JOHN LEGEND "SHOW ME" official video: Remembers the plight of the Two African Stowaways!
By Tim Sullivan and Raf Casert,
Associated Press writers
CONAKRY, Guinea — Anyone paying attention might have noticed something
strange about the two boys slipping into G'bessia Airport.
the West African heat, both were wrapped in sweaters. At their sides
flapped thin plastic bags jammed with birth certificates, school report
cards, photographs and a letter.
Conakry's airport at evening rush hour is not the sort of place where
people pay attention. It is a humidity-choked thicket of confusion
where travelers, hustlers and cab drivers jostle under the terminal's
broad tin roof.
patrol with Kalashnikov rifles. Families jam their faces between metal
bars, straining to see loved ones crossing the tarmac. Corrupt customs
officers with outstretched hands ask travelers, "What do you have for
me?" Women with papoosed babies scramble up garbage piles to hop over
the airport's crumbling outer wall and tend rows of tomatoes near the
Yaguine Koita and Fode Tounkara, two skinny, bookish 14-year-olds
determined to change their lives, apparently passed unnoticed as they
headed for the Brussels-bound Sabena Airlines Airbus A330 that, four
times each week, links wealthy Western Europe to one of Africa's
Here's what Sabena Airlines officials say must have happened next:
boys boosted themselves onto the rear right-hand tires, 5-foot slabs of
black rubber almost their height. Then they grasped the gleaming,
tubular landing gear and swung themselves into the oval-shaped opening
of the wheel bay nearly 12 feet above the tarmac.
the leader, lay down on a metal shelf amid the wires, support bars and
hydraulic tubes. Fode curled up in a coffin-sized space just beneath.
the plane taxied to the runway, the roar of the engines, just 30 feet
from their hiding place, was too loud for them to hear each other. Even
if they screamed.
July 28 1999 journey carrying Yaguine Koita and Fode Tounkara from the slums
of the capital of Guinea to Belgium's front door would soon shake the
prosperous brotherhood of European nations. The determination of two
young boys would yank aside a veil of indifference and confront Europe,
Africa's former colonial master, with a devastating image of the
continent it had left behind. It would even reverberate through the
General Assembly of the United Nations.
It began with a dream.
school, Yaguine and his few close friends would often wander past the
neighborhood maze of decaying shacks, past teen-age girls selling
cigarettes and tiny tins of Nescafe, past unemployed men playing boccie
ball in the red dirt.
would head for a cluster of shaded beach-side rocks where they could
study, talk, kick a soccer ball. There, Yaguine (pronounced Yag-EEN)
would watch the airliners coming and going at G'bessia Airport. There,
his fantasy would take shape.
boy went to school, did homework, lived in a two-room shack with
electricity, a refrigerator and a 10-year-old video game player. His
father, Liman Koita, scratched out a living fixing electrical
appliances. In a country where life expectancy is just 47 years, per
capita incomes are under $2 a day and only 36 percent of adults can
read and write, the Koitas weren't too badly off, relatively speaking.
the TV screen in the shack, Yaguine could watch CNN and a half-dozen
European channels pirated from a distant satellite dish. The boy had
seen James Bond ordering martinis and Bruce Willis saving the world. He
had seen American TV series dubbed into French. He had seen the
promised land, and it was full of white faces.
quiet, rail-thin boy had no interest in replaying his father's life of
quiet desperation. He missed his mother, who had left, remarried and
was now living a blue-collar life outside Paris. He dreamed of going to
school in Europe, getting a good job, becoming a pilot and coming back
to Conakry to help his father.
so, last July, Yaguine sat down and wrote two letters in the flowery
French he had learned at school. He left one of them for his father.
The other he took with him.
he was going to visit his grandmother for a few days, he slipped behind
his house and down a small rutted road, cut through an open-air
mechanic's workshop teeming with grease-covered children, and walked
into Fode Tounkara's yard.
had grown up lost, a boy so desperately shy that he was often forgotten
in a pack of siblings and half-siblings so numerous that family members
disagree on the total.
family lives in a moldy two-room shack that makes Yaguine's house look
practically suburban. Fode's father earns a few dollars a week as a
security guard. A devout Muslim, he has two wives. Fode's mother,
Damaye Kourouma, is a heavyset, bent-over woman who makes 80 cents a
day growing and selling potato leaves, a sort of Guinean spinach.
poverty, relatives and neighbors say, was difficult on Fode (pronounced
FO-day). He was sometimes shunned by the wealthier children at his
school, a conservative Islamic academy. He buried himself in work,
studying or helping his mother tend her garden.
only close friend was Yaguine, with whom he shared shyness and
bookishness. "They were quiet, yes, quieter than the rest of us here.
