Incident in Plateau

Collateral damages of Aid el Kebir

Foto Maria José Moreno Foto Maria José Moreno

Uma novidade no Fernanda Pompeu Digital, um texto em inglês. Ele foi enviado pela convidada Maria José Moreno. Pratiquem a leitura com o Incident in Plateau:

Texto de Maria José Moreno:

It was the eve of Aid el Kebir, the Muslim Sacrifice Feast.   Although far from that symbolism, we shared a sort of celebrating mood when leaving the office.  We had the prospect of a magnificent three-day weekend ahead of us.  As good an occasion as any to toast our extended little freedom from office desks and scheduled lives.

It was not late when I drove Ella back to her house. We were still chatting in the car when a man wielding a large iron bar and threatening another ‘mortal’, not 10 m ahead of us, caught my eye.

It was dark. We could not see the faces. They circled one another as in their own particular dance, in the middle of the street. The armed man stood erect, proud and poised for attack.  The other presented his complete submission as a sort of offering.  In their particular choreography, the first man had the role of growing and widening, while the second one, lowed his head, shrugged his shoulders, minimizing himself as if to vanish.

My mind went blank. My foot, pressed the accelerator and the car screeched to a halt in front of them. My foot had surprised Ella greatly.

Are you crazy? What can we do? Do you want to raise the number of victims?

As if for players on a stage, headlights pierced their darkness. Watering the scene with light, I wanted to imply there were witnesses. Following to an extent my professional socialization in a thousand meetings, I yelled through the car window questions and recommendations.

What’s going on here? Let this man go! – Silence. Both men froze. Addressing the armed man I did not add “Your problems won’t be be solved by breaking that guy’s head!”, as I did not think, at this point of the negotiation, it would support any favorable outcome.

Ella, in the passenger seat, had been catapulted to the situation. With all the yelling, the threats, the brandishing of the iron bar, the fury in the eyes, she was much more impressed by my frenzied willingness to leap into the fray and my shy attempt at dialogue than the Mister brandishing the iron bar. He was likely to have a lot more training at it than us.  She looked at me as if she had suddenly discovered a sort of insanity which had been well hidden in previous encounters, but now appeared distinctive and natural as flowers in springtime.  However this did not seem the ideal moment to indulge in introspections and conversations.

The man wielding the iron bar continued carrying the performance of his threat. He was clearly unimpressed by the reaction of this public which protested too feebly, too unassertive, too far from putting their bodies on the line to change a final act.

Three more men approached the scene. Two of them were security guards in their customary yellow shirts and gray trousers. This was a popular profession for young men picked out randomly really with no other qualifications for the job other than being unemployed in a frustrating labor market,  in need for a survival income and accepting of being paid a pittance while often being looked down upon by the same people they serve. The third bloke approaching seemed to belong to that particular corner of the street judging by his ability to match his surroundings. In fact, at this precise moment in which I was beginning to feel it harsh to be ignored in such a vehement way by everybody, it was this third gentleman the one who seemed to hear me and started addressing my questions and recommendations.

“The man with the iron bar is a shoe cleaner. He works hard to make a living. The other is a penniless good-for-nothing who doesn’t have enough money to buy the Eid lamb for his family. He stole the cobbler’s tools and sold them, and now this man has no tools. That man is a bad man, a thief, scum!”. He took the tools of the shoe cleaner and sold them to take some coins home and celebrate as his other neighbors celebrated that Feast. A man who had nothing robbed by a man who had less and fought becoming nobody in those special dates.  It came to mind a domestic worker in Colombia who had scandalized the ”patrons” by stealing some toys from the comfortable house in which she worked to be able to offer a  Christmas present to her sisters and brothers. The very sort of quotidian acts fertilized by poverty, by shame and pride, many of us in our lily-white worlds can barely conceive out of sclerotized empathic imaginations.

A few months prior the incident in Plateau I had gone to Assouinde to spend some days away from it all.  A group of boys and girls from wealthy Ivorian families were also having a few days of rest there. Sports and games during the day, conversations around a campfire at dusk facilitated by the group’s adult: a well-spoken, middle-aged man with a body sculpted at a gym, who clearly thought he had the answers.

One of those nights, I sat at a bench by the sea, but near enough to overhear the conversation at the campfire chat.

Children, today we are going to talk about life.

And there, as if pre-ordained, he charted territory for them, fused latitudes, and perhaps destinations.

For starters, boys do not kiss boys and girls do not kiss girls. You already know that. Now let’s talk about your future. You are going to tell me what you plan to do when you are older.

The little ones loved the exercise. They wanted to be pilots, presidents, architects, business women, engineers

Ours is a special group. In you, we have the future of the country, the cream of thecrop. Do you realize that among us there are no farmers, concierges, carpenters, domestic servants? And it’s better that way because those people are good for nothing people.

The tutor paused to let this sink in glancing at me for approval.

