Today, the post we share with you is not a celebratory one. It is not the story of a community’s declaration to protect human rights; in fact, it is just the opposite. It is with an equal measure of sadness and resolve to continue our work for human dignity for all that I share Seydou Niang’s account. Seydou is a dedicated Tostan team member who has served the organization for the past seven years. While traveling by bus from Paris to London to see his wife, Sarah, Seydou was arrested, thrown in prison, and humiliated, all because the police said he did not look like the man pictured in his passport. “Your head is covered with hair. You should shave your head,” they told him when he was finally released.
We have circulated Seydou’s story, originally written in French, to our colleagues and partners worldwide. When overwhelming messages of support started arriving to our inboxes and voicemails, we decided that we needed to share Seydou’s account in English as well. For me, it perfectly underscores why human rights education is essential in the 21st century, both in Africa and around the world. I think you will agree.
Executive Director, Tostan
I would like to share a story of injustice with you. I want to share my anger and pain, but I also want to tell this story to show that these things still happen today. I have read stories like this in books and newspapers, but last month I actually went through such an experience myself.
Thursday to Friday night, June 24-25th, Calais, France
I was looking forward to seeing my wife, Sarah, who is eight months pregnant, at our house in London. I got on the Eurolines night-bus in Paris full of joy that we would soon be together again. We got to the French border in Calais at one o’clock in the morning. I was expecting routine questions about my comings and goings between the UK and France, but I was far from imagining what was about to happen to me…
According to the five policemen who were checking the passengers’ identity cards, passports and visas, the passport I showed them was not mine. They were convinced that the photos in my visas in my passport were not of the man standing in front of them. I tried to convince them that the documents really were mine. There was nothing to be done!
They made me get off the bus. They wanted me to sign a paper that said I was in possession of illegal documentation. I tried to stay as calm as possible but in my head everything was spinning fast. I read the paper carefully, and when I realized what it said, I refused to sign.
“You’re going to detention for 24 hours while we check up on your lies!”
Their tone had suddenly become informal.
“I don’t have a choice,” I replied. “You can do what you want, but the passport really is mine.”
“You have the right to call a member of your family in France to let them know,” they said.
“My wife is in England, in France I only have colleagues…” I replied.
“No, you are only allowed to contact a member of your family. If you don’t have a member of your in family France, sign here,” they responded.
I was handed a paper which stated that I did not wish to contact a member of my family, nor my employers. Again I refused to sign. I clenched my teeth. My stomach twisted itself into a knot. I could hear my heart throbbing in my temples. I thought of all those who run aground here, because they don’t understand a single word of French. They forced my hands behind my back, handcuffed me, and put me in a police car. On that humid night in Calais, I went to prison, for the first time in my life.
In my cell, I could not close my eyes all night. Stretching along the wall of this small, dirty room – three by four meters – there was a concrete bench with foul-smelling covers. The toilet in the middle of the room was sickening, shielded from view by just a 50cm high barrier.. Within this world, the guards could observe every inch with surveillance cameras: even whilst defecating men are granted no privacy. During the hours that followed I clung
on to my dignity as if to a buoy at sea. I thought of my family, my friends, of the people I love. I thought of my work with Tostan and human rights, of my arrival in Europe, of my loved ones in Senegal, of my homeland in Fouta, of my village. I saw everything, heard everything and felt everything in the middle of this prison cell.
Most mornings, I wake up to the smell of fresh coffee made by my flatmate. I send a message to my wife, prepare my bag for the day and take the RER train into the centre of Paris. But this morning was no ordinary morning. I was in prison. A hand slipped behind the door of my cage and threw some breakfast on the floor, just as you would toss scraps to a stray dog.
Then came the interrogation. Five policemen, four men and one woman, using intimidation tactics. Convinced that they were right, they gruffly cross-questioned me again and again, becoming increasingly angry. In vain, I swore on all the holy saints that I was telling the truth.
They summoned a face-recognition expert to check whether I was the person in my passport photo. He declared that I was. They were still not convinced.
“If you were professionals like him,” I said, “you would have recognised by now that I am the man in the passport photo.”
“We are professionals,” they said. “That is why we know that this isn’t you!”
I was dragged to another small room where I was photographed from all angles, like a criminal. I just wanted it to stop. I felt like telling them that they were right, that they could send me back to Senegal, just to end this hell. I was on the edge.
They eventually called the prosecutor to examine my file. He had me released.
“Ok. We see that it is you,” the policewoman said to me. “But your photos aren’t clear and you look different to us. Your head is covered with hair. You should shave your head.”
At 11.30 am I was officially free. But I had to go back to my filthy cell until the patrol arrived to take me to the bus station. I insisted that they should not lock the door behind me: I was a free man. At midday they dropped me off at the bus station. “Now, find your own way to London,” they said.
I was given no documents, nothing to prove my detention.
I arrived in London late that evening. I had been declared missing by my wife, Sarah, who was sick with worry. My colleagues in Paris had tried everything possible to find out where I had disappeared to. The British police in Dover, who Sarah contacted to find out where I was, had called their colleagues in Calais to find out if I was being detained. They told her that I wasn’t.
I am hurt and disgusted. Today, it has taken all my anger and strength to tell you this story. A simple story of scorned human dignity, so you know what can happen when you catch the coach from Paris to London with a head covered with hair.