#19/1
In my own words

“They told me to flee, but I did not want to”

Testimony by Prince, Guinea


 

Prince*, 28 years old from Guinea is sitting below a staircase on the deck and looks a little bored. He has no book to read or anything else to pass his time, as any and all of the few belongings he had were taken from him. He likes to talk to people and agreed to tell me his story. He asked me to meet him in what he calls his “office” – a quiet corner on the deck, where he spends hours and hours lost in his own thoughts. He keeps on emphasizing that he did not leave his home Guinea, which he calls “paradise on earth” voluntarily. What causes a relatively well situated, young English teacher, with a university degree to leave his home country and end up on the MS AQUARIUS? Which events lead him to get on a small rubber boat, especially him, who tried to dissuade so many before him to not take on the journey? Currently the AQUARIUS is taking him to Europe, but his actual dream, his biggest hope is to return to his home, Guinea. Here is his story:

Guinea: “They told me to flee, but I did not want to”

“I left my country in 2012, as a consequence of several government changes. I did not actually want to leave, I studied, I had a job. I taught English at elementary and high schools, at university. In short, I had work, a degree and even a decent income. I never had the intention to leave all of that behind,” Prince tells me in a calm voice. “But following the 2010 elections there was a coup. In my opinion, it was not a coup but an orchestrated attempt by the government to target a certain ethnic group, the Fulbe, which I am part of. There were numerous protests and organized demonstrations. I was in touch with a radio channel, for which I recorded some shows in English and taught a basic English course. One day they invited me to a show on the political situation in our country. I paid a terrible price for this. Look at my scars here…” He says while showing me several scars on his head and along his legs, gesturing that he has several more all over his body.

“I openly said on the radio, that sooner or later this would end in a civil war, if one ethnic group holds the political power for decades. Unfortunately people considered the President at the time, to be an educated man due to his PhD, but he did everything in power to divide the country along ethnic lines. As a member of the Fulbe I could no longer work alongside Mandinkas. I was rejected from several schools that were headed by Mandika, but I would not have wanted to work there anyway. I said on the radio that we needed a new government, as this could not go on.”

Every time he speaks of his home country it comes gushing out of him. “Following the radio show, the tides turned, the channel was under attack, people demanded that the “rebel channel” be shut down. Then the police came. I was accused of insulting the head of state. I responded that he was a public person and I had the right to freely express my opinion. I had not offended him, but merely expressed my opinion that he did not deserve the presidential title. Even though he was an educated man, a man of law, a man that had taught at university. But Guineans do not feel safe under his rule, many people are being killed. It was the Europeans that put him there! He doesn’t know our country! One time he publicly said that he would not have become president if he had known what to expect. If that is the case, why did he not step back? From our point of view, he only managed to win because of election rigging. France helped this president and us Guineans end up feeling like strangers in our own country. To travel to Guinea or to leave the country costs money. And you can’t speak your mind, or you will be beaten.”

“At the moment the Mandika are in charge. Following every governmental change all public posts are filled with people from the same ethnic group as those in power. One can recognize us Fulbe right away, this is bothersome to some. We wear beards and our typical headdress. We are attacked on the streets because we are Fulbe. Following the alleged insult of the president on the radio the police came. They hit me with handcuffs. On the way to the prison I was able to jump out of the car and was dragged along for a bit. I was injured, but was able to run off. In my neighborhood everyone knows me, and they told me to leave. I said ‘No! I was born and raised here, I want to grow old and die here! Rather die than go somewhere else!’ But then one night my room was left in shambles, I don’t know if it was the police or my neighbors, but I came to realize that my life was in danger. So I went to Liberia, but there I wasn’t safe either. I had to think about where to go next and was told that there was a high demand for English teachers in Libya. It was then when I decided to go to Libya.”

Libya: “What do you want in Europe?”

“I went to Libya, it wasn’t easy. I told myself, that as a Muslim I did not have to worry. A friend of mine had been teaching in Libya for a long time and had told me back in 2010 to go there. I was full of anticipation when I travelled to Libya. I came to Sabrata and worked at a Quran school as an English teacher. But once I was there I was advised to go to Tripolis.”

The moment that Prince starts telling me about Libya, the excitement leaves his voice. So far his story is quite confusing. “I came to Libya voluntarily in 2013 and it is here where the ordeal began. I worked as a teacher until 2015. In the beginning it was still going well, I was a respected man. I was not in touch with my family in Guinea, as I did not want to put them in danger. Friends that I was speaking to told me, that my family was being watched and that there were deaths during every rally.”

“I stayed in Libya until 2015. One day I was taken by the ‘Asma Boys’. It is a street gang. Libya is pure chaos, the police is inactive, the cities are controlled by armed gangs. I had heard that many blacks came to Libya, and told myself that I would try and find other Guineans to help them out a little. In Libya many blacks were being killed, one could see their bodies on the streets. I thought I was save, after all I was working as a teacher not far from where I was living, everything was in place.”