I wonder what dreams the man who stole the tools from the shoe cleaner had when he was a boy. We use the material of our days to craft our dreams.  Long time ago, I was wandering around in the streets of Santiago,  Chile, and I came across a young girl begging in front of a supermarket. I approached her and asked what she would like to be when she grew up. She said with certain pride that her dream was to become a cashier in the supermarket. I do not know what happened to that girl, neither do I about the dreams that once inhabited the thief of Plateau.

Who was the thief? The theft of the shoe cleaner’s tools had overshadowed today everything else he was or had ever been. Had he been the youngest or oldest son? Supported Barcelona or Real Madrid? Taken a sick daughter for a walk? Fallen in love for the first time when he was 16? Had his heart broken? Did it really matter? Right now, all he was, was a thief. The particular path he had used to arrive there was of no interest. It was of no importance whatsoever if the shortcut to reach it had been rage, courage or cowardice. 

The thief, the man who had fallen deeply in love when he was 16 years old, or not, had now stolen petty things and obliterated his past. 

I then faced the shoe cleaner. Could his anger be bought?

Sir, how much are those tools that you have lost? – I was careful not to mention the word “theft” in case it ignited something else difficult to extinguish.

But the shoe cleaner ignored me. He was still staring at the shrinking man, his eyes glazed with wrath, hand with the iron bar still poised high in the air. Blind and deaf to me.

Plan B. I turned to the three men who had arrived drawn by the noise and confusion, the guards, and the bystander which had become my informant and interlocutor.

This man has done something wrong, but he should not be killed for that. It would be correcting one wrong with a much bigger one! If the shoe cleaner does not respond to reason we have to call the police.

One of the guards then gently informed me about the local customs and usages in the area, persuaded as he was that I had not understood anything at all. “Madame, that man is a thief and to deal with these cases here we do not need the police. This will be settled between us in a few minutes. Believe me, that bandit won’t want to steal again after this!”.  He spoke slowly, patient and generous with the slow learner which was taking so much time and energy from every one.

Ella and I understood that the three men were there to help the avenger punish the supposed thief, who finally was even in more danger than we had imagined. 

The newspapers had published random incidents of such lawless justice and mob killings in our city. They were contemporary dark ages incidents which happened to poor young men accused of robbery, not to people like us… A thief out in Youpougon had gotten his ears lopped off.  Another one in Angré was caught by a crowd, tortured, set alight and left to agonize in the street by a police station.  The papers explained that man and woman in the street were so exhausted and angry at the “microbes”, gangs of children and adolescents, who had been terrorizing the population for a while now. That the police could do nothing, or had done nothing to stop the lynching, because it was dangerous, and also because in the end the victims were worse than nobodies.  Festering social wounds left for long time untreated.

Memories of lynch mobs in Guatemala came flooding back. Mob killings were common there, supported more by “mob thinking” more than by any evidence of “wrongdoing”. “Foreign” visitors to small towns were received with suspicion by locals. Perhaps the outsider had stolen something, be it a chicken or a child.  Perhaps he had not stolen anything yet but no doubt was planning to do so and would be better to extinguish the evil from its roots. Decades ago, the Census of the country was carried out sending students out to remote villages to register people… at some point the students protested those terms of reference. They did not want to go any more to remote communities they did not come from. They refused to go to places where people did not know their mother and father. It was too risky. Some were met with distrust and would barely get out by the skin of their teeth.

But this intense present was not the most appropriate moment to indulge with recalls of other times. There are dialogues that take one to nowhere.

“We have to go to the police, Ella. These people could end up killing him.” – I said, the momentum of the sudden acceleration pinning us to our seats.

All right, I’m not saying no. But could you slow down? I’d like to get there in one piece!

We arrived at the police station in a few minutes, The building, located in the shadow of a five-star hotel across the street did not benefit from its radiance and glow. Behind the desk, in a room lit by dull tube lights and painted in a dirty pale green, sat five policemen.  Ten eyes glued to a football match on an ancient TV on a corner wall – the sole real animated object in the room, according to Ella. One of them looked alternatively at us and at the screen. I tried to gain his attention.

“Five hundred yards from here there are three men threatening a man with an iron rod. He is in serious danger.  You have to go to help him.” I blurted out.

The man seemed unphased. One eye still firmly on the match.

“Why have you come to report that? Have they stolen anything from you? What is your relationship with that man?

No problem with us, sir. They have done nothing to us. We have come to report the incident because the man is in danger. It’s urgent, officer.

Bizarre foreigners with their bizarre things.  The eye looking at me expressed its thoughts eloquently.

“Monsieur, Chef s’il vous plaît…” I pledged using “respect loaded” words for the man and the position hoping that pride would stimulate action.

We’ll call a patrol car to go. Now we do not have any here. It will take a few minutes. Please sit down to wait.

I did not believe him. I did not sit to express impatience without errors of translation.  A few minutes in my experience here are never a few minutes. But once again I was lucky to be wrong. In fifteen minutes we were all approaching the corner where the incident had begun. Ella and I in my car, and a patrol van carrying six or seven agents following us in a sort of procession.

