The detective gripped my arm firmly as he led me inside the police station. Now it was no longer empty. Several tall, broad-shouldered men in navy uniforms stood around, staring at me, their hostility palpable. And at that moment, I felt sick with dread, in a way I had never felt before, because I knew full well that I was at their complete mercy. The detective released his hold on me with his right hand; in his left he held the moneybelt. I watched him eyeing it carefully. Slowly, and with an almost theatrical air, he walked behind the desk and opened a drawer. With a flourish, so that everyone in the room could see, he produced a key.
“For safekeeping” he announced and placed it inside. He turned the key twice then place it back in his pocket.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw several of the uniformed men smirk.
Jean Paul had followed us in and was now standing next to me. Mentally, I thanked god for his presence. He turned to the detective.
“What happens now?” he asked him, with all the politeness he could muster. I figured that, like me, he knew the police held all the cards now, so belligerence would get him nowhere, even aggravate the situation.
“We are going to charge your friend, of course. With filing a false report, wasting police time and stealing hotel property. These are criminal offences and we take such matters very seriously.”
Jean Paul pulled me towards him and spoke quietly. He’d been travelling in Africa a few months, and had already had a close shave of his own with the locals in Dar al Salaam.
“Sarah, I think I should try and get hold of someone from the British Embassy. I know it’s late but they must have an emergency number. Also, is there anyone I can email?” As he spoke, I felt more tears welling up inside me and I knew he couldn’t have failed to see the look of sheer terror written all over my face. I opened my mouth, to beg him to stay, but no words came out.
“It’s going to be alright. I promise I’ll come back soon. Just hang on in there, ok? I’m not abandoning you, just remember that.”
And with that, he was gone. The detective motioned to two of his men and without a word they grabbed me, one by each arm.
“You, madam, are going to a side room.”
Gripped by them, and tightly, I was walked down a long, narrow corridor, at the bottom of which was a door with bars. Sick with anticipation, I willed them to keep walking on. They stopped, and one unlocked the door. With a rough shove, the other pushed me inside.
It was a cell. A small damp cell with thick walls and nothing but a tiny window at the top of one wall. It stank of urine. It was filthy. And it was unfurnished, save for a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling.
“Oh god” I thought. “No-one will even hear me scream.” And then I looked up and saw my two escorts, staring at me impassively and I realised, at that moment, that they could do anything to me they wanted. They were two and I was one – it would be their word against mine. Backing into a corner, I felt waves of terror wash over me. A voice in my head was screaming at me, telling me that should I survive this ordeal, never again should I travel incognito, in dangerous, lawless lands, leaving myself prone to exploitation. I should never return to Africa, nor backpack ever again, the voice told me. Club Med would do more than nicely.
The two men stared at me, for what seemed like an eternity. They grabbed me and threw me to the floor, one of them holding me down. I smelt alcohol on his breath and his weight upon me. His body odour was so pungent, I wanted to vomit. I wanted to scream but not a sound came from my throat. Then, with not a word, he let me go, and stood up. He laughed, contemptuously then, with his friend, turned and left, banging the door violently behind them. Overcome with relief at their departure, and still shaking like a leaf, I broke down in tears. And there I sat, on the dirty floor, staring at the tiny window with bars, with no clue of how I was going to get out of this mess. And for two long hours, there I sat, almost motionless, willing the worst not to happen (by this time, I cared far less about my passport and cash than my very being).
The door opened. A woman guard, thank the lord. She yanked me up and motioned for me to follow her back down the long corridor. Back in the main station area was Jean Paul.
“I’ve called the Consulate and left a message on their out-of-hours emergency line. And now I’m staying put. Don’t worry, I’m not walking out of here without you.” He turned to the detective.
“You can’t keep her here without charging her. You leave her in a cell all night, I’ll make sure her government knows all about it. Do you really want them on your back? We’ve missed the boat and you’ve got her passport. Let her out, she’ll stay at my hotel tonight, and we’ll sort this out properly in the morning.” (In true Swiss style, he was now a one-man Red Cross in the making…)
To my astonishment, the detective didn’t dismiss him. Maybe Jean Paul’s words had hit home – he didn’t want the aggravation. Maybe he was tired. Maybe it had never been part of his plan to keep me in the cell all night – simply just to scare me half to death. Whatever the reason (and I’ll never know, for sure) he turned to my friend and said:
“I agree. One of my officers will accompany you both to your hotel, and will stay outside your door through the night. Be back here at 8 am.” Jean Paul wasted not a moment and pulled at my sleeve.
