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Wednesday, December 15, 2010, I sat at home in a pair of boxer shorts watching a movie. The time was about 11am but I was on holiday and considered an occasional lazy morning my right. Then the bell buzzed. Since the time my father installed a commercial water bore-hole system at home, we have had two bells – one for the gate and another for the customers looking to buy water. The latter was the culprit on this occasion and unwilling to interrupt my lazy morning, I ignored it. The noise got too irritating however, and to make matters worse, whoever it was decided to press the second bell too. So in the cacophony of both buzzing bells, I pulled on jean shorts and a sleeveless top and walked out barefoot to go see who it was. There were two of them, both men and in plain clothes. That was all my brain registered before one of them snaked out his arm and made a fist of my waist band. I tried to shake him off but he held on fast while the other yelled for a bus, which I hadn’t noticed earlier, to ‘come and pick this one!’. My first thought was ‘Kidnappers!’ since I lived in the notorious Aba but when the bus came closer, I saw two uniformed and armed policemen in it. I’m not so naïve as to think that uniform guarantees legitimacy but these men acted with a confident air, like people who had legal backing. One of them then said to me, “You are under arrest!” When I enquired about what crime I had committed, I was advised to shut up or get beaten up. Realizing that my younger sister whom I’d been home alone with had no inkling of what was happening, I started yelling for her to call my father.

These men who neither showed me any identification nor offered any explanations for arresting me threw me in a battered white Mitsubishi bus; they were gracious enough though to scribble ‘Railway Police Station’ on an bit of paper which was handed to a good Samaritan neighbor. The bus moved off with me shoved deep into its belly and after sometime, they made a stop in front of a motel on a side street still within my area. The men in plainclothes as well as the armed policemen went in leaving me with three men, the driver of the bus inclusive. They soon came out dragging along a young boy whose face and stature spoke volumes of his status as a minor. He was shoved in beside me and the bus zoomed off. At this point, I remembered stories I’d read about the manner in which military officers of nascent Nigeria were led out of their homes by soldiers only to be shot and dumped by the wayside. I never would have thought it possible but at that point, I prayed for our destination to be the police station. On the way, I talked with my fellow captive and found that he also knew nothing about why he’d been arrested AND was a mere 16 years old.

Arriving at the police station (thank God), we were both led out of the bus and up to the counter where I was shown a list of names and addresses and asked to include mine. I refused, insisting that I had to first, be told why I’d been arrested. The reply to that from one of the policemen was, “Don’t worry, we will soon put you where people like you are”. They had taken the younger boy’s name with whom I’d been arrested and were leading him towards the back when I informed the policeman that the boy was just 16; that earned me a ‘shut up!’ with a resounding slap over the head. I eventually gave my first name and address after which I was led to ‘where people like me were’ which turned out to be a cell. Square and roughly 6ft by 6ft in dimensions by my own estimation, the cell already contained ten other men. When the inhabitants of the cell saw me being led towards them, they all started yelling “No space oh!…no bring dat guy here oh!”; the policeman paid them no heed. Expecting the beating of my life as I had heard and read about, I was bundled in and the door shut.

Stepping into that cell, the first thing that struck me as abnormal was that all but one of the men was fully clothed. Like me though, most were barefooted. The second abnormal thing I noticed was that about two or three of the cell inmates had their phones with them. I figured that it’s either we were considered first class prisoners or someone knew that we shouldn’t even have been there in the first place. My fellow ‘jailbirds’ welcomed me with handshakes and mocking laughter to my utmost relief. I then learnt from them that they hadn’t been arrested as criminals, but as defaulters in the payment of either stipulated water or sanitation dues. I thought mine must have been based on water by virtue of our owning a bore-hole tap so, borrowing a fellow inmate’s phone, I called my father. He confirmed, as I had suspected that he did not owe any water dues; he said all the right things about getting me out as soon as possible but by then I had tuned out.

All I heard at that point was this loud sound in my head akin to a rushing tide. Bad as things are, I love my country and ever the optimist, I believe that our ‘one day’ is not far into the future. But I had been dragged out of my house in the full glare of every spectator like a thief, I’d been physically, verbally as well as emotionally abused, I’d been thrown in a cell like a criminal awaiting the hangman’s noose, and in all of these, I had done nothing…absolutely nothing wrong. It was a heartbreaking moment.

In a bid to lessen the burden of sorrow I bore, I conversed with my cell-mates and discovered that I was not the only martyr in Rome. One of them had been arrested at a shop where he had gone to purchase eggs. The owners of the shop supposedly owed sanitation dues and without asking questions, the policemen had arrested him. His only crime had been developing a craving for eggs at the same time the cops decided to storm the place. Another cell-mate, like me, had paid all his dues. Unlike me though, he had recognized the policemen for who they were and had asked to be allowed to produce his receipts of payment. Needless saying that he might as well have been whispering into the wind. Through the bars of the cell, I could see that the seats behind the counter and in fact, the whole station was filled to bursting with detainees ranging from the teary-eyed young ones to the weary-faced elderly and even one nursing mother shushing her wailing infant. The policewomen seated at the counter excitedly watched a movie while bantering about a former detainee who had spent days in the cell we occupied at the time because he had been an immigrant with no one to bail him out.

I spent approximately two hours locked up in that cell but within that short time, ‘my eyes were opened’. In my case, my father produced all receipts of payment which in effect, meant that he had not been issued any court summons. Seeing that I was one of the ‘innocents’, the man responsible for my dilemma switched to plan B which entailed demanding a little ‘something’ from my father. It beats me but the greedy man did indeed think that he deserved compensation for the trouble he took in dragging me from my ‘prison’ of a home to the ‘comforts’ of the police cell. My father paid him nothing and eventually I was released but no one offered me as little as an apologetic glance…I was supposed to smile and tuck the experience away in the spirit of the Christmas season. Even after I had left, there was still a crowd of people left in that station many of whom were innocent victims of the Christmas hunt by fellow men.

I have just let my pen do the bidding of a broken heart. I have heard, on countless occasions, about people who have suffered for crimes they are innocent of and I thought of it as a terrible phalange of our society. But with my experience which I am savvy enough to know is just a tinny tiny bit of the iceberg, I now know I was wrong. The wrong in condemning an innocent man cannot be put into words, the pain of it within that man cannot be quantified…it could kill him.

I lack words to express the feeling of trepidation that crowded my being as I was led away from my home without any explanations; I suffer a dearth of expressions with which to relate the shame and humiliation I felt when I wrapped my fingers around the bars of a police cell from the inside. Even if I found the words or the expressions, I couldn’t possibly communicate the heart-wrenching pain and betrayal I felt deep within my soul as I padded out in the afternoon sun into supposed freedom. Infact, I hope you never understand…trust me, you’re better off that way.

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