Cameroon, August 2018
People began dying and falling to the ground around him before he was able to process the sounds. Gunshots from automatic rifles ripped through the crowd of protestors as people scattered across the street for safety. What had been a peaceful protest erupted into screams, gunfire and chaos as security forces began firing bullets and teargas into the crowd.
David ran. His eyes were on fire as the hissing of bullets flew by him. He ran as a bullet ripped through the body of a friend. David ran as his friend fell into a motionless corpse onto the street. He was still running when more gunfire struck a second friend who cried out in agony as his leg shattered with blood and bone.
At that moment David stopped running.
No one who has not experienced this level of violence knows exactly how they will respond in that moment. They may think they do, but they don’t. The body takes over. Adrenaline pushes through the veins and blood is diverted to the major muscle groups. Critical thought is replaced with instinct. Fight or Flight. For the defenseless the only rational response is to run. Run and don’t look back. Let tunnel vision and adrenaline guide you. But, if you have ever watched a lion catch an antelope, there is another instinctual response. Once the prey is caught within the lion’s jaws, the antelope stops kicking and stops fighting. It simply goes limp, accepts its fate and prepares to die.
David stopped running and lifted his hands in the air to surrender as the soldiers closed in.
He was dragged behind a car where one of the men pinned him down while others took turns beating him with their rifles. There was no fight left in him. After the beating, he was taken to the police station and thrown into a cell with the other prisoners. Bruised and exhausted he looked around at his surroundings and tried to take in what had just happened to him. In another cell, he saw his friend with the shattered leg. He had been given no medical treatment. He was only allowed to suffer and bleed.
The police were clear. They told them that they were all going to die. They were nothing more than cockroaches who dared to stand against the Cameroonian government. They would all be crushed.
He sat in the jail for days. His head had cleared and he had time to think. Could he escape this place? Would this be his fate? He began to internalize that his own life was over as he watched his friend die slowly in that jail. David watched as his friend’s body slowly shut down from blood loss and infection, and he watched the guards made it a priority to taunt and hurl insults at the dying man until his last breath.
He accepted his fate. David knew he would die. He did not fight. He only waited. Day after day, the police would pull men from the jail to be questioned. They came like clockwork. In the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening. They always came and they always took someone away. None of those men ever returned. He only heard screams from the back of the police station, the sounds of men being tortured. Then gun shots.
And then nothing.
Would he be next? Would he be dragged away tomorrow? Or would it be another man? Would he hear more screams or would they hear his? What does a man think when he knows that he is about to die, but does not know the moment of death’s arrival? There are so many questions. What does he think about within that suspense? Would he be brave? Would he beg for death? What would be waiting for him on the other side of death? Would his family ever know of his fate?
His family. He didn’t know where his grandparents were anymore. Their village had been burned to the ground and those who escaped disappeared into the bush. Were they alive? Would they be waiting for him on the other side of death? They had all seen too much. Their villages had been burned. They had seen women raped by soldiers in front of their husbands. They had seen countless people butchered and left their bodies on the street or tossed unceremoniously into mass graves.
It was only a matter of time before David found a similar fate.
Of course, he was guilty of his crime, but there would be no trial. David and the others were protesting preferential treatment given to French speaking Cameroonians over English speakers. Specifically, they wanted to be able to speak English in schools. That is if they could even manage to get enrolled with coveted spots going almost entirely to French speaking families. English speakers, tired of being consistently overlooked and marginalized, had begun to push back and the country had become increasingly divided as the French-led government stamped down hard on anyone considered disloyal.
Cameroon is a country divided. After World War 1, colonial governments separated the country into a larger French speaking, Francophone region to the east and a smaller English speaking, Anglophone region to the west. Rejoined in 1961, the French speaking majority has been accused by the English minority of giving coveted governmental positions and education opportunities to French speaking citizens. Schools have been a particular point of contention as English speaking teachers have been systematically replaced with French speakers.
Peaceful protests began in October of 2017 asking for English to be used in the schools and courtrooms of the Anglophone region, but the government administration of President Paul Biya pushed back violently, not only brutally attacking protesters, but also their families and villages. The violence only served to spawn violent separatists who now want to break the Anglophone region into its own country called, Ambazonia. David, and many like him were caught in between. While still wanting equal civil opportunities and English spoken education, he has not turned violent. His desire had remained the same despite his frustration. He only wants an education and the chance for a well-paying job. He had applied for universities, but could never gain acceptance even though his test scores were high enough. But, with violence encroaching from both the government and separatists the outlook was bleak. The skirmishes were developing into a civil war.
David and the other protesters had been non-violent. They carried no weapons. They had simply gathered and sang. But, the protest had earned him a death sentence. It seems ridiculous to western minds. Executed for protesting something so seemingly trivial. To be allowed to speak English. But, there he waited for the guards to come for him. He waited and he prayed for fate to turn in his favor. A few days later it did.
