After a twelve hour slog from New York through Casablanca to Lungi airport, the challenge of two adults taking 5 young folks back to their ancestral home for the first time seemed to be subsiding…until a young man among them (18 years old) is accused of violating the law of the land and threatened with arrest. This young man traveled in a military fatigue jacket.
Military clothing is common fashionable wear that many civilians in the United States indulge in every day, but in Sierra Leone, a civilian wearing one could be charged with a crime. Ignorance of this law is not an excuse by either residents or visitors.
The arrival time of 1:30am was ungodly but perfect because the population at Lungi Airport was unusually sparse. Thus expecting a quick passage through immigration and customs to catch the only boat across the great Sierra Leone River into Freetown seemed reasonable. At least that is what this group of seven thought.
As the group handed their passports to an awaiting immigration officer at one of the empty windows, a gentleman in military fatigue jacket (known henceforth as Mr. Military) gestured to the young man in the group to follow him to a corner on another side of the floor; without any protest, the young man followed. Without explanation, Mr. Military then ordered the young man to remove and hand over to him the military jacket he was wearing; again, without protest, the young man complied.
Upon receiving the jacket from the young man, Mr. Military, again without any explanation, ordered the young man to remain where he had been ordered to stand; meanwhile, Mr. Military approached the immigration officer processing the documents for the group to hand the passport of the young man to him. Mr. Military then took a blank piece of paper and wrote down information from the young man’s passport. Still without any explanation to the young man or the adults in the group, Mr. Military then disappeared into an office for a long period.
While Mr. Military retreated in his enclosed office, the group learned from other workers that the young man had violated a law in Sierra Leone that prohibits civilians from wearing military fatigues; the group even learned that the young man could have faced beatings had he worn the shirt on the streets in the cities. This piece of information made the adults feel grateful for Mr. Military’s confiscation of the jacket. But now what?
ARRESTED BY CORRUPTION
In a country that is still recovering from a decade long bloodbath, a little paranoia is necessary. Although the rebels were notoriously leading in the mayhem on civilians, it is also well established that atrocities were committed by all parties during the war, including the military; hence the word “sobel” was coined to describe soldiers who carried out rebel atrocities.
However, it is also believed that not all actions by “soldiers or sobels” were perpetrated by the “real military.” The rebels were known to strip fallen soldiers of their clothing and then wearing those clothing while perpetrating mayhem, which made it difficult to ascertain the military’s actual part in the atrocities. This situation makes it perfectly necessary for post-conflict Sierra Leone, as it struggles toward full recovery, to implement such a prohibition on civilians wearing military fatigues.
Unfortunately, those who are given the authority to safeguard the security of the country are so mired in corruption that their duties are always compromised. Mr. Military’s handling of this situation was very symptomatic of this. As he essentially arrested the young man by ordering him to remain where he stood, Mr. Military then disappeared without explanation; leaving the group with no answers as to the fate of the young man.
It became clear, however, why Mr. Military was behind closed doors. A common tactic by corrupt public servants played out: Mr. Military made no direct demands for a bribe; he simply disappeared leaving that task to his agents. Non-uniformed workers (not clear whether they were Immigration, Customs or Defense staff) came up to the adults in the group and asked for some “kola” so they could help to go “baig de officer;” which, in Salone parlance, means to give Mr. Military some cash so that he would look the other way and not take any of the “serious actions” he threatened to take against the young man.
The adults in the group felt that he had done his job by confiscating the jacket and did not want it back but wanted to know if the young man was free to leave or was he required to report to some authority in town the next day? As the only boat available at that hour was about to depart, one of the adults knocked on Mr. Military’s door and confronted him on the fate of the young man and also asked for a copy of the paperwork he may have prepared for the incident.
This confrontation and request angered Mr. Military and he responded by threatening to hand the young man over to the police. Frustrated, the adults requested that Mr. Military carry out this action as they believed they could get better due process for the violation from the police. Mr. Military still retreated and spoke very little to the group and without making any direct demands from the group, his agents on the outside continued urging “nar for baig de officer,” which meant come up with some “cash” for Mr. Military. The group refused to give any “kola” for the incidence.
In Salone, there are two main currencies that can get you anything: “kola” (cash) and “big man or de pa” (a man of either political or economic influence). Woe befalls any who lacks both.
As the fate of the young man continued to be in limbo and the group’s chances of crossing in the only boat got slimmer, a call was made to a “big man” in town who intervened over the phone. The young man was suddenly declared “free to go.”
In the end, it is hard to say what all the fuss was about. The only achievement seemed to be Mr. Military keeping the confiscated jacket as he and his agents failed to receive any “kola;” no official information was imparted to the young man or the rest of the group regarding this law in Sierra Leone and the group left without a copy of an incident report or further information/instructions from Mr. Military regarding the violation.
A WORD TO THE WISE: On your next visit to Salone, leave your military fashion behind if your visit is not an official military mission. Otherwise, have some cash on hand or know a ‘big man’ to rescue you.