Held to ransom: The future of history
2010-11-18, Issue 505
When I tell people about my recent ordeal of being kidnapped by a gang in Dar es Salaam, their reaction is often one of shock, concern and deep disappointment. Concern and disappointment are more than warranted. Perhaps though, on reflection, the outcome of my acceptance of a lift by a man I didn’t know from Cain should not come as a shock.
Before I knew it I had made my fatal mistake; I was being driven out of the city by four of fortune’s ugliest crooks. Inevitably, after 10 or so minutes driving, I was told of my fate.
‘We are bad people, Jon. Very bad.’
My immediate feelings were ones of fear, confinement and frustration as I settled in to my new environment: a four-door saloon car, surrounded by four smoke-puffing gangsters not afraid to see to each other’s threats.
What happened next is standard procedure. I gave them all I had on me, and I knew the game had begun. I became gripped by a strange sense of focus: think only about what you need to, and you’ll leave this car unharmed. I didn’t know what was going to happen or how long I was going to be held for. Clearly the measly £100 or so I had on me wasn’t satisfactory, being merely split between the four with greedy fingers and sideward glances of temporary approval.
Beyond the initial £100, and £300 pounds drained from my account, these guys wanted more.
‘You get us the money, and we don’t harm you. Nothing. If you mess around; you gonna be in deep.’
This is when they demanded the big cash:
‘We want £6,000!’
I knew how they would respond to false hopes, so I was calmly honest with them. I told them that, quite genuinely, I will not be able to transfer £6,000 pounds to them. It was out of the question. To my relief, this is when one of my assailants showed some humility, in response to his greedy friend’s suggestion:
‘Hatutaki ujinga kama huu!’ (‘We don’t want cunningness like that.’)
After 45 minutes or so, I was able to gauge the group dynamics. The large man on my left was the least greedy; the man on my right, good old ‘John’ who had first roped me in, was a greedy and extremely talented and cunning liar, but still not the most dominant; and the driver was, I believe, the second most dominant and dangerous. He stayed pretty silent the whole time and refrained from lying to me at the beginning of the ordeal, perhaps out of some residual dignity. That brings me to the stocky man sitting in the front left. He did most of the talking and was remarkably cool-headed. He was also cold and brutal, and quite willing to cause me harm, as he later made crystal-clear.
‘Now we are going to see the Boss. This is VERY serious!’
My adrenalin was pumping through every vein in my body, struggling with the overriding meniscus of calm that I guess we can call spirit. This is how I felt as the car rolled to a halt. The window came down. The Boss approached the car and hissed his harsh cutting threats at me. We continued driving and circled the suburbia, followed by two other cars.
Once I had been forced to call my family and ask for a £3,000 ransom, the most dangerous of these characters, in the front-left seat, turned to me in a moment of intense dialogue. Eyes locked on mine, he explained to me his history:
‘You know, we are half-bad, half-good. We are not completely bad, and we are not completely good my friend. Me myself, I was orphaned in the Rwandan genocide.’ He paused for effect and I looked deep into the eyes of a tormented and distorted man. ‘My parents were from Burundi. They were killed when I was a child in Rwanda. Later I started drug smuggling. Eventually I moved to Malindi. You know Malindi?’
‘Yes, Malindi in Kenya,’ I replied, grateful for a momentary change of focus. ‘Oh yes, Malindi, nice place.’
‘I smuggled drugs in Malindi working with the Italians there. I then went to Iran to smuggle drugs. I went to prison in Iran for seven years. But we escaped. Me and some others, we escaped from prison there and came here.’
I guessed that brought us to the present. I knew this was leading us to a well-engineered crescendo.
‘So, I do not care what I do to you. I will not stop at anything to get what I want from you.’
This was most terrifying. I replied as I did to all threats: ‘I understand.’
Quite honestly, I did. He genuinely did not care if or how much he hurt me. He wanted the money and he wanted it within a timeframe. Here was a man living his history. Atrocities and the general intoxication of moral conduct are part of the cycle of negative energy, sometimes on an extensive scale, like the impact of the 1994 Rwandan genocide on millions of people. This was the most dangerous threat I had experienced so far, delivered in undiluted and cold transparency. Whether someone is a bad person or not, I do believe that all actions are the product of a historical trend, however long that history goes back and however much energy it has harnessed along the different paths of life. This man was a product of turmoil and horror beyond most people’s nightmares. It is not often that one hears such honesty spoken, which is the terrifying thing.