“Let’s go…before he changes his mind. I’ve got a big room with two beds – one’s yours.”
He grabbed my hand and yanked me through the door. Like a zombie, I walked alongside him, the police officer just behind us. I knew I should be making phone calls to England, writing emails to alert my friends, but by now I was almost numb with terror and exhaustion. I stumbled into his room and fell on one of the beds. Brushing off his offer of food, tea or a hot shower, I pulled the covers over my head, still fully clothed, telling myself that sleep was what I needed. But, of course, sleep never came. Instead, I tossed and turned for hours, grateful for Jean Paul’s presence in the next bed (true to his word, the detective left a police guard outside our room the entire night) but asking myself what fate would await me the following day.
The next morning, we rose early and, accompanied by our guard, returned to the police station. With no sign of my consulate, I was desperate to sort the matter out myself. Over coffee that morning, Jean Paul and I had talked things through and arrived at the same conclusion – that I needed to buy myself out of this situation, as fast as possible. Knowing Africa as well as we did (this was my second trip to the continent and his third), we figured that an offer of “compensation” for the trouble I had “caused” the police was expected and, as long as it was couched in non-forceful language, would be quietly accepted. I had cash, and cash, as they said, was king. A policeman in Zanzibar, I had been told, earned about $50 a month, so any monies that landed in their lap would be more than well received. I forced myself to speak aloud the words I had rehearsed in my head for the last hour.
“I admit to your charges.” I said, facing the detective and his men. “I realise what I did was wrong, that stealing the bed sheet was a crime, and that you have every right to be angry with me. I understand you can arrest me, if you choose to, but I would rather we sorted this out privately. I don’t want to waste any more police time…I’d just like to find a solution to this situation that would satisfy you.”
The detective looked me straight in the eye.
“That seems to me like a sensible way to proceed.” In front of him, on the desk, in front of all of us was my money belt. He motioned to me to pick it up.
“Check inside to see nothing is gone. Place all of its contents on the desk, so we can all see.”
Meekly, I obeyed him. Passport, travellers cheques, credit card and…$250 in cash. (And remember, back in 2002, when a bungalow cost $25, that was big money). The police, Jean Paul and myself stared at the bills. His men seemed mesmorised and, of course, I understood why. This was almost half a year’s salary for them. It was a no-brainer. I had to hand it all over…offering any less than the full amount could jeopordise my freedom. This was no time to be cheap. I could always earn more money. If I blew this opportunity, I might not get a second.
“Please take this money. I very much regret what happened and want nothing more than to clear this matter up and close the case.”
The detective smiled at me slowly. He placed my passport, cheques and credit card back in the belt and carefully zipped it shut. Then, without taking his eyes off me, he lay his hand atop the bills, picked them up, folded them slowly and carefully in two and put them in his pocket. Then, without a sound, he picked up the form on which the charges against me had been written up and tore it up.
Silence reigned. I felt beads of perspiration breaking out on my forehead, partly due to the heat, partly due to the tension. Jean Paul nodded at me. Like me, he knew that the ruse was over, the necessary transaction had been made, and it was time to take my things and be gone. Like me, he was sure beyond doubt that the detective would divvy out the cash later – a cut for the guesthouse owner, a cut for his men, and the rest for himself. A nice little kickback for not much work, that much we both knew. I walked towards the door, and not turning back, stepped out into the blazing heat and cacophony of Stonestown’s main drag. I’d managed to buy myself out of the most dangerous situation I’d ended up in in 15 years on the road. ..now all I wanted was to leave Zanzibar.
And that night I did, with Jean Paul, on the boat. The next morning, in the capital, we said our goodbyes…he was leaving for Mozambique, I was meant to travel onto Uganda. I thanked him from the bottom of my heart for everything he’d done…he said not to worry, that he’d behaved like any other traveller, that it was nothing. But I knew differently. I knew how close I’d come that evening to something terrible – a beating, sexual assault, even rape. Maybe knowing that my friend was returning had deterred them. Without him, who knew what might have happened? Suddenly, I was overcome with shock. The enormity of what had happened was only just beginning to hit me. I didn’t take the bus north, just held myself together, booked into an upscale hotel, then went immediately to Kenya Airlines to change my ticket. The bruises on my arm and the fear on my face were enough to convince them. They found space on the next available flight. The following day, I returned to England.
Trouble in paradise. Indeed.