Stuck in Puntlandby Tebogo Malope / 01.07.2011
We now stand alone in the middle of the mansion, the governor and the army that circled us have all excused themselves. For a brief moment we are frozen and silent, we stare at each other like deaf people awaiting the next sign. We crept down the few steps of the patio and away from the mansion. Although it only took a couple of seconds, it felt like a lifetime. Then I gently drifted towards the high-rise gate to see what sort of reaction I would get if I left the yard. Picture a massive prison, Alcatraz, maybe even Robben Island, but beyond the walls there was no Waterfront of luxurious shopping possibilities but rather an ocean of trigger-happy teenage soldiers. “Dude! I wanna see what would happen if I walked out the gate.” I told Kaizer.
And I got to the gate without any hindrance; this could be easier than I thought. But instead of pulling it open, I had an impulse to knock and that’s what I did! But why would I feel the need to knock? What has become of this construct that I need another human’s permission to go out into the world, why do I need to beg for my God given right? I quickly decide to stop knocking and take a chance, the gate had three levers, I have no idea how I figured out how they all work but I did and I pulled that gate wide open. Prayers were still continuing in the background, the film score in the distance and then some random lady with a broom crosses in front of us sweeping the ground and stirring up dust.
“Free at Last! Free at Last! Thank God almighty we are…” NOT! An assembly of soldiers with machine-guns in hand rushes towards me screaming “AYA! AYA! AYA!”
I immediately start to explain myself: “Yoh! Dude I’m not running away or anything, in fact even if I did where would I run to?” The one guy was wagging his finger and shouting “No! No!”
“I just wanted to see what’s out here that’s all.” I pleaded.
“NO! NO!” He got even more aggressive, he then pointed me back into the yard with his rifle, and that was as clear as day. I didn’t need to learn Somaal to understand. If there was any minuscule shadow of a doubt that we were in fact prisoners, that gesture ended it.
We sat facing the Western wall. Kaizer’s locks are almost touching the ground as his head hangs down and both hands locked behind his neck. It seems this situation has stripped us of words again and the silence between us continues to simmer. Like a lone rider in old Western films appearing from nowhere, there comes a gentle chuckle, then another one and then another, then the period between chuckles shrinks and it became an extended giggle. Kaizer’s locks dancing to the shaking of his head, my head shaking to Kaizer’s lead. But the laugh was rudely intercepted and snuffed out by the predatory eyes of our guardian soldiers.
“Dude do you still have those Tic Tacs?” I asked Kaizer. He pulled a box of Tic Tacs from his pocket and threw them at me, I popped it open and threw one in my mouth. It would be this intricate balance of chuckles and Tic Tacs that would sustain our sanity throughout this entire dilemma.
“Good day gentleman!” a voice came from behind us, this wasn’t the governors voice, yet it too spoke immaculate English. We leapt to our feet in a subtle euphoria; this man had a pleasance about him. We stood gazing in his eyes perhaps to read him, plainly relieved to have somebody else besides the governor who could understand us. He stood there with a smile and after a heartbeat tried to throw a comforting comment “I hope you are well taken care of?” Stretching out his hand as he said this to give us a handshake. He wore a shirt and tie, but instead of pants he wore a skirt like cloth. Well I’m the Minister of Health and Communications,” he said. “What brings you to Puntland?” He asked curiously. “We are filmmakers and we are doing a story about a young man from here who got arrested by the American army.” Kaizer began to explain.
“So you are doing a story about pirates?” He asked with some discomfort. The topic of piracy was like a thorn to them, but why? Kaizer quickly responded trying to salvage the situation. “No it’s not really about Pirates. It’s about this kid.”
“Then I guess you have nothing to worry about.” He said with a smile. “The issue of a visa can be fixed in less than a day. Here in Puntland you can also apply for a visa internally. So don’t worry we’ll sort it out.” He reassured us.
