Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Ode to an Irishman!

I've been lax of late, still not finished the whole Franki debacle but this weekend knocked me for six.  This isn't an ode, it's not a poem, but this is my blog and it's saying goodbye to a great Irishman.

Stephen Keenan died on Saturday in the Blue Hole, in Dahab, Egypt.  Steve was an amazing guy, we've kept in contact for 10 years after travelling together after a chance meeting.  He was open, honest, laid back and loyal to his friends.  He had a heart of gold, always looked for the positives, didn't take any stick from anyone and he loved the Dubs!

He had a wanderlust, like so many of us, it took him to South America then onto Africa which is where we met.  People have been asking me where we met, I nicknamed him BBB, short for Bissau Brothel Boy, we met in a brothel in the Caracol district of Bissau.  A pretty horrendous area of town, we later discovered that it was a hive of activity for crack cocaine and the evening wasn't the most calm I've had in my travels!  As described in my 2006/2007 trip to the region it wasn't as though we had much choice in Bissau but to sleep here and by pure chance Steve also decided to find a room at the same place, considering we'd not seen another European since Senegal, it was a surprise to meet him.  Steve took a photo of one of the rooms the following morning, it was awful and always said to me, his mother should never find out that he was forced to stay in this lousy hellhole, he also described it as a 'Gentleman's Club' hmmm!

Commandering a boat to the Bijagos with the Bubaque Chief of Police

I'm telling this story now because I don't want to forget some fun memories, often dangerous but Steve took the brunt of the danger.  We crossed the border into Guinea separately, we'd separated in the UNESCO protected Bijagos Islands, I headed back to Bissau, he went onto another island, Orango famous for it's saltwater hippos where he wanted to swim with them.  From Bissau I went onto the Guinea Conakry border with my Italian friend Gianni who also thought the world of Steve.  He was a few days behind us but we were in contact.  When we got to the Fouta Djalon region of Guinea there were strikes against President Conte, the Guinean President of that time.  The country had a major fuel crisis and things were getting desperate, I decided to head into Senegal as my flight left from Dakar, Gianni went south to Conakry to carry on eastbound, Steve was still somewhere in the west of Guinea.

Steve Keenan RIP - on Bubaque, he loved water, died doing what he loved

On arriving home in France I got frantic messages from Steve, he was near Donka Bridge area of Conakry and there was gunfire all around.  Power outages were getting worse and his mobile phone battery was getting lower but could I help him?  I rang the Irish Embassy in Paris, declaring his situation but it was a weekend, the consular official on duty was a saint, he rang the Foreign Affairs office in Dublin who subsequently called Steve to check on his safety and make arrangements for him.  Sunday morning, Steve was calmly having a cup of tea with the British Consul having made it across town in the chaos with the Consul waiting at his front door for him. He made it across into Sierra Leone the next morning, from memory.  An excerpt of an e-mail:

"In Freetown myself - got here last night after aother fucking shocker of a trip. Should of been 6 hours but due to a wreck of a car took 13! Left Conakry at 9 nd arrived here around 10 a broken man, covered in dust and smelling of diesel.. 

Sent you a text, not sure if you got it. Anyway I should be overjoyed and happy to be here but truthfully I'm not - I'm sad to have left Guinea behind and my heart aches thinking about all my friends I became so attached to while stuck in Conakry. That's one reason I hate staying in places for more that a few days - you can create relationships that become so hard to walk away from. Just hope things work out for them.

Anyway the reality is that I got out of there with my life and all my stuff, which might well of not been the case - so that, and all your help, I'm extremely grateful for. Thanks"


I got regular texts and e-mails from him telling me about his journey and experiences in Sierra Leone and horrendous journey down the coastal road in Liberia.  Then he got to Cote d'Ivoire, describing Abidjan as somewhere like Europe, reminded him of a few South American cities he had been to.  He was due to meet his father and brother in Bamako, they were flying in from Dublin and it was clear he was very excited about having some of his family with him.  He sent an e-mail to me protesting at the cost of a bus to Bamako at 40,000CFA (price has dropped considerably since then!) and was off to find other options.  He obviously went back to the bus company as I was getting text messages telling me how he had bought a seat but there was a big argument between the driver and the bus station chief that he couldn't understand and he kept being told to get off the bus.  Finally I got a text telling me he was en route for Bamako, but had to get through the northern part of Cote d'Ivoire which at that point was controlled by the Forces Nouvelles, the 'rebel' army.  His texts went dead for over 48hours, I was concerned but had no way of contacting him.  This an e-mail arrived a few days later explaining the silence after the few texts I'd received when he was free:

