Anyone paying attention might have noticed something odd about the two boys slipping into G’bessia Airport.
Despite the West African heat, both were wrapped in sweaters. At their sides flapped thin plastic bags jammed with birth certificates, school report cards, photographs and a letter.
But Conakry’s airport at evening rush hour is not the sort of place where people pay attention. It is a humidity-choked thicket of confusion where travelers, hustlers and cabdrivers jostle under the terminal’s broad tin roof.
Soldiers patrol with Kalashnikov rifles. Families jam their faces between metal bars, straining to see loved ones crossing the tarmac. Corrupt customs officers with outstretched hands ask travelers, “What do you have for me?” Women with papoosed babies scramble up garbage piles to hop over the airport’s crumbling outer wall and tend rows of tomatoes near the runway.
So Yaguine Koita and Fode Tounkara, two skinny, bookish 14-year-olds determined to change their lives, apparently passed unnoticed as they headed for the Brussels-bound Sabena Airlines Airbus A330 that, four times each week, links wealthy Western Europe to one of Africa’s poorest cities.
Here’s what Sabena Airlines officials say must have happened next:
The boys boosted themselves onto the rear right-hand tires, 5-foot slabs of black rubber almost their height. Then they grasped the gleaming, tubular landing gear and swung themselves into the oval-shaped opening of the wheel bay nearly 12 feet above the tarmac.
Yaguine, the leader, lay down on a metal shelf amid the wires, support bars and hydraulic tubes. Fode curled up in a coffin-sized space just beneath.
As the plane taxied to the runway, the roar of the engines, just 30 feet from their hiding place, was too loud for them to hear each other. Even if they screamed.
The July 28 journey carrying Yaguine Koita and Fode Tounkara from the slums of the capital of Guinea to Belgium’s front door would soon shake the prosperous brotherhood of European nations. The determination of two young boys would yank aside a veil of indifference and confront Europe, Africa’s former colonial master, with a devastating image of the continent it had left behind. It would even reverberate through the General Assembly of the United Nations.
It began with a dream.
After school, Yaguine and his few close friends would often wander past the neighborhood maze of decaying shacks, past teenage girls selling cigarettes and tiny tins of Nescafe, past unemployed men playing boccie ball in the red dirt.
They would head for a cluster of shaded beach-side rocks where they could study, talk, kick a soccer ball. There, Yaguine (pronounced Yag-EEN) would watch the airliners coming and going at G’bessia Airport. There, his fantasy would take shape.
The boy went to school, did homework, lived in a two-room shack with electricity, a refrigerator and a 10-year-old video game player. His father, Liman Koita, scratched out a living fixing electrical appliances. In a country where life expectancy is just 47, per capita incomes are under $2 a day and only 36% of adults can read and write, the Koitas weren’t too badly off, relatively speaking.
On the TV screen in the shack, Yaguine could watch CNN and half a dozen European channels pirated from a distant satellite dish. The boy had seen James Bond ordering martinis and Bruce Willis saving the world. He had seen American TV series dubbed into French. He had seen the promised land, and it was full of white faces.
This quiet, rail-thin boy had no interest in replaying his father’s life of quiet desperation. He missed his mother, who had left, remarried and was now living a blue-collar life outside Paris. He dreamed of going to school in Europe, getting a good job, becoming a pilot and coming back to Conakry to help his father.
And so, last July, Yaguine sat down and wrote two letters in the flowery French he had learned at school. He left one of them for his father. The other he took with him.
Saying he was going to visit his grandmother for a few days, he slipped behind his house and down a small, rutted road, cut through an open-air mechanic’s workshop teeming with grease-covered children, and walked into Fode Tounkara’s yard.
Fode had grown up lost, a boy so desperately shy that he was often forgotten in a pack of siblings and half-siblings so numerous that family members disagree on the total.
The family lives in a moldy two-room shack that makes Yaguine’s house look practically suburban. Fode’s father earns a few dollars a week as a security guard. A devout Muslim, he has two wives. Fode’s mother, Damaye Kourouma, is a heavyset, bent-over woman who makes 80 cents a day growing and selling potato leaves, a sort of Guinean spinach.
The poverty, relatives and neighbors say, was difficult on Fode (pronounced FO-day). He was sometimes shunned by the wealthier children at his school, a conservative Islamic academy. He buried himself in work, studying or helping his mother tend her garden.
His only close friend was Yaguine, with whom he shared shyness and bookishness. “They were quiet, yes, quieter than the rest of us here. So they were together all the time,” said Fode’s brother, Sekou.
His father, Karamoko Tounkara, an aloof, bearded man, said Fode was not the ambitious type, and he is sure the boy simply followed his more worldly friend.
But his mother saw something else.
“What he knew,” she said, sitting on a tiny wooden stool and resting her head in her hands, “was that his family was poor and he went to Europe so that he could help them.”
Compassion Fatigue Across Europe
The news from Africa is rarely good. Millions die or are left homeless in a relentless cycle of wars, famine, drought and poverty. Nearly one in five children south of the Sahara dies before age 5. Primary school enrollment is 74%, the lowest of any region in the world. Nearly half the adults can’t read. Of the world’s 11 million AIDS orphans, 95% are in sub-Saharan Africa.