So they were together all the time," said Fode's brother, Sekou.
father, Karamoko Tounkara, an aloof, bearded man, said Fode was not the
ambitious type, and he is sure the boy simply followed his more worldly
But his mother saw something else.
he knew," she said, sitting on a tiny wooden stool and resting her head
in her hands, "was that his family was poor and he went to Europe so
that he could help them."
news from Africa is rarely good. Millions die or are left homeless in a
relentless cycle of wars, famine, drought and poverty. Nearly one in
five children south of the Sahara dies before age 5. Primary school
enrollment is 74 percent, the lowest of any region in the world. Nearly
half the adults can't read. Of the world's 11 million AIDS orphans, 95
percent are in sub-Saharan Africa.
Children under 15 are fighting in conflicts from Sierra Leone to Congo.
Europe, compassion fatigue has set in. Belgium, the boys' haven of
choice, has an estimated 75,000 illegal immigrants. The country's
bickering political parties agree on one thing: It's too much.
Yet still the desperate tide flows north.
Tens of thousands of Africans make their way to Europe by air, boat or overland, often using phony passports.
year ago, an 18-year-old Senegalese man barely survived a flight in a
wheel well from Dakar, Senegal to Lyon, France. Sent home, he tried the
same thing again, this time to the Ivory Coast, and died along the way.
what Yaguine and Fode did was hardly unprecedented. What was unusual
was the letter they carried — a handwritten plea on a page torn from a
school composition book.
On its envelope Yaguine wrote in French:
"In case we die, deliver to Messrs. the members and officials of Europe."
As Sabena Flight 520 rose from the runway, Yaguine and Fode found themselves at the mercy of physics.
had no seat belts to hold them in place, no cushions to shield them as
the plane accelerated. Yaguine apparently pushed his leg through a hole
in the metal shelf where he lay on his stomach, perhaps trying to stop
himself from banging around.
It would only get worse.
after takeoff, the pilot hauled in the jet's wheels, and the boys were
sealed inside the pitch black wheel well. The four tires, heated from
runway friction to more than 200 F, turned the hiding place into a
furnace. Suddenly their heavy clothes seemed foolish.
Not for long, though.
the A330 soared higher, conditions went from sub-Saharan heat to Arctic
winter in minutes. The cold bit through the boys' plastic sandals.
Their fingers, toes and faces grew painfully cold, then numb.
were devout Muslims. They had a flashlight and each carried a green
prayer book hidden in his trousers. But they didn't take the books out.
The cold turned them sluggish and the thinning air starved their brains of oxygen, muddling their thoughts.
Both boys turned their faces to the metal wall. There they lost consciousness, their wool hats jammed down over their heads.
In Guinea, poverty magnifies all other problems.
hot and humid, Conakry is a city of colonial-era buildings, shutters
rotting off their hinges, and winding roads jammed with fume-spewing
minibus-taxis called magbanas. The jagged ocean front is the toilet to
the city's poorest people. Garbage blows along the roads, piles up at
intersections and in vacant lots.
Smiling children yell "Fote!" (white person) at every European they see, reaching to grab their hands.
economy is showing signs of improvement but Guinea's true capitalists
are its market women. Set up at battered wooden tables along the
streets, they sell batteries and yams and toys and pens and Coke out of
plastic coolers. They sell bananas by the bunch and cloth by the meter
and cigarettes one at a time.
for some top government officials and a tiny clique of wealthy
businessmen, ensconced in gleaming new mansions of marble and glass,
few Guineans live well.
Tidian, 24, two years out of college and still jobless, says the only
profitable pursuit he sees for himself is selling cocaine — "stuff,"
it's called, in a French accent — to that clique.
Fode and Yaguine are heroes, he says, for trying to tell the world "what it's like here."
520 touched down at Zaventem International Airport in Brussels on Aug.
2 and quickly emptied out its 200 passengers. Bleary-eyed after an
overnight flight, Europeans and Africans, businessmen, bureaucrats and
holiday-makers, stepped into the torpor of a cloudless 90-degree Monday
refueling truck pulled to a stop at gate B-40. The driver got out his
hose and was preparing to fill up the plane when he smelled something.
He fetched a three-step stepladder and peaked inside the wheel well.
