Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Not a big fan of soldiers threatening to arrest me

July 1, 2007
Canada Day
Accra, Kumasi

I hate that sinking feeling you get when you first realize you might be in real trouble. It’s the feeling you get when you’re a kid and you know you’ve done something bad, like break a vase or injure a sibling. It’s the same pit-of-the-stomach sensation you have when you’re driving a car that’s about to crash — loss of control, of dire consequences that have suddenly become inevitable.

My run-in with the soldier in Accra wasn’t even close to the risk that some journalists expose themselves to, but I can’t deny the sour guts feeling I felt when he emerged from behind a broken stone wall outside the African Union summit and told me to come stand before him.

I tried to play it cool; I hadn’t done anything illegal and so should have had nothing to worry about… but this was cops — more than cops, soldiers — and it was also Africa where the unwritten rules are different, and none of those things are necessarily interested in one’s guilt or innocence.

I’d tried — too late! — to get accreditation to cover the summit as a freelance journalist. Once denied I decided to roam the streets outside the conference hall, looking for interviews or, hopefully, police crackdowns on protest demonstrations.

I found an old man on a deserted street around back of the compound and he gave me his thoughts about the uselessness of the summit. I took his photo with the conference hall as a backdrop and was about to write his name down when he got nervous about being so open in the street and led me to a doorway through a stone wall.

The tank on the other side of the wall surprised us both. The attending soldiers told us to leave. We did.

But as we separated one of the soldiers came out — big guy, mid-20s, in camouflage — and told us to come stand before him and explain ourselves.

I had been spied by a security telescope on top of the conference hall, he said. They’d watched me walking around the area and seen me give something to the old man. The soldier wanted to know what I’d given him. Otherwise he would detain me until someone from the command post could come pick me up for further questioning.

Sometimes my pulse quickens when I’m covering a political event and there’s a question I’m about to ask that is going to provoke at least controversy, if not anger. I’ve gotten used to that feeling of adrenaline when challenging authority in a very public way. I try to stay calm, think about how I’m going to ask the question in a simple way, stand and deliver.

But when this soldier was explaining my arrest and interrogation as though they were foregone conclusions… I admit, I was scared.

I told him I was a tourist passing by. I had given the old man nothing but a pen to write his name with. We were only talking, that was all. The old man and the soldier got slightly heated with each other, as Ghanaians do. The old man voluntarily emptied his pockets, holding up a wad of cash. “I am not a small man,” he said.

The soldier hushed him and turned to me. Having dealt with a number of African cops and customs officials over the last few months, some of whom were corrupt, I could see this was a reasonable man trying to do his job.

He told me that as a white man I should know better. Security at this sort of function was tight and they had to be concerned about terrorists. I told him I understood and did not want to cause a problem and would leave the area now.

The soldier said I would be allowed to leave — relief! — but first he wanted to look in my bag. I crouched and opened it, showing him my raincoat, my notebook… and my recording device wrapped in a Ziplock. He picked it up — a little metal box with wires and cables coming out of it — and asked me to explain. I told him it was for recording conversations but there was nothing on it, which was true. He looked at me. “You did not take any video?” No, I said, which was also true — I took a photo, but no video, but didn’t bother explaining that bit. Nor did I pull my camera out of my bulging pocket.

He gave me back the minidisk and advised me not to keep walking around like I had been. And he let us go. I thanked him and said goodbye to the old man and walked away.

Halfway down the street it occurred to me that the soldier might wonder why a tourist would carry a recording device. Or he might report back to the surveillance team on the rooftop that might claim, rightly, that I had taken a photograph, and once again order my detention.

Once at the main street I flagged the next passing taxi, back to the neighbourhood where I was lodged. I figured that was enough work for one day. (G)

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