When at last the bus arrived in N’zérékoré, Satifa heaved a sigh of relief. All along the ride the heads and knees of he and his fellow passengers had been smashed against the iron-wrought seats and roof of the bus as the tiny contraption, stuffy and airless, bumped along the dusty road.
Their heads and faces coated with the dust that blew in through the windows, the commuters got up from their seats, bent almost double, and shuffled out of the bus, stepping onto the pavement of a crowded Guinean parking lot that buzzed with dialects. Satifa knew none of the dialects and could not speak French either, except for the few French words and phrases he had learned in high school. But what fazed him were not the languages. It was getting along as a refugee. Hungry as a rat, exhausted, flat broke, he had nobody and nowhere else to go.
Rising his head like an animal scenting the wind, Satifa swept his eyes over the parking lot and gazed at the assorted foodstuff on the heads of the vendors, the tables and trays set on the pavement. There was an array of traditional Guinean dishes that he had already sampled back in Liberia, with gravy and groundnut stew being his favorite. There were also butter pearl and vegetable salads, new rice, and the tubers of the bananas were so full that a man would have gone through a whole day with only a single one in his belly. But looking at the foodstuff and knowing he could not hope to eat any of it, made his stomach churn.
He sat on a bench and watched passengers board the buses and taxis that departed for Conakry and a number of regions in Guinea. There were signs above each parking lot showing the names of the districts, and Satifa pronounced silently to himself the names Guékédou, Kissidougou, Macénta, Labé, etc.
Turning, he saw several well-dressed men, their shoes polished to a glitter, seated on wooden benches, ladling rice into their mouths with the aid of eating spoons slightly smaller than cook spoons. He gawked and shook his head in disbelief. In Liberia well-dressed or not, folks ate in restaurants and shops, and he could not imagine smartly-dressed men hurrying through their meals — and right in the open. But then, this was Guinea — another country with its own culture.
Shrugging his shoulders, he turned his thoughts to other things. He found himself thinking about the UNHCR office he had heard was in N’zérékoré. Someone had told him that they gave food, medicine, even provided shelter and pocket money for refugees. With the thought came a flash hope and Satifa found himself almost laughing aloud. Surely if he found the office, things would turn out for the better.
He got up from the bench and walked towards a man who stood by one of the buses looking on as his traveling bags were being boarded.
“Bonsoir, Monsieur,” said Satifa. Good evening, Mister.
“Bonsoir, petit,” said the man, casting a suspicious glance at the young man unkempt and covered with dust.
“Vous parlez Anglais?” Do you speak English?
“Non, J’mapelle Francais.” No, I speak French.
Disappointed, Satifa sighed. His French could hardly go beyond the customary greeting. He made motions at the man, telling him that he was looking for the UNCHR office.
“Je ne comprend pas,” said the man, shaking his head. I don’t understand.
Satifa nodded then walked away.
Turning his thoughts to his stomach, he wove his way through the crowd towards the 32-seat yellow school buses imported from North America. Maybe someone would hire him for boarding stuff, and then he could use the money for food. At the rebel checkpoints along the Liberian highway he had been frisked and his money and clothes taken from him, along with the possessions of his fellow travelers. By the time he reached Ganta he had nothing but the clothes on his back, his old sneakers with his big toes peeping out of them, and twenty-five Liberian dollars that the bus driver, another rebel, had given him in compensation for what he had lost. But he had been three days in Ganta and since spent the money on raw cassava tubers. Fortunately, an immigration officer had taken pity on him, giving him twenty thousand Guinean francs, which he had used to pay for his bus ticket from the Liberian-Guinean border to N’zérékoré, and kept only five hundred francs. Just in case things grew so desperate he was about to starve to death.
In pantomime he told some folks boarding bags onto one of the buses that he was out for hire. But they only shook their heads and laughed at him. Yet he kept pleading until one of the men got furious. Gesturing at Satifa roughly and almost hitting him in the face, he shouted at him to back off. Shrugging his shoulders, Satifa turned and moved on, casting a disgusted look at the sneering black faces of the Guineans with pieces of sticks, which he knew some Muslims opted for instead of toothbrush, jutting out of their mouths with the yellow teeth and saliva at the corners.
He tried six or seven other buses. No luck. And soon it began to dawn on him that Guinea was even worse a hellhole than worn-ravaged Liberia. A man can not even hope to make a living in this place by being a car-loader, said Satifa to himself, shaking his head.
He thought of begging. But the ill looks he got from people eating at the tables made him shudder. Banishing all thoughts of food from his head and smoldering his hunger as best he could, he turned, and left.
Not knowing where he was going, he got on the asphalt, hunger a ball of fire in his bowels, a throbbing headache at one side of his head.
“Bonsoir, madam,” he said, stopping to greet a well-dressed, elderly Guinea woman along the tarmac.
“Bonsoir, petit,” she smiled, flashing a row of guarantee teeth. “Ca va?”