He was sitting in his cell when a guard came in. He wasn’t one of the usual ones who tormented him. This guard was someone he knew from town. Someone he knew before everything had fallen apart. The guard also recognized him and asked him why he was there and David told him the story. The guard listened thoughtfully and when the story was ended he told David to give him some time and he left.
About an hour later the guard returned and told him that he had found a way to help him. To help him escape. David listened as he told him that if he stayed any longer in that place they were going to kill him. The guard then told him that if he paid him nine hundred thousand Cameroonian francs, the equivalent of $1,800 U.S. he could help him escape. David told him that he only had half that amount and it was at his house. The guard accepted.
Around midnight, he returned with another guard and they took David out of the police station under the cover of darkness. They drove him to his house where David got the money and paid the bribe. The officer told him that the money was not just for him, but also to pay off the night guards to guarantee their silence. When he took the money, the guard told David that he must get out of the country immediately. If they see him, they will kill him. There would be no jail, just execution. To further drive home the seriousness of his point, he said to David that those who helped him escape would not hesitate to kill him either. Because, he added, they would never risk others learning that they helped smuggle him out of jail. To do so would mean a death sentence for them as well. They had his money and would kill him to guarantee his silence.
The guards drove him to a national park that connects to the Nigerian border through the forest. They let him out of the car and then drove away into the night. There were no goodbyes and no more words of warning. As he watched their tail lights vanish in the distance, he knew he was out of jail, but he was not safe. Here he was a dead man.
Fortunately, in Africa, there are almost always people willing to do almost anything for the right price. That same night he found a Nigerian driver who was willing to smuggle him across the border and past Cameroonian customs. Huddled down in the car, as the driver worked his way to and across the border, David was utterly alone in the darkness and he did not know what would come next or what he would have to endure. He only knew that he had escaped execution and now his life was his again if he could only hold on to it. As the sun came up he was in a new country. He was in Nigeria. This was not simply another day. It was the beginning of his new life. Just hours ago the young man was imprisoned and counting the hours until his death. He still was not safe and he must keep moving forward. He was a man without a country, but David was free.
How we react to the shadow of death is a thing that we can only speculate until we arrive at that moment. Life, on the other hand, is something that we all too often preoccupy ourselves with the trinkets we have acquired. Eating up our hours and our days, we too often rationalize lives that are devoid of either meaning or purpose. Instead, we live to be comfortable and entertained. Deep down we understand this, but we don’t want to lose what we have in order to move forward. Instead, we focus on the fear of losing ground and we lash out at anyone who we suspect may cut into our percentage of our status.
For those who live in relative safety, we too often live in a state of perpetual anxiety about losing the things that surround us. We get anxious when we misplace our phone and the though of losing our job or someone we love can send us into deep anxiety and depression. The things we have surrounded ourselves ultimately define who we become. The list goes on from the truly important to the trivial. In our world of personal safety, many of us fail to reach beyond our own personal boundaries not just because we are afraid of failure, but that we are also afraid of losing what we have already acquired. To risk the loss one of those things causes us pain to imagine. But, to lose all of them at once is hard for the rational mind to process because as bad as things have gotten in our lives, we have always had something else to lose.
David had salvaged his life, but that had cost him almost everything else. Everything was gone other than access to what little money he had saved and the clothes on his back. He was forced to live it all behind. His family was gone. He didn’t know where his grandparents were and his parents did not know what had happened to him. To them he had simply disappeared and there was no way that he could contact them without putting their lives in jeopardy. His friends were gone. Some he had watched die and others he would never be able to talk to them again. They would never walk down the street together as they once did, and they would never be able to tell each other stories about the dreams they had for their lives. His home was gone. He had left everything he owned and loved behind and could never go back again. To everyone else he had simply vanished and it there was nothing that he could do to ease his or their pain. He was a man without a country and a man without a home.
He can never go back.
What does a man, who has been given back is life, do with the days that are before him? What does freedom feel like to a man like him? How fresh is the air that he breathes? How delicious is the food he eats or the water he drinks to quench his thirst? Undoubtedly, we have all heard stories of such people. Those who have survived terrible tragedies such as car accidents, or combat, or beaten some deadly disease. These people have beaten the odds. Their victory is celebrated and their life is returned to them. They may return with scars, but they are able to pick up the pieces of a shattered life and work to return to something that resembles normal.
But, for those like David, there is no going back. There is nothing to go back to. It’s all gone. The only thing behind him is pain. What does a man like David do? It isn’t appropriate to view him simply as a man who has regained his life, but rather a man who has beaten death and has nothing left to lose.
A man like David mourns for what he has left behind and then goes forward.
It was not safe to stay in Nigeria because Cameroonian authorities could still hunt him down as he had heard about others who had been captured and taken back to Cameroon. No, he must put as much distance as possible from this country and find a safe place to rebuild his life. There was only one place he believed that was possible. Only one place that offered the rule of law to protect him from corruption and educational and economic opportunities that would allow him to build a career and a life.