Heather in Senegal

Monday, June 04, 2007

I was in a cyber cafe in Kolda near the center of town when April 14's riot began. Loud jarring sounds kept coming from the area near the police station, and eventually the woman running the cafe said she was closing; she wanted to go home. She lives in my neighborhood, so we left together. We went out to the street and stood beside the road. From there we could see a fire raging at the nearest intersection. Fist sized rocks coming from a crowd of teenaged boys were arching over the fire. We needed to cross the river to get home, and rocks were landing very close to the only bridge, so the woman and I just stayed with the crowd that was watching the spectacle.
After a few minutes of rock throwing, the boys suddenly turned as one and ran west. A moment later we saw a car full of policemen coming from the east. After the boys returned to their rock throwing and yelling, two truckloads of soldiers appeared. They poured off the trucks and into the streets, and the boys made themselves scarce. The woman from the cafe and I took side streets as much as possible on our way home. When we walked on the street where the rocks were thrown I got my first big jolt of fear. The rocks looked enormous up close, and there were so many.
Piecing together rumors: On April 13th a teenaged boy was arrested in Kolda. He was accused of stealing from the house of a city official. He was kept in jail over night, and when his mother went to see him in the morning he was brought out on a stretcher, dead. Word quickly spread around town that the police, who have a history of brutality, had beat him to death.
Police and soldiers got the rioting under control, but not until many fires had been set in the roads down town, street signs had been torn out of the ground, and the house the boy was accused of robbing was burned down.
A couple days later, I left Kolda to go to Thies to help train the new volunteers. Aside from the 18h trip there, it was a wonderful week, much like a vacation. I helped teach courses on composting, micro-gardening, and traditional Pulaar weddings. While the new volunteers were in language classes I got to lounge and catch up with other friends who were in town for training. It was odd to see people exactly where I was one year ago, and to remember how strangely relaxed and happy the older volunteers struck me a year back, and how it then seemed inconceivable then that I would ever actually reach this point.
Alexis, the new volunteer in the city of Kolda, and I came back home on Saturday the 21. When we got into town we immediately noticed that most people were covering their mouths with fabric. We asked a few kids, and they explained that they did not want to inhale the gas that the police had sprayed, and they pointed up the street where twenty huge men were milling about. All wore huge shiny helmets and had hard plastic armor covering their bodies. I could see from a distance that they carried metal ringed billy-clubs and big guns. We asked about the gas, if it made people cry or if it hurt people's lungs, and the kids told us simply that it made people fall down.
The police were so heavily armed and looked so much like toy soldiers that it was too much to resist. Alexis took out her camera and I pretended to pose while she shot pictures of the men. We began to walk home, but when we turned east we had a view of the men shining in the setting sun. Idiot that I am, I urged Alexis to snap another picture. That was when the police saw us.
Three muscular giants wearing riot gear and stunningly mean expressions ran at us. They screamed about not taking photos and made a few menacing gestures with their hands. Thankfully, they understood the concept of a digital camera, and rather than demanding film, they yelled at us to erase the pictures. We very quickly, and probably permanently, learned the French word for, "erase." Alexis erased, and one of the towering policemen grabbed her camera and scrolled through the pictures to make sure she had been thorough. A bit more with the hollering and hand waving for good measure, and finally the men let us walk away.
Shaking ever so slightly, we went scrounging among the few merchants who had not closed their shops, trying to find dinner fixings. Everyone looked tense, and we saw a fist fight break out. While we were pondering whether to get mangos we heard what sounded like gunshots. In a beat we agreed we weren not in the mood for mangos and took off to find a taxi. People who were standing around laughed at our response to the noise.
Our taxi driver explained that the funeral for the teen who had died last week was held this morning, and the funeral procession had dissolved into this day's riot.


At 6:18 AM, Blogger Ellia said...

Heather dear, I'm sure I'm not the only one waiting with bated breath for the next installment. News, please!


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