“But then I was kidnapped. I was in captivity for 90 days, kept by three different groups: the first demanded 1.000 Euro ransom. They told me to call my school. I responded that I did not have their number and that my colleagues were only that, colleagues. I should call a friend. They threatened violence. I wasn’t tortured but I had to watch people being raped. They searched your anus. They searched women’s genital area, thinking they might be hiding money. You had to strip naked. I saw how even children were treated this way. The kidnappers told me that if I didn’t pay, they would kill someone. I said ‘No, no, no!’ I called a friend and asked him for help. He paid. I was released, without socks, without shoes, and kidnapped by another group right away. I tried to behave in the same way the second time around, but this time I was beaten. They took me to Sabrata. They were bandits. They said they would ensure safety on the streets, but they are only interested in the money. I told them over and over again: ‘I am poor, I have no money.” They hit me, tortured me. They tie you up, beat you with sticks on your feet. I saw people lie in their own blood. To not end the same way, I called the same friend and they let me go.”

“I was starved for 21 days. I was looking for temporary jobs so I could buy something to eat. One day I met a couple of blacks that were waiting for their crossing. I said ‘Don’t do it!’ and asked them ‘where do you want to go?’ They responded: ‘to Europe!’ I said ‘And what do you want to do in Europe?’ Later our camps were attacked. Groups of armed man shot at us and took the girls and young women, probably to rape them. I had to flee. But it was too far to Tripolis, so I went to the shore instead. I sat down and waited. Sometimes I could work a little. One day I told myself, that before being killed, before being tortured to death, I would rather die at sea. I knew that the crossing is perilous. I saw many bodies that were washed ashore. But I still preferred that to being tortured. So I tried, and I was very lucky. You found us!”

Crossing and rescue: “We know that we are in safety, that we are no longer at the mercy of bandits”

“I decided to make crossing, after having seen all these people, that were so determined. At first I told them: ‘Don’t do it!’ To those that had university degrees I said: ‘You are much more important for Africa than you are for Europe!’ I am sad that all well educated people go to Europe. They responded: ‘We have to find refuge, because we aren’t safe here.’ That is when I changed my mind. I decided to seek refuge in Europe, until the government in my country is no more and I can continue to fight. It is undoubtedly better to fight for change at home than to stay in Libya. So I left for Europe. I will finally be able to speak to my family again. I want to tell them that I am well and that I am safe. I will also get in touch with my friends and ask if the situation has settled down. But I think that the President is aiming for a third presidential term. The Mandika will continue to hold the power. Us Fulbe understand the economy, we are well-educated and not poor. We have small shops and businesses and well-functioning families. We don’t need Europe. I know at I am more appreciated at home than anywhere else. Once it’s better there I want to go back. As soon as there is a new government and it is safe I will return home.”

Prince wants nothing more than for this nightmare to end and to find refuge in Europe. Even though he knows it won’t be easy, he wants to take charge of his own life again and return to Guinea in the future. My dad always told me that Europe is difficult. He studied in Germany and France. So I know a little bit about immigration to Europe. I never wanted to migrate. I would much rather have travelled there out of curiosity and then return home. Not this way. I know that it won’t be easy. But once the situation has calmed at home, I will go back. I don’t think that this is clear to the people in Europe.”

“When we first encountered you and we were still on the rubber boat, you told us that we were safe. Those were the first words we heard. We know that we are no longer at the mercy of bandits and we know that we are finally safe. Here we meet actual people. For you we are everyday people. In Libya we weren’t treated like people, but when people that are different from us, are accepting of us, then one feels safe. Finally we can talk about our culture. Finally we feel free.”

And in the future? “I want to reconcile my country”

“I dream of going into politics. I want to reconcile my divided country. I dream of getting a degree in political science and founding a diverse party, that does not pay attention to a person’s ethnic background. Guinea is paradise on earth to me. It is a country where one does not miss anything. We are the castle of Africa. We have gold, diamonds, bauxite. Prior to independence we were Africa’s biggest banana producers! There is enough water, and we don’t yet suffer from climate change. I would like to be one of the leading figures during reconciliation, so that the people in my country can find back to one another. So that all brothers reunite. There are no religious conflicts. It is all ethnic conflicts. I dream of free speech and travel for my country.”

We spend more than 50 minutes on deck of the AQUARIUS, there are approximately 500 people on board, most of them from West Africa. We are in the middle of the ocean, somewhere between Africa and Europe.

“If only not everyone always got involved in our politics. Us Africans have to find out own solutions to our own problems. We have to be in charge. These governments are imposed on us, a government of leaders from outside. But to be able to effect change, one has to know the country. I want to be the one to changes my country, or be part of the group that brings the change. I very much hope to be able to invite you to my home one day. Who knows, maybe you’ll even decide to stay!”

***

Text: Mathilde Auvillain
Photo: Johannes Moths