Children under 15 are fighting in conflicts from Sierra Leone to Congo.
Across Europe, compassion fatigue has set in. Belgium, the boys’ haven of choice, has about 75,000 illegal immigrants. The country’s bickering political parties agree on one thing: It’s too much.
But still the desperate tide flows north.
Tens of thousands of Africans make their way to Europe by air, boat or overland, often using phony passports.
A year ago, an 18-year-old Senegalese man barely survived a flight in a wheel well from Dakar, Senegal, to Lyons, France. Sent home, he tried the same thing again, this time to the Ivory Coast, and died along the way.
So what Yaguine and Fode did was hardly unprecedented. What was unusual was the letter they carried--a handwritten plea on a page torn from a school composition book.
On its envelope Yaguine wrote in French:
“In case we die, deliver to Messrs. the members and officials of Europe.”
As Sabena Flight 520 rose from the runway, Yaguine Koita and Fode Tounkara found themselves at the mercy of physics.
They had no seat belts to hold them in place, no cushions to shield them as the plane accelerated. Yaguine apparently pushed his leg through a hole in the metal shelf where he lay on his stomach, perhaps trying to stop himself from banging around.
It would only get worse.
Seconds after takeoff, the pilot hauled in the jet’s wheels, and the boys were sealed inside the pitch-black wheel well. The four tires, heated from runway friction to more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit, turned the hiding place into a furnace. Suddenly their heavy clothes seemed foolish.
Not for long.
As the A330 soared higher, conditions went from sub-Saharan heat to Arctic winter in minutes. The cold bit through the boys’ plastic sandals. Their fingers, toes and faces grew painfully cold, then numb.
Both were devout Muslims. They had a flashlight, and each carried a green prayer book hidden in his trousers. But they didn’t take out the books.
The cold turned the boys sluggish, and the thinning air starved their brains of oxygen, muddling their thoughts.
Both youths turned their faces to the metal wall. There they lost consciousness, their wool hats jammed down over their heads.
Yaguine’s father, Liman Koita, was in his regular Saturday morning spot on the patio of the Restaurant Watara, sipping Nescafe and chatting with friends, when his son Ibrahim came running up.
In the boy’s hand was a letter, found in a pile of Yaguine’s clothes. It was addressed to Koita. Ibrahim looked frightened, the father remembered months later.
Yaguine had been gone for three days, since the evening of July 28, when he’d cheerfully asked for 300 Guinean francs so he could take the bus downtown to stay at his grandmother’s for a few days.
Two days later, Koita had stopped by the grandmother’s house. “Papi’s not here,” she told him, using Yaguine’s nickname. The father wasn’t too worried, though; Papi was, after all, a trustworthy boy who would never do anything rash.
But Yaguine writing a letter? That was a different story entirely. The father’s heart pounded as he read.
“Dear Papa Liman I’m offering all my apologies, I pay tribute to you, I have decided to leave. . . . I have a chance to go with some whites who want to take me on a boat for 100,000 Guinean francs, with stops in Spain, in France, in Germany. I have the addresses of my family, including my mother’s, and I will try to join them.”
Koita hurried to the port to look for the ship. No luck. For days he wandered the streets, asking Yaguine’s friends about him. Nothing.
Later, he would wonder: Had there ever been a ship? Had Yaguine’s plans changed at the last minute?
Meanwhile, in the Tounkara house, it was the same story. A missing boy, and no explanation.
“They think the West is where they’ll find everything,” said Morlayat Toure, a Guinean who works with Conakry street children. “They dream all the time about going to Europe.”
It’s easy, in Guinea, to see why.
Even among West Africans, people familiar with dismal statistics, Guinea is a country cousin, a nation eviscerated by the French when they left their colony in 1958, then crippled by dictatorship, poverty and isolation.
Sekou Toure, overwhelmingly elected as independent Guinea’s first president, promised socialist brotherhood and became a hero to anti-colonialists. But his regime became an Orwellian nightmare.
Toure (pronounced TOO-ray) saw plots everywhere--the teachers’ plot, the Fula plot, the traders’ plot, the army plot. These soon blurred into “le complot permanent,” the permanent plot. Spies haunted offices, schools and hospitals; everyone was encouraged to inform.
Thousands were arrested, thousands died, and millions fled the country.
Nationalization and mismanagement hobbled the economy while, for years, isolationism kept out nearly everyone but Cuban and Russian advisors.
Fifteen years after Toure’s death, the country of 7.5 million still listens to Cuban music and is only now beginning to break from its past.
Increasingly, Africans are demanding more say in their governments, and democratic countries like Ghana, South Africa and Nigeria offer hope for broader change. A decade ago, democratic change seemed to be sweeping sub-Saharan Africa, ending many one-party regimes. But change has been slow, and today many African nations, including Guinea, remain prone to dubious elections and human rights abuses.
In Guinea, poverty magnifies all other problems.