The shockwave of humanity’s atrocities, gathering strength through the decades of history, is far-reaching and sustained – indeed it was the making of this man. The Rwandan genocide and the events that surrounded and followed it will always be a great loss to and shame on humanity. Over 800,000 people died in the country within 100 days in 1994, left by the international community at the mercy of a surge of ethnic hatred – a rift in national unity with more complex roots than is often assumed. Recently the associated events of and after 1994 in the region have been brought back into focus by the UNs’ accusation of genocide against the Rwandan army during Rwanda’s two invasions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 1996 and 1998, launched primarily at Hutu ‘genocide perpetrators’. These accusations appeared in a leaked UN report detailing past atrocities committed in the DRC. The report featured the testimonies of hundreds of survivors of mass killings of Hutu refugees in the DRC, supposedly at the hands of Paul Kagame’s armed forces.
Not surprisingly Kagame’s government reacted to these leaked accusations with potency, threatening to withdraw Rwandan troops from UN peacekeeping missions. This would have severely hindered the UN’s work to prevent similar atrocities from occurring or finding a foothold in other regions, such as Darfur in west Sudan. Such a decision could only be perceived as sabotaging the already weak defences against insecurity and gross violations of human rights in Africa. The response of the UN to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda was of course abysmal, as was that of the entire international community, sometimes cloaked in the all-too-familiar veil of national interest. But what price do we put on life, or an individual’s life for that matter? Or preventing the rape of mothers and daughters? It seems a shame that Kagame reacted with such threats that jeopardise the very humanity and peace that his regime has praised itself with protecting.
If there’s one message we can take from Kagame’s reaction, it is this: The 1994 genocide and its placement in history has not settled and faded from the foreground of global politics, but is a raw wound that still cuts as deep as ever with the potential to fracture societies at their core. The people who were affected by the 1994 Rwandan genocide were real people, with real histories and real futures to navigate. As with other horrors of human history, such as the transatlantic Slave Trade or the Nazi Holocaust, the figures for those who died or who were tortured cannot quite convey the reality of tragedy. Tragedy is not a number. To this day academics trawl through the figures to debate how many were shipped across the Atlantic from Africa, feeding the development of the West at Africa’s expense – another present-history. But in truth, the human mind doesn’t count in numbers unless we talk of objects; it culminates in pain, suffering and the effect on individuals, families and communities, far beyond what can be transcribed in a numerical figure.
‘And I fought in Somalia. Look, this is from a bullet.’
There was of course something to add from ‘John’, as he pointed to a large scar on his scalp. I was not inclined to enquire further about his apparent experiences in Somalia. I didn’t let my mind wander into that, counterproductive, territory. What’s more, I didn’t see the cold honesty in ‘John’s’ eyes as I did in the eyes of the Burundian orphan. ‘John’s’ gaze was far easier to look beyond.
I had been in the car for more than an hour by now, and felt it was time to appear calm, collected and give my captors reassurance that I would provide the £3,000 via the transfer that my distraught family was currently working on. I talked to the orphan about the exploitation of Africa by the West up until the present. Later we talked about Chinese investment in East Africa. He responded passionately and with a good argument. He told me he loved Chinese investment here as it made things cheaper for the average person. He used a bottle of water for an example.
On reflection, it was ironic that he used a bottle of clean drinking water for his evidence. He believed Chinese investment could improve the standard of living in East Africa for the majority, through the production of products on African soil. Admittedly, my take on the issue is different from his, though nonetheless it was bizarre that here I was having an educated conversation about improving the lives of East Africans, through a new form of investment liberated from the heavy baggage of history’s Western-orchestrated dependency, with none other than one of my assailants. The irony was that this man was talking about improving the lives of East Africans, whilst at the same time holding an innocent traveller for a ransom fee far beyond the reach of most of the subjects he based his argument on.
And so, the discussion was not only bizarre, but sad. The sadness and frustration of East African friends was touching. What was particularly sad though was the injustice of giving a gang £3,000 for my release, when honest, kind and remarkably resilient people remain on wages which just about keep them going – or marginalised by the global economy in a perpetual state of unemployment – excluded by the monster that is capitalist exploitation.
This was an event which has a history – not a justification, but a root. This was bred greed beyond survival. This event was a product of negative cycles set in motion in the past. Some make it out of horrific experiences as defenders of moral conduct, some turn to the shadows when darkness is all they have known. The rotten fruits of rotten roots offer a valuable lesson for the present and the future.
The transfer was ready.