"I have just reached Mali, having made my way from Abidjan in Ivory coast to Bamako, Mali's capital. In doing so I had to cross the rebel controlled north of Ivory coast - this trip was without doubt my most perilous, taking 3 days and included 15 hours locked up in a cell with 14 other Ivorians and, thank God, one Dutchman.... The rebels imprisoned me.
Ivory coast has been in the grips of civil war since 2002. The south of the country is controlled by the government and the north by the rebels or "New Forces" as they call themselves. However in recent months things have calmed somewhat. I crossed into the south from Liberia about 2 weeks ago. Lots of military checkpoints and a few bribes but other than that it was alright. I asked a few people about crossing the rebel controlled north - almost all said it was fine that the war was almost over and I had nothing to worry about. So I decided to risk it and get the direct bus Abidjan - Bamako. We pulled out of Abidjan Saturday morning and headed north accompanied by  military vehicle. We reached the Gov/rebel divide at about 7. There was an army checkpoint, then UN checkpoint, then about 20k of no man's land, another UN checkpoint after which we entered Bouake, Ivory Coast's second largest city and headquarters of the rebels. We were all told to descend the bus and hand our Identity papers over. I was the only white guy. The rebels brought us into a large room where one of them stood up and addressed us all. He said who they were, their purpose and that there would be some payment necessary depending on the length of each passengers trip. I felt reasonably relaxed but then as he was speaking another rebel went through the ID papers, found mine, and put it aside indicated to someone that I was to be kept or something like that - I was standing too far away to hear. They began to give back the ID cards and the hall emptied till it was just myself standing in front of 6 seated rebels.
They asked me the purpose of my voyage, what I did, etc. One guy was quite aggressive and asked me how long I had been in the army - I said I was never in the army and that in Ireland it was not obligatory. he shrugged this off as if I was lying. They then summoned the bus driver and told him to carry on as I was to be held for more questioning. My heart sank, I so just wanted to get back on that bus. I pleaded with them and one of them said that the questioning wouldn't last long and that as the bus was stopping anyway for something to eat I will be back on it no worries. I had to get my bag off the bus. A pick up arrived with armed rebels in the back and PCO written on the side (Not sure what it stands for but it's seems to be their title). So I was driven off to the rebel headquarters, a large compound with big iron gate, and brought into an office where sat a slight man wearing a traditional Muslim robe. Behind him on the wall were photographs of various rebels and pictures of some guy called Bele Bele. Beside him was a chart with various lapel tags attached and their corresponding rank written alongside.
He began asking me similar questions as before, all was going well and I was hopeful I'd be back on the bus. I was devastated when he put my passport in his pocket and said I was to be kept there until he got clearance I could pass from "Le Chef". I had to leave all my belongings in the office for inspection. I also had to count all my money and hand it over. He wrote down the quantity and gave me a receipt assuring me I would get it all back. I was allowed keep some small change. I was then marched out into the main yard where a traditional style hut stood - it had a TV inside being watched by 3 dozing rebels and a white man! - I couldn't believe it, I hadn't seen a white person since Abidjan. Also he was a young and looked like a traveller. He was told to come out and then the 2 of us were brought to the back of the compound to a building with an iron gate and people lying around inside, it was a small prison. The rebel brought us inside and over to a vacant corner and told us we were to sleep there, and that he would come for us in the morning. I couldn't believe it - it was Paddy's day, and there I was lying in a cell...
My white companion was a guy called Ernest from Rotterdam, he had made his way to Bouake from Bamako hoping to visit the Medicin Sans Frontiers group stationed there. He was a nurse and was interested in working for them. I was so happy he was there, we kept to ourselves and were generally left alone. The cell was a large L shaped room with 3 smaller cells attached. These small cells were packed - about 15 people in each. In our own big cell I counted 14. Ernest luckily had taken his sleeping bag out of his bag. So we lay on that and I actually managed to get some sleep.
  At sunrise all were up including myself staring out through the bars waiting for someone to come take me out and tell me all is well. Across the far end of the compound I spotted the guy who had takin us into the cell, but I never saw him again. Time rolled on, every hour feeling like 10. We weren't fed, nobody was - they had people come, relatives and friends, with food. Eventually around 11 we decided to ask for a coffee and some bread. One of the guys, a prisoner from Guinea, was allowed leave the compound to purchase food. He came back with 2 bread rolls and 2 cups of coffee, the jailer accompanied he him and said we could eat outside. We were out!, it felt so good to be out of that cell. We sat under a tree for about an hour, then someone from across the compound beckoned us. Great I thought, but my heart sank when he indicated they only wanted to talk to Ernest. So I was alone, but they left me under the tree and thankfully not back into the cell. Ernest was walked to an office building about 500 meters away. He went in the door with 2 men in front and 3 behind him. He must of been in for about 40 minutes, I was getting worried. He came back out looking drained. He told me they asked the same questions over and over. They seemed sure he had a military purpose or something. They were more suspicious of him than I as he had a GPS with him and had a Dutch Army issued backpack. My questioning wasn't so bad, after a while they did believe that all I wanted to do was go to Mali. Ernest got some more hassle until he eventually agreed to leave along with myself. We were free. They put us in a bus along with another rebel to accompany us to the border.
I got off the bus at a town near the border as the bus was going to Burkina. I bid my cell mate goodbye and waited for a bus to Mali -  I was still in rebel country and so wanted to leave - about 2 hours later, 11pm a bus came. It drove for about an hour then stopped at a checkpoint. The rebels left me alone but we were told we were to stay there for the night. We slept on the side of the road and at about 6am we headed off again. Soon in the distance, through the morning Harmattan haze I spotted a Malian flag, the border. I never saw any more rebels. Phew."

Just over a year later, I went to Bouake as an Irishwoman, it was still controlled by the Forces Nouvelles but they weren't too worried about my presence.  I asked around about an Irishman that had been imprisoned a year earlier, they all knew about him, referred to him as my 'comrade' and were confused as to why he'd been imprisoned.  Steve had told me at the time they believed he was a spy ... for who?  The Irish government???!!!  The border town he was taken to was Ouanlangoudou, I remember the text message asking me if I could pronounce it ... I can now!!!  It was good to be there on 30th December in Franki

Steve said he'd always like to return to Cote d'Ivoire, I always hoped he would one day ... he sent a good few texts and e-mails as he made his way through West Africa, adored Nigeria, went up the Congo on barges with his backpack, loved Uganda, Kenya then found Dahab, Egypt where he's been living for the past 8 years and very sadly lost his life on Saturday.  He's had tributes pouring in on an international basis.  Some lovely photos here of the guy who always went home to see the Dubs play at Croke Park where on 5th August there will be a round of applause in his memory during a match at the 39th minute, he died too young at 39 but doing something he loved, a small consolation! Steve, a true hero in various press reports

RIP Steve, you're missed by so so many of us who had the pleasure to meet you!

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