“Ca va. Vous parlez Anglais?”
Ah! Where were those Liberian and Guinea refugees!? He tried to talk to her in gestures. But she only looked at him, puzzled.
“Madam, moi Liberienne.”
“Oui.” She nodded.
He bent and wrote UNHCR in the dust. But she merely glanced quickly down at the letters then shook her head. Satifa heaved a sigh of disappointment and nodded.
“Merci, Madam,” he told her.
“Oui,petit,” she said.
Again with a flash of her teeth, the hefty Guinea woman, wearing high heels and trinkets, her brown country cloth well-starched and rustling, clumped down the tarmac.
It was at one of the stores selling car parts along the tarmac that Satifa finally met someone who could speak English. He was a Liberian about fifty, bearded, with a slight humpback, big, coarse-looking hands. He wore khaki shorts, a threadbare baseball cap, and a white T-shirt that had turned brown.
“Bonsoir, tonton,” said Satifa, wiping sweat from his brow.
“Bonsoir, petit,” said the man, loading some car parts into a wheelbarrow.
“Vous parlez Anglais?”
“Yes, I can speak English. I Liberian.”
“Oh God thanku! Papay I looking for de UNHCR office. I jest from Liberia. Ahna know anybody here.”
The man hesitated and squinted, as if he were taking aim at Satifa. “Dat de true you talking so pekin?”
“I telling you de truth papay. I jes from Monrovia.”
“Hmm. Wot your age?”
“You say you na geh anybody here?”
“Hmm. Well, de UNHCR office na far from here. From here to go there dat three hundred francs in taxi.”
“I will walk papay.”
The man shrugged his shoulders. Pointing in front of him, he gave Satifa quick directions to the UNHCR office. “Jest be going and asking people,” he said. “But it six na, and de office is closed.”
Satifa felt bile rose to his throat. Where would he sleep if the UNHCR office were closed? Surely he could not sleep out in the open, especially during the night. This was a foreign country, and he did not know how dangerous it was. A thought flashed into his mind. Why not ask this man to help him? After all he was a fellow Liberian. Surely he could help.
“Wot time de office open?” asked Satifa.
“Round eight to nine o’clock in the morning,” offered the man.
“I wan you to help me,” pleaded Satifa, almost in tears.
“Je ne comprend pas,” the man told him, turning away.
“Whotin you mean je ne comprend papay, ” said Satifa, raising his brows.
“Me I can’t speak Anglais well well o,” said the man, hoisting his wheelbarrow and walking off briskly.
“You can speak English,” protested Satifa, pointing an accusing finger at him.
“So what!?” the man shouted. “Ahna de only refugee in Guinea.”
“I know. But I jest wan you to help me with sleeping place until tomorrow morning. Please. I beg you…”
The words were hardly out of his mouth when the man rushed past him, disappearing round a building.
Satifa stood shocked. He had just met a fellow Liberian who could speak English so long he did not ask for him. He wondered how many other Liberian refugees in Guinea and elsewhere could behave so snobbishly.
It was quarter to seven when finally he reached the UNHCR office. They were three simple brick buildings in a high fence topped with barbed wire, several yards from the asphalt, painted white and light blue and flanked by shrubs. At the front of the fence was a palaver hut, a waiting room for the refugees. The blue iron-wrought gates were closed, and there were not anybody about. Satifa surveyed the surroundings for a while, then left. He would be back in the morning.
The whole of that evening he met several Liberian refugees. In tears he told them his problems and pleaded for help. They listened then criticized ad disappointed him.
“Wortin pekin like you doing here?” one old man asked him.
“War in Liberia, ” he answer.
He went into a neighborhood, and the refugees, most of them living in brick houses with vacant rooms, came crowding around him when he told one of them his story, a man who did not offer any help except to alert the others to come and see what they could make of Satifa.
“Pekin Guinea hard o,” a fat woman told him. “If you na geh anybody here, just give up. You dead already.”
“I can’t,” said Satifa, shaking his head stubbornly. “But old ma, please leh me sleep to yor house.”
“There’s no room there,” the fat woman snapped. “I have got a lot of children, and they sleep in the rooms.”
Satifa shrugged, turned, and surveyed the faces of the crowd. Some were sneering at him, some regarding him with pity, while others looked clearly amused. “I say my frend,” said Satifa to an elderly man in glasses, “please leh me sleep to yor house?”
“Look pekin, don’t bring your nonsense to me o,” the man snapped. “Since 1990 I been in dis country but own nothing. Now you want me to shoulder yor burdens!”
“I na geh anything,” said Satifa to the crowd. “Any place I sleep dat it. Tomorrow morning I will go to de UNHCR office. Dey will help me.”
That elicited a burst of laughter.
“You say UNHCR office?”another man said in the crowd, his eyes twinkling with excitement. “ You know de help from de UN come piecemeal , after some of us refugees are dead in dis place?”
