Fleeing the Jurisdiction

The interpreter’s story
February 2, 2007, 9:11 pm
Filed under: Sierra Leone

In a country so thoroughly torn apart by war, perhaps it oughtn’t to be so surprising to encounter examples of the divergent paths of its population. This, then, is a story about two boys who, despite a common origin, grew up to be very different men.

Our interpreter was quick to laugh. I’ll call him Ibrahim. As we ricocheted around the scorching metal interior of the truck we shared for the duration of our trip, his good humour helped to keep us sane. Well, more so, anyway. He was from Pujehun, he confided, near the Liberian border. Growing up surrounded by migrating groups speaking myriad dialects and creoles likely helped develop an ear for languages. A university degree in linguistics, hard won later in life, cemented the knowledge. As we toured Sierra Leone, he translated the horror stories of witnesses in Mende, Krio and Temne without complaint or, apparently, personal outrage.

When our convoy reached his home town, however, a change in his demeanour was obvious. His breezy cordiality held, though, as we were welcomed into his family home and introduced to an assortment of relatives. Later that day, having been packed off in our four-wheel drive with the gift of a live chicken, the dam broke. A routine working conversation about the role of various RUF commanders in paramilitary operations had turned up a particular name. Ibrahim bristled visibly at the mention. With only the merest outward hint of the anger that must have boiled in his belly, he volunteered that he knew personally that particular rebel.

They had grown up together in Pujehun, Ibrahim comparatively well off. He would send food to the other boy’s family when there was anything to spare. Later, as Ibrahim got his first job working for a local NGO, he would bend the rules to provide extra food aid cards for his playmate’s parents. The encroaching war, however, saw allegiances divided. The power of gun and uniform lured many who felt vulnerable. And so, out of some hidden resentment or rivalry, or for some reason less reducible, Ibrahim’s family was targeted by the one they had sought to help. His house burned and father killed, Ibrahim fled, escaping the murderous attentions of his former friend only narrowly.

Years later, the rebel has evaded indictment by the Special Court due to his usefulness as a witness implicating more senior figures, shortly to include Charles Taylor. For these services, he walks free on the streets of Freetown; his numerous bloody transgressions conveniently overlooked. The Prosecution has supplied him with a comfortable home, and a generous allowance. He cannot, however, go home to Pujehun, where the memory of his atrocities will linger for some time to come. Set adrift, then, in a country where place and community are central to identity, he recently came – drawn by familiarity – to the modest lodgings secured by Ibrahim’s pay as an interpreter at the same Court where he testifies in closed session.

The African obligation to provide hospitality must be strong indeed, as Ibrahim took him into his home, where they sat in silence. The crimes committed, and unhappiness visited, one on the other were set aside for the civility of sharing a meal. Relating this to me, Ibrahim commented, with the most disgust I ever saw him summon, that next time, he would not bother to cook.

Ibrahim has now learned that he has been selected among very few Sierra Leonean interpreters to travel to The Hague for the trial of Charles Taylor. In the cold of distant Holland, I wonder if he will be once again reunited with his childhood companion.


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

i love reading your stories… and i love your writing… but at the end of the week, at nearly 10pm, it all just looks like squiggle on the screen… i’ll read it properly soon and tell you again how amazing you are.

amazing. there it is.

Comment by steph

amazing is definitely the word.
That Ibrahim would take that man into his home and cook for him at all…

Comment by amanda

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