‘Okay, this is what is going to happen,’ I was told by the orphan. ‘We will now take you to Western Union.’ There was an air of anticipation mounting in the smoke-filled saloon car now. ‘You will enter the building with John. He will make sure you don’t try anything. And I tell you, don’t try anything. One man did, and he not around anymore. You go in, you get the money. You get back in the car. Now, when you get back in, you sit on the door side. Then you give us the money. You go free.’ Simple.
I listened to the instructions intensely. I certainly wasn’t going to try anything. My plan was to get free, and there wasn’t anything to stop these guys taking it to the next level if I didn’t play along.
The car stopped. ‘John’ and I got out and proceeded towards Western Union, crossing the road as if two good friends picking up some hard-earned cash. Whilst in the queue waiting to see the lady at the counter, I felt the adrenalin and anticipation pumping through my body. To my relief, after some questions, I succeeded in receiving the money – two large bricks of cash. As ‘John’ slipped a 5,000 shilling note into the security guard’s hand, I knew I had made a good decision not to try any moves. We got back in the car, and as promised I was now seated on the door side of the vehicle. Everything had gone as planned, and I had played my only ace card. My heart dropped as the car promptly started moving again.
With the race for capital, at all costs, exploitive capitalism is sucking the life out of those on their knees, with little done to stop it in its tracks. We are surrounded by objects and mechanisms which are the sour fruits of this exploitation. Coltan (or columbite-tantalite), the metallic ore which is unique in its ability to store electronic charge, often ends its corrupt and corporate journey, which most often begins in rebel-controlled mines in the eastern region of the DRC, in the circuit boards of the majority of our electrical equipment. It is the drive for global capital which allows such age-old exploitation to disrupt and extinguish the lives of millions. As we speak, multinational companies are buying coltan from sources in the DRC with connections to rebel factions in the country which feed off the insecurity they promote in their pursuit of riches, murdering and pillaging along the way. Lurking behind every exploitive capitalist fortune is a network, and an even more extensive history, of human suffering. It is this complete disregard for humanity, and the making of tragic history and historical relationships, that must cease. History is not an isolated space in time; history is the making of the present and the future. It seems to me that this simple concept is often hidden in the blind spot of today’s society’s peripheral vision. Global political and economic players need to grasp the present and future implications of the sustaining and stimulation of such human suffering from the safety of their ivory towers. At this most uncertain moment, I felt I was now struggling to stay afloat in the toxic quagmire that festers in the gutters of this world system.
‘We are going to see the Boss’.
I was determined to stay calm at this point, as I stared out of the window praying for some delivery from this ordeal. We drove on as the four men split the money and began hiding it beneath each of their seats in an intense flurry, as if the cash had never been delivered. Their focus was now on the prize, and the concealment of it. At this point ‘John’ turned to me and said: ‘Don’t worry, you are almost free.’ How strange, I thought. Could it be that ‘John’, the trickster, was reassuring me at a time when he knew I would be feeling on edge, perhaps from some slither of compassion?
Then came the final test. I hadn’t, as they had led me to believe, completed the final task of the game I was being forced to play. ‘John’ turned to me once more with my orders:
‘Tell him you gave us 1,850,000.’ ‘Tell who?’ I asked. ‘The Boss.’
Considering I had just given them 6,850,000, this seemed a hard bluff. It appeared they were gambling with me. I was now a pawn in these gangsters’ dealings with the Boss, and no doubt other factions too. We came to a halt and the window went down once again. This was a whole different game now. Now I had given these guys what they wanted. They wanted to pocket most of that money themselves; I was their game plan. This wasn’t a game between me and my kidnappers; it was a game between two different factions of a gang that I did not understand.
The Boss was at the window again. We had stopped by a roundabout on a busy highway, something I was grateful for, though these guys could do whatever they wanted in this city – that had already been made clear. An argument I didn’t bother trying to follow began between the Boss and the men in the car. John turned to me.
‘Tell him how much you gave us!’
I responded: ‘1,850,000’. The rest was up to fate now.
I could see the Boss step back from the car. After all, there were four of them and one of him.
The orphan got out to open my door. I exited, now focused on getting somewhere safe. Even as I walked round the front of the car he instructed me to walk round the back and take one of the rickshaws parked opposite: he was still giving me orders. Was I to be followed? Perhaps in a moment of stupidity, but certainly also with a sense of purpose mixed with sadness and emotion for the state of this world, I turned to him and shook his hand, and departed with the words: ‘Someday the world will be a better place. Someday we’ll be in Heaven together.’ He laughed in surprise and I crossed the road in relief. I was free. He was not.
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* Jonathan Beale is treasurer of the SOAS Swahili Society.
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