“Oh, ahna know o.”
“You better know it now. And in fat wor yor refugee card?”
“ I na get refugee card o,” countered Satifa.
“How you espet de UN to help you if you na geh refugee card?” the man asked him.
“I will geh one from de office in de morning,” he said.
“You don’t get de card quick o pekin,” the man told him. “It can take months.”
“By dat time I fini dying.”
“That’s why we told you to give up and considered yourself dead already pekin,” the fat woman said, and pitched into another roar of laughter.
Satifa slept in an abandoned building along a road, hungry and shivering from the cold. But even worst than the cold and hunger were the hordes of mosquitoes that invaded his body. When at last he emerged from the building at six o’clock in the morning, the bites of the mosquitoes had left him looking as good as Job with those terrible boils that broke out on him.
By nine o’clock that morning the palaver hut was jam-packed with refugees. From all over N’zérékoré they had come to the UNHCR for help. There were Sierra Leonean refugees with limbs axed off by the RUF, malnourished kids with protruding stomachs that looked as if they would burst; pregnant mothers as thin as broomsticks, and all kinds of disabled folks. Some said they had come to the UNHCR for asylum to North America and Europe. Some wanted employment with the UNHCR, while others wanted medical help and food. Of all those refugees, however, no more than five people went through the gates into the offices, then emerged with shoulders slumped and faces etched with disappointment. Satifa heard that those people who wanted asylums got them only if they could offer bribes and that the bulk of the people, no matter how small a help they needed, were made to wait again and again until they loose hope, succumb to their misery, and die.
In the sweltering sun, on the bare floor of the palava hut, in the shades along the fence, groups of refugees sat huddled together, waiting.
When he himself had waited until he could wait no longer, Satifa left and went sauntering along the tarmac with his head in his thoughts. How could he hope to survive in a place like this? he wondered. Why hadn’t he stayed in Liberia? Even with the fighting he stood a better chance of survival. He knew where to look for food. And even though his parents had been killed, he had relatives and others who could help him? Why hadn’t these thoughts occurred to him when he boarded the bus in Red-light market? No, they couldn’t have occurred to him at the time, because fear for his life had eaten him up, like it had done thousands of others who had fled the killing fields that Liberia and Sierra Leone had become.
As he crossed the asphalt and headed into a neighborhood, he felt light as a feather. The two loaves of bread that he had bought with the five hundred Guinean francs that he had kept from the man the immigration man had given to him had done nothing to pacify his hunger. And he told himself that he had never felt this hungry before, even in war-torn Liberia where he had sometimes eaten raw snails and pawpaw. And his eyes were swinging in their sockets, like pendulums, so he could barely make out the ground in front of him. But worst of all was his headache, throbbing so hard it seemed to split his head apart.
He reached an iron-wrought gate and knocked. No response. He knocked louder then shouted at the top of his lungs. Still no answer. Beyond the gate all was quiet, and he began to wonder if there was anybody at home. Or maybe these people were selfish and only ignoring him. He did not need much anyway —just food, water, and a few Guinean francs for the next day’s meal. With all the strength that his starved, slight body was capable of, Satifa balled his fists, slamming them into the gate. But even after it had rattled for several seconds, subsiding to total silence, no one came at the gate.
He was beginning to turn in the direction of the next house. Suddenly, as if his legs had been cut from under him, he collapsed, and all went black.
He awoke late in the evening, in a well-made bed, the sheets clean and sweet-smelling. The room was sparsely furnished and neat as a pin. Against one wall stood a chair and a table. Near the bed in which he lay was a small table, set with mineral water, apples and bananas, and a huge glass of milk. Strangely enough, he did not feel like eating anymore and could barely glanced at the food. But how come he was in this place? Who brought him here? Petrified, he sat up suddenly.
Moments later a slender white woman, her blond hair pulled back in pony-tail, entered the room. She wore African sandals, a white dresses festooned with yellow sun flowers, and glasses. She sat opposite Satifa on the bed, laying a gentle hand on his shoulder and smiling broadly.
Disbelieving, Satifa sat as if poleax.
She smiled. “Vous parlez Anglais?”
”Yes, I speak English.”
“Good. I’m Catherine. Catherine Higgins. And you?”
“Are you a Liberian?”
“Well, I came from work this afternoon and met you lying in front of the gate.”
“It’s okay. But tell me what happened to you.”
Satifa told her, beginning with when he left Monrovia, reached Ganta and eventually N’zérékoré.”
She bit her lip and nodded, tears streaming out of her eyes. “You can’t go back to Liberia, so that’s out of the question. How about you live here with me?”
Satifa opened his mouth but no sound came out, unable to believe his ears, wondering if he were dreaming.
“Things will be OK. I promise.”
“Thanku m’am,” he said, weeping.
She threw her arms around him, putting an end to his nightmare.