Be careful what you wish for
September 5, 2011 By Judi Grout
It’s extremely frustrating to watch hardened criminals smile smugly as they’re let off of serious crimes on a technicality, feel the anguish of victims never validated for their suffering or see a judge pronounce a laughably lenient sentence.
Early release bulletins tell of violent sex offenders, likely to re-offend, let back into the community with no effort to rehabilitate and take responsibility for their crimes. Add these stresses to the increasingly difficult job police face in making a sound case in court and you can feel overwhelmed. More often than not, it feels like our system favors the criminals rather than victims and this pushes us to imagine a different way, one where justice is swift and immediate. I have broken some rules at times, taking justice into my own hands when the system has failed. However, an experience in Africa made me have second thoughts.
Travelling to Dar Es Salam, Tanzania to visit my husband, who was working there, I had a three month leave of absence from work and a plan which included volunteering in an orphanage, teaching English in a nursery school, learning Swahili, many wildlife safaris and soaking up the people and culture I had been drawn to all my life. It was a dream come true and within 24 hours of my arrival, I was exploring a well known ocean beach popular with locals and expats. Local people working with my husband assured me that it was safe; many exercised there daily. Sinking my toes in the sand, feeling the surf hit my knees and greeting the local people who loved to hear me speak Swahili and were eager to practice their English, I was totally relaxed, taking in the sights and sounds of Africa.
Wandering further away from the crowds, three young adult men suddenly approached, standing right in front of me but still exchanging courteous Swahili greetings and shaking my hand. Something was different and I knew by their eyes that they were obviously high. The leader pointed to my shoulder pack and asked for it. I immediately refused and pushed past them. They sprang into action, surrounding me on all sides and jumping up and down in the sand. One reached behind his back, mimicking a knife and making stabbing motions towards me.
They were more serious than I had thought so I reluctantly handed over my pack containing my new cell phone, wallet with cash and identification and brand new 35mm camera. They quickly ran up towards the sea cliff and I felt the need to give chase. Rightly or wrongly, I ran full tilt yelling as loud as I could, “THIEF THIEF,” an internationally recognized word, and “POLICI POLICI” (Swahili for police).
They looked shocked to see me pursuing them and, quickly unzipping my pack, removed my camera and tossed my pack back to me! Off they went through a heavy brushed area, cradling my camera; I decided not to follow for fear of an ambush.
I was suddenly surrounded by local people trying to comfort me and asking what happened. There was an elderly woman wearing a safety vest who was collecting garbage on the beach, three young teenagers who sell cooked corn and two young beachcombing boys. Using a combination of broken Swahili, some English and a lot of charades, I was able to communicate that three men, one wearing a red shirt. took my camera with a big lens and pointed the direction in which they ran. Off the group went in fresh pursuit!
I started walking towards the highway, hoping to find help and trying to call police emergency with my new cell phone. I had noticed a billboard earlier in the day announcing that the city had just adopted a police emergency phone line of 119. I dialed but kept getting a busy signal.
Within minutes I heard shouting from down on the beach and ran back to find the three young teenagers joyfully showing me they had found the suspects, taken back my camera and trying to tell me something about polici. So grateful, I opened my wallet and gave them all the money I had. They were speechless. I am sure that was more money than they had ever seen or will ever see again, even though it was only about $40 each. Slowly we walked together towards the highway and away from the bush and beach, the group swallowing me with a protective circle, rubbing my arm and saying “Poly Poly,” which means sorry. It was like they were apologizing for the behavior of their fellow Tanzanians.
As we got to the highway a large truck marked POLICI pulled up. Two uniformed men carrying long barreled guns jumped out, dragged two handcuffed suspects out of the back seat onto the ground and pointed at them. Yes indeed, they had arrested two of the three men who robbed me! I identified them and suddenly the beating began. The officers hit them repeatedly in the head with the butts of their guns, also kicking and punching. I told them to stop, that it wasn’t necessary to beat them on my behalf, and then noticed my entourage had increased to well over 30 men, women and children. My little robbery and the apprehension had drawn a lot of attention and people were crowding around me, eager to watch the beating. I managed to get it stopped but soon realized it was getting bigger than me.
A large Cadillac pulled up and a very tall, well dressed man approached, speaking beautiful English. I thought he would help me stop this madness and quickly explained the situation, then watched as he calmly walked over to the robbers and started kicking them repeatedly in the head. His brother had been robbed on this very beach a week earlier, he explained, and the suspects had tried to choke him. The Tanzanian people do not tolerate thieves, he added.
The mood of the crowd intensified as I watched the police line up the sitting suspects against their vehicle and the crowd gather large pieces of coral and line up to take turns throwing it at their heads. They were going to be stoned to death. I needed help, now! Everything was happening so fast. My husband was at a meeting downtown, a good hour away, and the only other phone number I knew was my housekeeper Dao, who I had only met that morning.
