Entering a bus station in the early morning recently, I was surprised to see a man lying on the ground right in the middle of the huge courtyard. His belly on the sand, that started to warm up by the first rays of sun, his hands and feet tied together behind his back.
‘Baba’, I gasped ‘what’s going on? Why is he lying there like that?’
‘Oh, that’s probably a thief’, he said, not finding it strange at all, it seemed to me. ‘That’s the way people deal with it here. To make sure that everybody can see him clearly, before they beat and kick him to death’, he added with a smile on his face.
‘No’, I replied in shock ‘that cannot be true. Why don’t they just hand him over to the police?’
‘Monique, what’s the police going to do with him? He’ll admit he stole something. They’ll put him in jail and once he’s released he will steal again. He’ll again be taken to the police, admit, go to jail and be released…’
Calm as always Baba parks the car in front of the ticket office. I don’t feel like leaving the car, I feel like getting out of the bus station as soon as possible, before they actually start beating up the men. I know I will not be able to look at it. Not wanting to witness any of it. Knowing that an angry crowd will not listen to me…
‘Monique, don’t worry, they don’t do that anymore’, Baba states with laughter. ‘That’s what they did in the past. Nowadays they do hand thieves over to the police. But they will make sure that everybody has had a chance to see his face. So he will be recognized afterwards.’
Waiting for the bus my thoughts go back to a visit to a market in Bougouni last year. A huge screaming crowd was gathering in front of a little shop and more people were running towards the crowd. A woman had stolen something from one of the corner shops and facing a similar situation before being handed over to the police.
The screaming crowd around that woman was quite a contrast to the lonely man lying face down in the bus station’s court yard. People were not really paying any attention to him. Or at least no more. It may have been different before my arrival of course. He was lucky though, after a while they untied him.
I kind of expected that he would run away, leave for a place where people may not have seen his face, not having witnessed his humiliation.
But none of that. Minutes after the ties were gone, he was still lying on the ground. About 15 minutes later he was sitting up, still at the same spot. When he finally started moving around, it looked like he did not want to leave the bus station at all. Employees of the bus company accompanied him to the gate, but as soon as they turned around, he stepped back into the courtyard.
No matter what they said and did to make him leave, it looked like an elastic band was pulling him back time after time. Even though inside the courtyard he was known to be a thief and a beggar, it may have felt like a safe environment to him.
Till finally after an hour or so the band broke and he walked away, head down…