I had always expected that my 30th birthday would end in a police chase rather than begin with one, but that was the unusual situation I somehow found myself in. The day before, Leon, Jim, Fabian, Heleanor and I had finally made it to the Côte d’Ivoire border. Leon and I were travelling with a carnet and were waved through without issue. For Jim and Fabian who did not have a carnet, it was a different story.
The Duane (customs) officer, an extremely unpleasant man wearing mirrored sunglasses and a patronising smirk, informed them that a passavant could only be issued in Mann and they would have to pay 40,000 for a police escort (around 60 euros). The whole situation reeked of corruption, the journey was at most a 6 hour round trip and the police were asking for the equivalent of a weeks wages, we also knew that at all other borders the escort was provided for free. Our suspicions were confirmed when the smirky faced Duane officer refused to provide his name after Fabian told him he was going to call the anti corruption line (unsurprisingly the line was not connecting).
We thought that if we waited a while they would eventually back down (as is most often the case in these situations) but when by nightfall they were still not relenting we realised we weren’t going to make it to Mann that day. The guys left their vehicles and papers at the border and we checked into a nearby hotel. The following day, which just so happened to be my 30th birthday we returned. It was early in the morning and the border post appeared deserted. In what we would all later agree was not the smartest move, the guys decided to make a break for it. Jim set off first with us following behind and then Fabian. Just as we were approaching the gate, a guard appeared out of nowhere, shouting and gesticulating wildly, Jim hit the accelerator and sailed past with us hot on his heels but Fabian wasn’t quick enough. We wondered for a moment what we should do, but there was no turning back now.
My birthday cake (for anyone not in the know, T.I.A stands for ‘This is Africa’ and is used to explain the multitude of wonderful, bemusing and frustrating things that happen on a daily basis in this crazy continent!)
Usually Jim is a pretty cautious driver, he likes to conserve petrol and spare his suspension the worst of the African roads. Faced with the prospect of being caught by the Duane however and he was a dust cloud in the distance, tearing around the bends and bouncing over bumps with recalls abandon. I could just picture poor Blaco flying all over the place in the back. Suddenly up ahead we saw a police checkpoint. Hearts in mouth we approached, but miraculously they kept us through with a friendly wave. We were going to make it! Jim slowed the pace slightly. Just then Leon looked in the mirror and saw a motorbike approaching fast behind, it was the smirky faced Duane officer together with another man we also recognised from the border. We waved frantically at Jim. It was 7km from here to the main road and we knew that once we hit tarmac Jim would be a lot faster that the motorbike and could be able to make it to Mann. The Duane officers were in hot pursuit shouting and waving their hands in the air. As they tried to overtake us Leon ‘accidentally’ manoeuvred in front of them, blocking their way. They fell back. Jim continued on, gunning it as fast as he could. We were 5km from Mann when we hit the second military checkpoint. This time the Duane had called ahead and they were ready for us. The chase was over. We had been caught.
The Duane officer was apoplectic with rage, pointing and screaming at us in rapid fire French. The military officers who had stopped us seemed utterly perplexed. We quickly decided the best course of action was to play dumb. Jim explained that we had gone this morning to meet the escort, but there was no one there and so we decided to go on ahead, unsurprisingly this explanation did little to calm the Duane officer. At that moment a familiar looking vehicle pulled up – it was Fabian! He had taken advantage of the fact that the Duane officers were otherwise engaged chasing us to make a break for it. When he saw him, the Duane officer looked like he was about to explode. It quickly became apparent that it would take more than the dumb tourist routine to get out of this one! The Duane officers were demanding that the guys return with them to the border, the guys were insisting that since we were already halfway to Mann, we should continue on. After around 20 minutes of back and forth a decisions was made to call in the big guns. The head of the Duane arrived on his motorbike to much goose-stepping and saluting by his junior officers. With his mirrored sunglasses, heavily shined boots and enormous belly straining at his army fatigues, he looked every inch the part. He was cordial, shaking all of our hands and told the guys they should follow him to his office in Danane.
At this point, Leon and I decided to try and make the most of what was left of my 30th and continued to Mann (we were free to go since we had a carnet). In Mann we treated ourselves to a decent hotel and I enjoyed my first hot shower in over 5 months – bliss! We had assumed the guys would join us later on once the whole mess had been cleared up and made plans to meet for dinner to celebrate my birthday and their freedom. Unfortunately we had all dramatically underestimated quite how much trouble they were in. Although we had been right that the escort was supposed to be free, it turned out that attempting to run away from the border, whatever the circumstances, is distinctly frowned upon. It would be a further 5 days of being stuck at the Duane office, during which they were threatened with having their vehicles impounded, arrest and deportation, before they finally made it to Mann. In the end they were saved by the fact that the Duane officer never properly identified himself and so (they successfully argued) could have been anyone, meaning they had not actually failed to obey an order of a customs officer. On the plus side they were eventually able to leave without having to pay a penny, meaning that for entire the week they spent at the border, they saved themselves a grand total of 60 Euros (or 20 euros per person).
Mann itself was a pleasant town, with a stunning location nestled amongst verdant green mountains. When the guys finally made it, Fabian, Heleanor and I spent a very enjoyable day climbing the most distinctive peak in the area, ‘Le Dent de Mann’ or ‘The tooth of Mann.’ The view from the top was spectacular.
On the way back down from the mountain we cut through the outskirts of the town. It was very different from the centre of town, with its shops and supermarkets and tarmac roads. This was the area where most people lived; the streets were narrow and made of dirt, the houses small concrete huts with corrugated tin roofs. Interspersed amongst them were tiny stalls with brightly painted cardboard signs, a barber shop, a bar, somewhere selling strong locally grown black coffee. As we were walking we saw a women coming towards us in the opposite direction. There was something strange about the way that she moved, a second later I realised what it was. Her legs were shackled together. Suddenly she looked up and our eyes met, I smiled and she smiled back. I asked our guide why she was shackled, ‘Oh’ he replied in a tone which suggested it was an entirely normal occurrence ‘she’s mental.’ A wave of shock and revulsion passed over me. As an immigration lawyer, I often represented people with mental illness and argued that my client’s would face in humane and degrading treatment, such as shackling. But it is one thing to read about something and it is entirely another to see it with your own eyes