All the men we had left for a few minutes in the corner were still at that corner. They looked with genuine surprise when they saw the patrol car coming along following ours. No doubt they had thought we would not be able to mobilize them.  In fact they probably thought nothing would be able to mobilize them.

Violence still hung in the air. We did not know what had happened or did not happen, but at this point we had done our bit.  It seemed at this point a sort of night that could reasonably end with some mindless film and a glass of somewhat drinkable red to help the digestion of our little role in the incident. 

We let the cops do their thankless job and I drove to Ella’s house for the second time that night.  We were saying goodbye again when we saw one of the policemen walking towards us. He had joined his men later and began by introducing himself to us with a sort of formal, almost solemn demeanor. “Here it is Sergeant Kouadio Mesdames”.

Do not worry any more.  Everything is under control. The thief got what he deserved.  He was in fact “welll corrrrrected. He gestured with the palm of his hand. ‘Une bonne correction!’

In lay terms, beaten badly. I had the impression “corrrrecting” the thief was something he thought we would evaluate as convenient. Perhaps he even imagined these foreign women, ever critical of the national institutions and ways of doing, would have to change some ideas about the professionalism of the police in the country.

What do you mean they ’corrected’ the thief?! Are you telling us that the man has already been beaten up?

Well, he’s just a useless thief … he could have chosen to work, and they would not have beaten him up like that…. He explained the facts somewhat bemused. Jesus lady, what is it to you?

But you know better than I do that half of the country has no jobs, and that half of those who have jobs can barely put food on the table let alone buy nice things for Eid. If people start treating one another like this for being poor, where does it all end?

Sergeant Kouadio paused and eyed me, perhaps reevaluating. “Madame, then you are… you work in the humanitairec’est ça ?

Not exactly.

“Ahhh, now I understand” said the sergeant. But he didn’t. Or rather we understood different things. He employed the tone one would for a child.  “Believe me.  It is not easy for us to take the young beaten up man to the police station either… because imagine, if we take him, we have to feed him … and that costs money and it is on us…. And if he is already wounded, we have to take him to the hospital, because if we don’t do it and he dies in the police station that is also a problem for us. Our job is not easy, mad’m.

We saw different things because we looked out at the same street from distant balconies.  And if we had encouraged Sergeant Kouadio, even just a little bit, he would have told us many more things. We all look for witnesses to our lives, to people who listen carefully.

Many years ago, in a very distant place, I ran into cops telling stories to journalists who told stories about victims and thieves. It was a Saturday of more than a decade ago in Guatemala City, I had met two Spanish young women at the presentation of a documentary about violence in Central America. Walking with them in the street later I saw a young man leaning against a car and holding a bottle. He studied us with the watchful eye of the hunters. “Could you help me out? I prefer to beg than to steal” I responded to his scary but common opening statement looking for money in my fanny pack.  I wanted to give him enough to calm his unrest because something told me this wasn’t going to end well.

He then proceeded to take the bottle and break it with a resolve movement, as if he had done it a thousand times before. The jagged end was now pointed at my belly.

Give me everything you have!

I conformed without protest or making him insist.

The women I had just met were newcomers to the city and looked at the unlikely but also ordinary dyad in shock. One of them decided to go the other way and instead of “cooperating” began to yell, insult and cry for help. What happened then I think never had happened in Guatemala City:  a police patrol turned the corner. The patrol stopped in front of us and the policemen got out of the van first, afterwards the journalists armed with their cameras.  A Saturday night was a sort of goose that would lay precious scenes of violence, blood and guts as golden eggs for the sensationalist media.  Some three policemen began to beat the thief, the cameras filmed us like innocent victims and filmed the “making of justice” with the officers throwing blow after blow.  It was their way of telling a story that would surely find someone to applaud.

In a few minutes we managed to confuse the agents when started pleading to them to stop hitting the man who had just assaulted us. The thief writhed and rolled with the punches, begging for us to intervene on his behalf with the police.

The cameras on that Guatemalan night were puzzled.

In Plateau there were no cameras, only memory.

“… and what is worse” Sergeant Kouadio pursued pedagogical and undeterred his explanation “is that sometimes they have done something, but sometimes these poor devils beaten to the ground are only scapegoats”

He acknowledged it. Perhaps even the avengers had that doubt when silence returned.

We will never know if that man beaten up in Plateau was the one who took the tools of the cobbler. Not that many people would lose sleep over it.

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3 respostas para “Incident in Plateau”

  1. Avatar Alba Figueroa disse:

    A foto me fez lembrar de um indígena Wasusu, no Mato Grosso. O dia que ele viu que um pé de milho estava crescendo bem encostado a uma das paredes de sua casa, dai, ele demontou a casa e a voltou a montar alguns metros distante do pé de milho, para deixar este crescer à vontade. Empatia vai muito além da tolerância.

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