep going in conditions Europeans would find subhuman.

We finally met Abdul Sesay in a large cell, about half the size of a tennis court, where 60 slept. He was tiny, with a pockmarked little-boy face and sad eyes. His father (once more) had died in the war; his mother, of an illness. (The average mortality age in Sierra Leone is 42, up from 39 during the war.) "I lived with my grandmother in the village but she told me to leave because she had no money to look after me." That was in 2003, when Abdul was nine. He had been in Freetown ever since, doing odd jobs carrying baskets in the market, sleeping at night inside a car in a graveyard for wrecked vehicles on the edge of town. Why was he in Pademba? "Someone stole a radio and they gave it to me. I did not know where it came from then, but the police found me with the radio and charged me with robbery." As Abdul spoke, Fernando popped a red pill into his mouth. It was to fight the scabies rashes that covered half his body. And he's got a lot more illnesses than that, Fernando said. "I feel bad all the time. I eat the food here because I must. I am afraid of some of the prisoners here." As he said that I glanced behind him at two muscular guys in string vests, classic prison hard men, who were watching us out of the corner of their eyes. I tried not to be afraid of them myself. How come he was in a prison for adults? Abdul pulled down his trousers to reveal an early growth of pubic hair. "The policeman looked at me there and said I was lying; that I was 19, not 16." He did not have to reach that conclusion, did he? "No, but there was pressure from the complainants." They paid money to the policeman? Abdul said nothing. But he looked down and, as if about to weep, nodded. Any hope of getting out? Yes, he said. On Friday he'd appear in court. The prosecutor could offer him bail. He'd been told it could be 50,000 leones, which amounted to the princely sum of 10 euros. Fernando and I glanced at each other and made a silent pact to try and get Abdul out.

After leaving the prison we went to see a lawyer. She did not wish to be identified but she helped explain quite a lot. "If you don't have money, you can't get justice in Sierra Leone," she said. She also noted that if you do have some money you can get people into jail who you want to believe have done you wrong, even if all you have is a suspicion, or a grudge. "Vulnerable people are trampled on," said the lawyer. And corruption seeps through the system. The good news is that the government is alarmed at the problem and is seeking, with British money, to institute a credible and efficient system of public defenders. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) set up with UN help after the war found that the surest way to avoid a repeat of the nightmare that befell the country when a former army corporal called Foday Sankoh took up arms against the government, was to fight a generalised perception that in Sierra Leone there was no justice for the poor. Sankoh, who led a rebel rabble full of hand-amputating child soldiers which he grandly called the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), had spent seven years in Pademba Road for his alleged role in an army mutiny long before he grew to become, in the late Nineties, the world's most notorious war criminal. According to the lawyer, the TRC found that the resentment he felt at percieved the injustice done to him, as well as to other fellow leaders of the RUF, had been the engine behind the bloodbath he unleashed. That the cry for reform soon gave way, in Sankoh's case, to a single-minded greed for diamonds does not diminish the need to nip social resentment in the bud. "The government understands," the lawyer said, "that if we don't have a proper justice system, sooner or later we'll have another upheaval, another Sankoh."

Sankoh was arrested in 2000, prompting nationwide celebrations, and charged on 17 counts of war crimes. But before his trial he died in jail of a stroke, fate granting him what a United Nations prosecutor described as "a peaceful end he denied to so many others".

The hotel I stayed in was built and owned by a Chinese company, one of the many who are scouring Africa, practically recolonising it for raw materials to fuel their celebrated economic miracle. Of the five channels available in the rooms, two were Chinese. On the walls of the hotel's corridors were framed photographs of glistening, neon-lit glass and metal constructions back home in Beijing and Shanghai, and of Beijing's spectacular new airport.