“Where can I find the toilets?” I asked him and he gestured for me to follow. As I followed him, one of the soldiers followed me. I told him I was just going to the gents and he just stared right into my eyes and kept following me. He held his rifle firmly as if about to engage it. He wouldn’t possibly follow me into the toilet, I thought to myself. But he did. And even though I desperately needed to go, the man with the rifle gave me such stage fright, I just couldn’t pull it off. I ended up getting distracted by a precariously positioned showerhead above the toilet seat, I imagined a couple of possible functions for it and none made sense. So I concluded it wasn’t functional, but my curiosity propelled me to reach for the knob on the wall and turn it, I did and bang, it’s raining on the toilet seat.
By now it’s dusk and we haven’t had a chance to contact anybody outside. We’re both getting worried. Nobody knows what is happening to us. The governor and his cousin are nowhere in sight, we only have the soldiers and a few random women that keep arriving to clean up after the soldiers. A few moments later the sound of a 4×4 approaches, and one of the younger soldiers, probably about 15 years of age quickly runs and opens the gate.
It’s the Governor and he summons us to follow him into this big room with a long table that has a throne like seat at the far end of it. “Sit down!” he orders as he opens a file and gracefully places his iPhone next to it. “I just came back from speaking to a few people about your case and your situation is complex, let us go back to the beginning. What are your interests here in Puntland?”
“Before we go into that,” Kaizer begins, “may we please be allowed to make a phone call to our families or even our embassies to alert them about our arrest?”
“What arrest?” Says the Governor. “Please don’t see this as an arrest, see it as you being my guests, not many people get an opportunity to come to this house, this is like the White House of Puntland, so there, you are my guests not my prisoners.”
“So can we make a call?” Kaizer asks.
“NO!” he responds and his mood has seriously altered. “Has anybody caused you any harm? Has somebody tortured you? I could let that happen but I won’t. It’s courteous of me.” He manages a quick smile as he bounces his gaze between us. “You have no reason to worry, I will sort this out”
“Look,” the Governor explains. “This region is like a hub of pirates, they all come from here. In fact we know most of them. I think the one you are referring to is my 10th cousin. We have received a lot of bad publicity about this issue and we are very sensitive about media people coming here and doing whatever it is they want. You could be spies for all we know.
“All I’m asking from you is to relax, make yourselves at home until I figure this out, I should be able to fix your problem tomorrow. There’s a room we have prepared for you. I had to ask some ministers to use alternative rooms, just so that I can accommodate you.”
At this stage me and Kaizer are wondering whether the Governor is truly sincere about helping us or he is just delaying us.
“What about that phonecall?” Kaizer asks “We have that human right to call someone.”
“Rights!” The Governor is now even more agitated. “What rights are these? You don’t have rights here.” He pauses. “In any case you cannot go out there to get a sim card, you are not allowed to, plus it’s already 5pm curfew. Nobody is out there anymore.” He turns to one of the soldiers. “This gentleman will show you to your room.” And then adds with a smile, “have a pleasant stay gentlemen.”
We are led to our room. As he ushers us in he politely asks us to take off our shoes. In the middle of the room sits a fan, it has an eerie humming sound, and it’s almost entirely useless in combating the extreme heat, but we keep it on. In fact it stays on for the entire duration of our stay.
It’s the end of day one in Puntland, we haven’t bathed, we haven’t eaten, and we haven’t relieved ourselves. We lie on our sponges, still in our clothes and reflect. Surely this place can’t be as bad as it seems, even though our lives are threatened and we had suffered a bit, we still believed it could get better. A few soldiers stand outside the window, some are next door to us, our stomachs are growling, our clothes uncomfortable, we stink, the fan is humming, a rifle goes off in the distance, we don’t have our passports and nobody knows where we are. Perhaps it is that bad.
“Dude please pass me a Tic Tac.” Kaizer chuckles as he throws me the pack.
Tune in at the same time next week for Part 3.
Read Part 1 here.
*All images © Tebogo Malope.