Chokingly hot and humid, Conakry is a city of colonial-era buildings, shutters rotting off hinges, and winding roads jammed with fume-spewing minibus-taxis called magbanas. The jagged oceanfront is the toilet to the city’s poorest people. Garbage blows along the roads, piling up at intersections and in vacant lots.
Smiling children yell “Fote!” (white person) at every European they see, reaching to grab their hands.
The economy is showing signs of improvement, but Guinea’s true capitalists are its market women. Set up at battered wooden tables along the streets, they sell batteries and yams and toys and pens and Coke out of plastic coolers. They sell bananas by the bunch and cloth by the meter and cigarettes one at a time.
Except for some top government officials and a tiny clique of wealthy businessmen, ensconced in gleaming new mansions of marble and glass, few Guineans live well.
Malick Tidian, 24, two years out of college and still jobless, says the only profitable pursuit he sees for himself is selling cocaine--"stuff,” it’s called, in a French accent--to that clique.
Fode and Yaguine are heroes, he says, for trying to tell the world “what it’s like here.”
Flight 520 touched down at Zaventem International Airport in Brussels on Aug. 2 and quickly emptied out its 200 passengers. Bleary-eyed after an overnight flight, Europeans and Africans, businessmen, bureaucrats and holiday-makers, stepped into the torpor of a cloudless 90-degree Monday morning.
At 10:10 a.m, a refueling truck pulled to a stop at gate B-40. The driver got out his hose and was preparing to fill up the plane when he smelled something. He fetched a three-step stepladder and peeked inside the wheel well. Dangling from an oval opening was a dark, skinny leg, naked to the knee, a blue-and-white plastic sandal on the foot.
He immediately alerted airport police, who arrived at 11:02 a.m. They spotted a woolen cap with a pom-pom, which led them to the second body.
Ann Fransen, a Brussels deputy prosecutor, was investigating a homicide when she got the call to go to the airport and investigate two dead stowaways. More police arrived, then an investigating judge, then a medical examiner.
Yaguine, in sandals, blue trousers, outer vest and green-and-white cap, was found lying on his belly with his face turned away from the wheel. It was his dangling leg that had alerted the fuel truck man. Fode, in blue trousers and a brown, striped flannel shirt, was hunkered down in a hatch below Yaguine. Both appeared to have died staring at the metal wall.
The bodies were laid out on the tarmac; gate B-40 looked like a crime scene.
And there the story might have ended--just another case of foolhardy stowaways who, had they survived, would have been bundled back to Africa without leaving a trace.
Except that something caught Fransen’s eye as the medical examiner gathered up the plastic bags of documents the boys were carrying. It was the envelope that said:
“In case we die. . . . “
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
‘In Case We Die . . . ‘
Here is the text of the letter Yaguine Koita and Fode Tounkara carried with them when they stowed away in the wheel well of a Belgian airliner. The two 14-year-olds hoped to fly from the West African country of Guinea to Belgium. The letter was translated from French by the Associated Press, with minor editing.
Excellencies, Messrs. members and officials of Europe.
We have the honor and pleasure and great confidence in you to write this letter to talk to you of the objective of our journey and the suffering of us, the children and young people of Africa.
But first of all, we present to you our sweetest, most adoring and respectful salutations in the world. To that effect, be our support and our aid. You are for us, in Africa, the ones whom we must ask for help. We appeal to you, for the love of your continent, for the feelings you have toward your people and above all for the affinity and love you have for your children whom you love like life itself. Moreover, for the love and meekness of our creator, almighty God, who has given you all the good experience, wealth and power to build and organize well your continent to become the most beautiful and admirable of all.
Messrs. members and officials of Europe, we appeal to your solidarity and kindness for help in Africa. Help us, we suffer enormously in Africa, we have problems and several shortcomings regarding children’s rights.
Regarding our problems, we have war, disease, malnutrition, etc. As for children’s rights, in Africa and above all in Guinea, we have too many schools but a great lack of education and training. Only in private schools can one have a good education and good training, but it takes a great sum of money, and our parents are poor and they have to feed us. Nor do we have sports schools where we can practice football, basketball or tennis.
That is why we, African children and youth, ask you to create a great, efficient organization for Africa to allow us to progress.
And if you see that we have sacrificed and risked our lives, it is because there is too much suffering in Africa and we need you to struggle against poverty and put an end to war in Africa. Nevertheless, we want to study and we ask you to help us in Africa to study to be like you.
Finally, we appeal to you to excuse us very, very much for daring to write this letter to the great personages to whom we owe much respect. And do not forget that it is to you that we must bemoan our weakness in Africa.
Written by two Guinean children, Yaguine Koita and Fode Tounkara
NEXT: Two continents react to the letter and the boys’ sacrifice.
On the Net: https://www.orientation.com. Select “Guinea” in the destinations box and you will be referred to a variety of sites on all aspects of Guinea.
This story was reported in Guinea by AP West Africa Bureau Chief Tim Sullivan and in Belgium by AP Brussels Correspondent Raf Casert.