I called, explaining through tears that I needed him here now and managed to read the street sign. While waiting, I blocked people from throwing coral, pleading with them to stop. I did not want to be responsible for two people dying just because they robbed me. I had my stuff back! Why couldn’t they just be arrested, go to court and do some jail time? Was death really a fair punishment? They stopped but it was clear I was really beginning to annoy them.
Dao arrived within minutes by taxi and jumped into action, assessing the situation and immediately trying to hold me back from interfering. He kept saying, “Miss Judi, you can’t stop this, this is the way of Tanzania.” I looked into the eyes of the pleading and crying suspects, the blood from their head wounds mingling with their tears and draining down their faces. They looked so young and pitiful to me now, sitting slumped in a puddle trying to dodge the beatings. What brought them to knowingly risk their lives to steal my back pack? How desperate was their situation and how many times had they participated in a mob beating of another thief? Was their death by stoning an appropriate punishment? It wasn’t to me and I wasn’t going to let it happen; I just couldn’t.
Through my panic and confusion I heard horns honking and a military police truck sped into the crowd. I then realized that the first responders were actually only a security company paid to patrol the beach and were fully prepared to allow the crowd to kill these two young men. This was the real police. They spoke English but were emotionless as I explained that the suspects had robbed me, we had retrieved my stolen articles and that being stoned wasn’t my choice of punishment!
They quickly loaded them into their truck amid shouts of protest from the now blood thirsty crowd and ordered me into the front cab to come to the station with them. They were armed to the hilt, including AK47s, and I was a little leery. How did I know they were the real police and exactly how many different police were there? I asked if Dao could come with me as by now he had both arms wrapped around me in protection, obviously worried that I was in trouble and wondering how to explain to my husband what happened.
Dao could come but he had to ride in back with the suspects, I was told. Off we went down many back-roads, with me crammed in the front seat between two very large police officers, their AKs pointed up towards the ceiling between their legs – going where, I wasn’t sure.
We arrived at a real police station where a very polite, articulate sergeant took my statement. Things went wrong when he asked my occupation and I told him I worked for a Canadian police service, thinking it would help with our communication. He immediately became confrontational and, yelling, accused me of being a spy checking for police corruption and that this was a set up! I didn’t know how much fight I had left in me.
The temperature was well over 36 degrees, I still had jet lag, had chased bad guys and then tried to save their lives and now the police suspected me of being a spy? It had been a long day! It was then I heard the familiar voice of my husband’s coworkers behind me. Dao had made a frantic call to the office and they were here to smooth things over. The suspects were put in a cell and assured the sergeant I was an innocent traveler. I was taken home to our flat and later found out that my suspects were spared. Their families could bail them out once they raised enough money. They would not be killed – not this time.
I admit that chasing the suspects was not wise but we all sometimes do things without thinking. The beating I witnessed wasn’t an isolated incident either. During my stay I met expats who witnessed a thief burned to death after a gas filled car tire was put around his waist and lit on fire. Another man was thrown down a well and stoned until he drowned because he stole a cell phone in a village where my husband worked. This was done by fellow villagers – men, women and children – and was perfectly acceptable behavior to them.
It’s not because Tanzanians are violent. In fact they are a very loving and giving culture, always upbeat and happy despite their poverty, starvation and poor living conditions. Police corruption is rampant and rules depend on who a person is and what they own. Police often stopped us for no reason and then asked for cash to let us go. Perhaps this gang mentality is a direct response to the pure frustration the common citizen faces each day dealing with corrupt security and police authorities.
The look in those young mens’ eyes as they sat huddled together in a puddle facing peers very eager to kill them will stay with me forever. It was then that I was grateful to live in a society where the criminal justice system prevents these things from happening. I know I have felt that overwhelming desire to administer justice myself when a suspect has done something abhorrent and is getting away with it. I know that feeling – but being in that situation and really feeling the energy of a crowd hell bent on killing someone…. it’s not something that many of you would be comfortable with, no matter what you think.
I still think we need drastic changes to make the punishment fit the crime, the victim feel validated and suspects not always given the benefit of the doubt. Ordinary citizens also get frustrated with how things work and desire immediate and swift justice.
Is our current situation enough to move us towards a day when Tanzanian justice becomes prevalent here? I hope we can fix what we have so that never happens… be careful what you wish for!
Judi Grout continued on her journey in Africa. She has served the Winnipeg Police Service for more than 30 years, starting out as a police cadet in 1977. She was a constable for 10 years and is currently a police communications operator.
Judi Grout, pictured volunteering at the Cradle of Love Orphanage in Arusha, Tanzania.
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