October 13 of every year since 1993 has come to symbolize the challenges journalists and press practitioners face across the world, but most notoriously under quasi-democracies and or military junta-run regimes in particular Africa. On that fateful day, the proscribed but prolific and fearless New Breed newspaper culled a story from the Spanish-based Sunday L’Expressen that implicated the notorious National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) headed by Captain Valentine E. Strasser and his protégés of embroiled broad daylight corruption in the illegal sale of the country’s diamonds worth a whopping market value of 43 million US dollars.
The reaction by the khaki boys was swift and spontaneous as they mounted a swoop on the editors and reporters of the paper. At first, the Managing Editor of the paper, Julius Spencer, the financial controller Allie E. Bangura (now an electoral commissioner of the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party-SLPP), Abu Bangura, National Privatization boss, erstwhile Trade minister in the SLPP government Abdul Thorlu Bangura ( associates and friends of the paper), along with the printer for the paper, Bashiru Conteh, and the salesman of the paper, Alfred P. Conteh were all carted away, or rather euphemistically put, invited to “make a statements” at the Criminal Investigations Department on Pademba Road in Freetown.
Recognizing the “seriousness” of the matter amidst the random arrests so far made by the military junta, I advised myself to go into hiding. The justification I proffered to myself was that if the big guns were arrested what would befall a cub reporter?
It was however a hiding that did not last. The search to find food eventually drove me out of my safe haven. It was the kind of tropical day when the pungent scent of overripe mangoes permeated the Sierra Leonean marketplaces, and women in long lappas covered their faces against swirls of dust along Congo market off Campbell Street in Freetown.
Suddenly, from nowhere, armed thugs were on me, hurling insults and demanding identification. First they found the tape recorder, then the press credentials that confirmed their catch. At this moment, my consciousness dimmed as rifle butts slammed into my kidneys and spine. I was shoved handcuffed into a waiting vehicle full of military guys. They added salt to my injury with their taunting. “wuna dae go rite nar wuna grave den now” (you will go write whilst in your graves) , one of the irate soldiers brandishing a Kalashnikov rifle boasted. What a psychological torture! I quietly said to myself.
Indeed one of the chilling moments when I recalled the shared horrors that were commonplace under the NPRC regime as news abounded then that a group of political leaders, considered disruptive elements by the state, had been executed for allegedly plotting a coup.
As I was unceremoniously whished into the claustrophobic, waterless cell crammed with 19 other prisoners including Allie Bangura, Julius Spencer, Abu Bangura, Abdul Thorlu Bangura, printer Bashiru Conteh and the late politician Thaimu Bangura, we not only had to defecate in a single bucket and endured insects swarming over our bodies, but had to sleep to the bare floor that some of my inmates eventually found comfortable as I could vividly hear them snore.
Occasionally, I would wince as I relived the torments: the blazing white light that sent stabs of pain past my eyeballs into my brain when it was flashed on during the night; the periodic grilling and floggings; the constant worry that my food would be poisoned in “that place of total misery” called a cell where I was confined for some odd 21 days in 1993.
As I was held for weeks incommunicado, without formal charges, relatives had to bribe guards to deliver small amounts of food like sardines, bread, cheese and my favourite, Quaker Oats to help keep me healthy. To this day, I owe many thanks to Dr. Mohamed L. Samura, former Ambassador of Sierra Leone to Libya who enlivened my stay at the Cid cells by lending me a book, “The Africans,” by American journalist David Lamb, which became not just a companion, but my “great inspiration.”
It was an inspiration that was however short-lived. In a particular evening, the number two-man in the NPRC junta, Julius Maada Bio and their Prime Minister John Benjamin swarmed the CID headquarters with a truck load of gun-toting men in military uniform armed to the teeth with brand new Kalashnikov weapons. “Why are these people out? They should be inside. They think they can write rubbish against our government”, John Benjamin and Maada Bio raged at our jailers for letting us out for the sake of fresh air. Shaken as we were, even pleas by Abu Bangura who had a medical certificate for need of frequent fresh air fell in deaf ears. “Take them in…they think they can write any rubbish and go scot-free, Maada Bio in full military regalia said in a faked soldierly way as if to further cow us down as poor John Benjamin looked on.
Then, just as how our imprisonment began with no clear plot, so also was my personal release. A guard entered the cell one day and told me I was free to go just like that. Instead of joy, the words sparked raw terror in me. “I truly believed they were going to make a pretense of releasing me, and then use it as an excuse to kill me, making it appear that nothing happened in prison, especially when the NPRC had the nerve to incarcerate journalists along with Korean “coup plotters”.
Today, as I continue to celebrate my freedom, I will not forget that period in my life as horrendous, to say the least. Horrendous not because I had to spend time in a claustrophobic, waterless cell crammed with inmates, some of whom profusely snoring to the disturbance of my sleep, and had to defecate in a single bucket and endured the swarming insects as we lay bare on the floor, but more so for the post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) I am still grappling with whenever I pass through the CID headquarters.
As I bemoan my jailers, the 21 days in that misery place called a cell. It however left me with some profound resilience with my increasing belief in the fight for human rights and that journalism goes beyond writing a story for a byline. It’s based on what one is challenging, how one makes his/her contribution to democracy by what they report. One exposes injustice and advocate for human rights. It is a mission.
And, by some grand destined coincidence, as I reflect on my nasty ordeal in the hands of the tarnished NPRC’s Maada Bio and his political demagogues, including the notorious John Benjamin, I further found hope for the furtherance of human rights in my country by the President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma being awarded the covetous world award of “Abolitionist of the Year 2012” by the Hands Off Cain for his commitment to upholding and defending human rights, particularly for keeping to his promise of placing a moratorium on all executions in 51 years effective April, 2011.
Author, Abdulai Bayraytay, is the Deputy-Editor-in-Chief (on leave) of the Patriotic Vanguard, an online newspaper published in Vancouver, Canada.
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