But when I went to have a beer by the hotel poolside I witnessed a little scene that reminded me of something we tend, in these obsessive days of crisis, to forget: that man does not live by bread alone. Three Sierra Leonean girls around 20 years old were frolicking in bikinis in the shallow end, swaying their hips to a rhythm only they could hear, squealing, shouting, laughing. They were duly joined by a spectacularly muscled young black man, a powerful swimmer who ploughed across the water towards them and, after a brief introductory chat, took turns to circle their waists in his arms, or grasp their thighs, or carry them on his back. Two Chinese men appeared on the scene, probably bosses at the hotel. Middleaged, they wore their trousers at the height of their their belly buttons and sandals over grey socks. They sat down on reclining plastic chairs, put their hands behind their necks and silently beheld the aquatic display. They stared, without any shame, as if entranced, for a good 20 minutes. What might they have been thinking? It is perhaps too much to imagine them reflecting that God was perhaps just after all, that He shared out the spoils more evenly than we might sometimes think, fixated as we are on statistics of economic growth, interest rates and that sort of thing; that Africa, scorned as a lost continent, might have something to teach the commercially manic Asian tigers; that life was short, after all, and there might be a point to enjoying – savouring – our allotted time on the understanding that, way beyond the blind imperative to make money, the best things in life are free; that there was a pleasure principle at play in Africa, a dimension of joy and sensuality that China was in danger of losing the ability to see. They almost certainly did not think these thoughts during their tropical, poolside reverie, those two Chinese gents; but maybe they should have.

The day after visiting the prison, we paid a visit to the courthouse, an impressively large pile built 100 years ago by the British. It turned out to be a trial run for our plan to get Abdul out the next day. We paid for two brothers to get out and gave them some cash to get back to their home in the countryside. The trick was to find a couple of court insiders, in our case a young reporter and an older man f who identified himself as "the chairman of the court", and get them to stand surety for the bail. In exchange for their services, which involved striking a deal with the prosecutor, we'd pay up 160,000 leones per boy. (The bail itself only cost 50,000 each, but there were various palms to be greased.)

Fernando flew back home that night, leaving me to deal with Abdul the next day. Earler that afternoon, Fernando had visited a couple of institutions that looked after homeless young men to see if they might take Abdul, in the event that he was released, but no luck. Too many bureaucratic impediments, and Pademba Road was not a good calling card either. I'd have to try something the next day, such as seek help from the unnameable female lawyer, though I'd have to make a flight myself in mid-afternoon.

Before saying goodbye Fernando gave me a pile of papers to read that he had received from the inmates at Pademba. They were the testimonies of more than 20 prisoners, describing their lives in and out of jail, several written by the same hand, as obviously not all knew how to write. They all began "Dear Fernando" or "Dear Sir". The same notes ran though all the letters: a sense of injustice they endured ("frankly speaking, there is no justice for the poor", said one); the sickness they suffered, the absence of medicine, the deaths in prison, the filth of the latrines, as well as the food they had to eat; the stagnant water they drank; the impossibility of ever washing properly; their faith in God.

Here are some extracts from a note written by Issa Kamara, aged 15: "Date of arrival in Pademba prison: February 5th, 2010. Sentence: 3 years. Crime committed: broke car glass... My mother and father are alive but I am not staying with them because they don't have nothing to support me so that gave me the cause to to go away in the street with my friends we slept in the ghetto and we slept on the floor. When I wake in the morning I go along with my friends to push a wheelbarrow. Some time my friends don't give me money they only provide food for me to eat... When I came in the Pademba Road I feel bad. We are 7 in number in the cell. When I wake up in the morning I feel cold, pain, malarial... When I am free from prison I will like to go back to my parents and I will appeal to them to put me back at school. If I beg them and they accept me I will not leave them alone. So help me God."

Who would Abdul go back to if he got out? Abdul did not seem to have anything like the level of education of Issa, who clearly wrote those words in his own writing. Well, the first thing was to get him out of Pademba. I arrived at the court at 10am just as Abdul and a batch of other prisoners were arriving in a green police truck, their brown hands visible through metal slits. My two co-conspirators from the day before were on hand, eager to do business again. The plan was to pay the bail, get Abdul out, take him to a pharmacy to get the requisite pills and creams for his various conditions, then walk him over to the lawyer, who had said she understood only too well the need to help freed prisoners reconstruct their lives. Things did not work out so simply.

