I was about 10 years old in 1999 when political turmoil began then the war started in 2002. There was an atmosphere of xenophobia where everyone had to prove their Ivorian citizenship and their right to vote. My father tried to stay neutral but, as he was from the North (operating his business in the South), he was suspected of possibly financing the rebels. This led him and his business friends to give a large donation to the government in return for a ‘loyalty card’ which was supposed to guarantee their safety.
I was almost 14, when on the 1st Oct. the rebels took the city and seized power. My Dad was effectively regarded as a traitor for supporting the government against the rebels. The government then took the city back after 2 weeks of heavy bombardment – we were more than scared and I was convinced no-one was going to get out alive.
On 19th Oct my whole world turned upside down. 8 military commanders showed up at our house around 7pm. They gathered everyone around and ordered us all to lie on the floor. My Dad was the only one left on the chair. I remember one guy standing on my neck and shoulder and even now I sometimes feel pain there. They tried to arrest my Dad, this time accusing him of being a traitor to the Government. My Father showed his loyalty card and told of his donation. My Father, realizing that bribery was the only way out of this dangerous situation, opened the safe and handed over to the High Commander a large sum in dollars. The commander then insisted, despite my Father’s resistance, that he go with them for ‘verification purposes’ promising that he would be released in the morning.
I will never forget my Father’s last goodbye.. I was lying on the floor and my left hand was near the door… when he was walking by, my father’s left foot or right foot .. I’m not sure which…lightly brushed my fingers …that’s the last time I saw my Dad. Two days later we found his body in the cemetery – I will spare you the details …I was in so much shock I couldn’t cry .. I couldn’t do anything…but I wish I wish I wish I had cried that day because I realize I have kept all, everything, inside to myself.
From then on I became obsessed with researching weapons and especially the AK47 that had been used to kill my father. After 5 yrs of research I printed off nearly 800 pages. I think I was losing it without realizing it…. I was sinking into oblivion without knowing. My sister and her friends did persuade me to have counseling, which I did, but the problem is that this wakes up all the pain that passed before. I have tried to cope by locking up all the pain inside somewhere in my subconscious but the problem is, the key is not lost … I can open it up at any time.
My sister said “you have read all the scriptures, Hindu, Jewish, Christian…can you not just let it go”. I said “ yes that is true but the problem is, you were not there… I was there when our father was taken … I saw his body …and I’m a man now but I was a boy and I followed my Dad every place and knew every single thing about my father even the way he ate …the soap he used to wash with ….every single detail about him.…that is the reason”. I was so full of rage and pain…and as one so young and so vulnerable I could easily have gone badly wrong in my desire to revenge my Father. My sister was so worried that as a key witness and only son I was not safe.
A family friend got me a student visa through Ghana which was difficult and dangerous as, through my family name, I could have been seen as a rebel and shot on sight, so I had to travel with two ID cards. I was stopped at a checkpoint once and nearly caught out which was very scary but thankfully I finally managed to talk my way through.
In Ghana I applied for a student visa from the Home Office which I got 2 months later. Even the day I travelled I did not feel safe. I don’t know why, but there were some special military at the airport and they looked like the ones who killed my father. My minder had to pay bribes to get me through – only then I breathed a sigh of relief. When we got to London … I thought to myself … ‘seriously? – oh God I’m free…I can say what I want, away from these killings’. Imagine, I was worried about the snow! But then I thought –‘ even though it ‘s freezing cold, a different country, all white people’, I thought, ‘nobody’s gonna shoot me here’ you know.
Only two weeks later I was studying in Manchester college and had a flat. I was thinking about applying for asylum but was very nervous to go ahead. My friend from Angola said “I’ve been meaning to talk to you …you not ok man…I’ve heard you in the night shouting about weapons….about shooting”. I panicked that he had discovered my secret but I told him everything. He really encouraged me to apply but still I was reluctant as I was so afraid of anyone in authority, in uniform, so I did nothing at that time. My health started to deteriorate because of childhood illness and stress. I eventually collapsed and ended up alone in hospital for several days. When I recovered I carried on studying but I was watching terrible news from Africa and worrying about my family then I started to get flashbacks again. On the day of the exam my sister called me at 9am and I could hear the guns, the bombardment and that sunk me into a depression but I managed to sit it and pass. I didn’t have any help for post-traumatic stress and I didn’t look for it or want it – I didn’t want to risk feeling pain.
Of course all this also affected my relationships. I was punished so badly in this life …the family…the war… it is hard for me to feel love anymore. But you will never see me cry or be upset – I just go on and I am a funny guy… I make people laugh and make them happy. However I have realized that being a comedian is a coping mechanism I have devised for myself.
My asylum case is very difficult and it is very hard to convince the Home Office of the grave political as well as personal risk I am under in an African country as the eldest son of a man that was murdered by the regime he was supporting. After all the refusals and everything it was devastating. Oh ….the waiting …I first claimed asylum in July 2011 so it has been 7 yrs. up until now. Every single day I go home, say hello to everybody then I go to the letterbox to check. Someone recommended me to a legal aid charity partly based on all the voluntary work I have done in Blackburn. For seven years I have given my life to this town.
I do not feel any bitterness. I come from a very good family …people think I’m generous but I am nowhere near close to my Mum and Dad… I was brought up to forgive, live a good life, be generous to people less well off than you.
People in UK don’t realize how amazing is the peace….that you don’t ever see a gun in the town. Also, look at the charities…one on every corner of the street to help people. I am a Muslim and have worked with mostly Christians but also with Muslims … my goodness all the talk about love and peace. Gail Morgan at ARC was the biggest influence on me – she would say “Tinta, love and peace are what you need …forgive those who killed your Father Tinta …God will not let you down…you are a good man.” I have come across so many good people in this country. Other people also told me “Tinta, you are a good man…there will be better things ahead ..you just need an opportunity and you will fly like a bird.” So after 2014 I began to change, I stopped obsessing about my Father’s killers and focused on working to help other people.
I found out about ARC just by accident through a friend. I was nervous at first but then I started to enjoy it and it felt like a small paradise to me. I used to clean the tables every week after drop in then eventually I was persuaded to volunteer more and I now supervise the kitchen at the drop-in. As I speak both French and Arabic I was also asked to do interpreting work. After a few months I was sent on an interpreters course. I got my level 2 then level 3 certificate so now, as a qualified interpreter I go with people to housing, town hall, job centre, hospital …everywhere.
ARC is unique. If anyone should appreciate ARC , it should be me.
They didn’t just support me with the asylum support process, but month by month they have helped me to become a better person. I’m not saying I’m cured.. I still suffer mental stress and flashbacks but I believe ARC has brought me back to my true nature, working to help others like my father and my mother always did. ARC has given me those opportunities. People here have shown me love and compassion, even given me a home. We are of different colour, background, ethnicity and religion…nobody is judging anybody and I have been able to work alongside everybody happily….it is a lovely, special place.