The travel from Schipol Airport, for the serious traveller, is an experience often like purgatory. You arrive in Amsterdam, and the cover of thick fog over the flatland is usually there to greet you. The stillness as your plane touches down reminds you that you are only halfway there.
The Dutch know how to make a stopover traveler feel welcome. Hot showers, fresh baguettes, and beer available whatever time you feel like it, and drinking while making the 18 hour trip to Kinshasa became a professional sport. There are things offered in the airport that don’t cost money. For me it was a brief respite going south to Africa, and as I slipped into the smoking room I looked around at the other members of our cancerous group, and surveyed each with the same questions, a mental interview on superficial terms. Where did they come from? What were they doing? Why did they flick their cigarette constantly? Were they running from something Smuggling something? Most of the time it ended up being stories of visiting relatives at home, or just on business. The alluring and pungent smell of the tobaccos of the world came together in that room, and I felt connected to different areas I’ve never been to or will be able to go to. I always liked to empathize with strangers in airports. The hurried frenzy and boiling emotions always pique something in myself, and I would find myself riding the moods of my fellow airport companions.
The hardest thing about most airport hubs is watching the deportations. They are usually African, and I’ve always had the bad luck of having them on my plane. I say this not out of inconvenience at having someone check my emotional guilt, rather that I might feel too much for the man in washed out clothes sitting across from me. There is always a scene. It plays out like this:
You are already seated, usually in the back. You hear a commotion at the front of the plane, in between the giant overhead bags that the Congolese bring back from the shops and stores of the first world, and then the cries begin. The other passengers begin to start a murmur, and it builds as you realize the moaning is coming your way. They are always seated in the aisle next to you, and as the deportee comes into view you see he is flanked by two very austere immigration police. Dressed in vests and full regalia, they drag the man as if he was going to death row, which isn’t too far from the truth.
The face of the victim is what burns in my brain. It isn’t his French cries of his impending death and imprisonment, or the plea of his children, who are often residents, that he is leaving behind. It is the look of a man bargaining with hope. He turns to both guards as they seat him, pleading mercy, compassion, justice. His words in French are eloquent and desperate. The customs officers ignore his pleas, and then the thrashing begins. The cries of “Mon DIEU” echo through like some tragic African opera. It’s at this moment the same thing always happens. The officers restrain with force, the cries muffle, and then a surprising turnaround happens. The guards whisper gently for him to calm down, they shush him as a nursemaid would an infant, and by this time the doors are closed and the plane is beginning the push back The cries of “Let him go!” in Congolese have become the odd din in the cabin, and resignation sets in. I cannot turn away. I look at the weathered maroon hands clinging in cuffs to the front of the seat, and my mind turns to a slave thrown back into the cargo hold after being free for so long. His head bends down and a slow whimpering begins.
The reality is that this man will be in prison and probably die there. The Democratic Republic of Congo is known to question all deportees back to their country, and are labelled as criminals. The jail in Kinshasa can barely hold the name, and these men, for all their crying, bear their fate well for the rest of the flight. The last meal is always served with a wedge of cheese, and I remember the way each one carefully sliced it, as if treasuring some moment the rest of us forgot.
Whenever I tell these stories of indifference, of negligence by our own society, to these people who have escaped a hard life and chosen to be part of ours, that we owe it, illegal or not, to not damn them to a life of imprisonment or death based on the fact that they technically have done nothing wrong in their home country. These men are marked like Cain, and die like Abel.
The rest of the flight is usually quiet. When we deplane at Ndjili airport, I always make sure I beat the deportee out the door. I can’t bear to look at their face on landing. I’ve seen death before, but I can’t stand to look at it in the form of an immigration slip.
On the way back from tour, as I’m boarding the delft blue plane again, I look down at the Sahara, black and rolling under the starlight, and think of those men sitting in the seat I am in now. I drift to their thoughts and dreams, their sacrifices to make it this far, and the hope and opportunity they carry with them in their baggage. I think of those men and become sad. Then I turn on the TV and forget them. They are the unloved, the unwanted, the ill advised and the short straw. They are quickly forgotten in a country the world tries to forget is there. That is the tragedy of Africa in my eyes.