I entered a wood-panelled courtroom over which an impressive lady magistrate – tinted red hair, brusque, no-nonsense – was presiding. The court was packed. Ten prisoners were awaiting verdicts, among them Abdul. We caught each other's eyes, he looked into mine imploringly, I waved, nodded, he waved back. My two agents had already spoken to the police prosecutor, a young man in uniform. The word from the court reporter, a short and intense fellow, was that Abdul would cost more to get out. It would be one for the price of two: 320,000 leones. In no position to negotiate, I calculated how much cash I had left, how much I'd need to pay my taxi to the ferry and then the ferry itself to the airport, which left at 3pm. I agreed to the 320,000, which was about 64 euros. Now I saw the court reporter exchange hand signals with the policeman. The policeman held up two fingers; the court reporter shook his head and held up one. What was that about, I asked? "He wants to know if it is two prisoners we want out on bail, or one."

Abdul's case came up. The magistrate asked him how old he was. Sixteen, he replied. She looked at him quizzically. "And you are at Pademba?" "Yes." She made a note and ordered him to return to his seat. This was going to take more time than the case of the two brothers. I went to change some more cash and when I returned I spoke to agent two, "the chairman of the court". The chairman said we'd have Abdul out in one hour. It was now 11am. OK. Still time.

I waited outside with the court reporter, who told me he'd recently lost his newspaper job. He had reported on an illegal land grab and not only had he been fired but someone had done withcraft on him and he had fallen sick. "In Africa you cannot tell the truth," he said.

A man passed by wearing a T-shirt with Barack Obama's face on it. "Change we can believe in", it read. A yellow-green rivulet ran down a gutter alongside the wall of the building. It was hot and I bought a Fanta, something I'd never drink at home but here tasted like paradise. It cost 30 euro cents. People milled back and forth, all of them waiting, as I was. Two hours passed and no sign of Abdul. Needing 40 minutes to get back to the hotel and then the ferry, which if I missed, I missed my plane, I had about one hour left. Then Abdul shot by, looking at me smiling, followed by the policeman and my friend the chairman. They had to take his "snap", then get some papers signed inside. Ten minutes, the chairman said. Half an hour passed and nothing. Forget about the lawyer, I thought. But at least I'll get him his medicines at the pharmacy. The court reporter went inside and reappeared. "Abdul says he is very happy and will be your father forever." Yes, but if I don't see him out and free you won't get your money, I told him.

He took me up some steps, down a labyrinth of corridors. Paper, papers everywhere; judgments and bails passed down in writing; not a computer in sight. Beggars, policemen, plump gorgeously dressed ladies, ragamuffins in bare feet, lawyers in dark suits and ties. We stopped at a small room where the chairman and the policeman prosecutor watched the lady magistrate painstakingly filling out a form. It was now 2pm and I was pacing, cursing, panicking. I went outside again, for fear of causing an incident that might wreck the whole venture; waited 10 more minutes. Then Abdul appeared, escorted by my two court agents, free. He put out both hands and held my right one. Then he would not let it go. He looked me in the eyes, transformed, smiling like the child he was, as if returned to health. My concern was that there was no time to go for the medicine. I paid out the agreed sum to his two liberators then took him to one side and thrust a wad of leones into his pocket, the equivalent of about 40 euros, an amount he'd probably never in his life seen, never imagined seeing. Go to the pharmacy and then go back home to the countryside, find some relatives if you can. But first stick around and make the court appearances your bail demands. The court reporter and chairman nodded in seemingly anxious agreement. They'd be in trouble, or so they said, if he were to bolt.

A taxi driver, on whom I pressed my last 40,000 leones, took me a back way through Freetown's worst slums, mountains of rubbish with people scrambling around them for scraps, a rickety bridge over a black river that looked as if it would peel the flesh off you in 10 seconds if you fell in. We made it to the ferry with seconds to spare. As I put on my orange lifejacket I saw a man of about 26 on the jetty selling some coloured cloths. He had no hands. I had no money, or time for that matter, to buy one off him. I wish I could have. All the way home and still now I wish too I could have done more for Abdul, in line with what Fernando had wanted to do. But then I thought of all the other people at Pademba Road I would have wished to have helped. I thought of the forlorn face of a boy who sat next to Abdul in court realising he was not going to be the lucky beneficiary of this unlikely white man and I thought of the millions and millions like them in Africa who I could do nothing about, and how much brutality and corruption there was in the continent, but how much kindness, too, and how much joy of living, and how much they could teach the rest of us except that we do not think to pay heed, it does not occur to us that we might learn from them, because they are so damn poor.

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