Dangling from an oval opening was a dark, skinny leg, naked to the
knee, a blue-and-white plastic sandal on the foot.
immediately alerted airport police. Ann Fransen, a Brussels deputy
prosecutor, was investigating a homicide when she got the call to go to
the airport and investigate two dead stowaways. More police arrived,
then an investigating judge, then a medical examiner.
The bodies were laid out on the tarmac; gate B-40 looked like a crime scene.
there the story might have ended — just another case of foolhardy
stowaways who, had they survived, would have been bundled back to
Africa without leaving a trace.
that something caught Fransen's eye as the medical examiner gathered up
the plastic bags of documents the boys were carrying. It was the
envelope that said:
For four days, they were ghosts in the machine.
least three times, they had crisscrossed jungles, the Sahara and Europe
before their bodies were discovered in the jetliner's wheel well. Now
Yaguine and Fode were in the air again, flying home to the West African
nation of Guinea.
this time the two 14-year-olds were inside the airplane, accompanied by
solemn men in solemn suits — their country's ambassador to Belgium and
a representative of the Belgian government. They were being returned
home with honors.
All because of the letter.
the Brussels deputy prosecutor, had been burning to read it ever since
she watched the medical examiner remove it from Yaguine's clothing. It
was late afternoon, hours later, before a copy was faxed to the Palais
de Justice and delivered to her by a clerk.
She sat at her desk, where she keeps pictures of her two little girls, and read:
"Excellencies, Messrs. members and officials of Europe.
have the honor and pleasure and great confidence in you to write this
letter to talk to you of the objective of our journey and the suffering
of us, the children and young people of Africa…
have war, disease, malnutrition, …In Guinea, we have too many schools
but a great lack of education and training. Only in private schools can
one have a good education and good training, but it takes a great sum
of money, and our parents are poor and they have to feed us. Nor do we
have sports schools where we can practice football, basketball or
is why we, African children and youth, ask you to create a great,
efficient organization for Africa to allow us to progress.
if you see that we have sacrificed and risked our lives, it is because
there is too much suffering in Africa and we need you to struggle
against poverty and put an end to war in Africa. …
we appeal to you to excuse us very, very much for daring to write this
letter to the great personages to whom we owe much respect…
"Written by two Guinean children, Yaguine Koita and Fode Tounkara"
This letter, Fransen immediately decided, must not be buried in a file.
"I'm not that emotional," she said later, "but it immediately gripped me."
how to make it public? There was the long way — going through channels
in the law enforcement bureaucracy. And there was the short way — go
directly to the investigating judge. Fransen chose the short way.
Publish it, the judge said. And the floodgates opened.
and Fode's letter was splashed across the continent's biggest
newspapers. Churches and charities campaigning for Africa adopted the
boys as a symbol. The tragedy struck an especially sensitive nerve in
Belgium, where many still feel guilty over their country's past as a
colonial power in Africa — a history of greed and brutality that
inspired Joseph Conrad's novel, "Heart of Darkness."
Guinea the boys were mourned as national heroes, their bodies received
at Conakry's airport by cabinet ministers. Their parents were comforted
by some of the most powerful men in the country. Web sites sprang up
all over the Internet commemorating Yaguine and Fode.
letter reverberated through the United Nations and the International
Monetary Fund, and for a while it seemed that the gulf of indifference
separating Europe and Africa was finally narrowing.
is about one-ninth the size of Guinea and has slightly more people.
"With our limited means we are not able to solve the suffering of the
Third World," says Filip Dewinter, leader of the anti-immigrant Vlaams
Blok (Flemish Bloc) party.
country's political divide is widening. Like populist parties in
Austria and Switzerland, Belgium's is gaining support with its call to
Belgium is also about 30 times richer than Guinea, and its new foreign
minister, Louis Michel, had already been looking for ways to address
Africa's plight and counter the anti-immigrant camp.
The boys' letter, he believed, would be the perfect metaphor.
he made it the theme of his speech Sept. 25 to the U.N. General
Assembly, gathered in New York seven weeks after the bodies were found.
were, Michel told the General Assembly, "victims of their idealism and
their innocence who embarked on this reckless voyage to chase the
mirage of Western civilization."
days later, Michel Camdessus, then managing director of the
International Monetary Fund, opened his address to the board of
governors by quoting from the letter.
tells us that the extent of poverty still present at the end of a
century of affluence is intolerable," Camdessus said. "It is time to
voices of Yaguine and Fode had reached the world's highest forums. But
in Guinea, tolerance began to wear thin. As European journalists
arrived to follow up the story, Guinean officials grew defensive.
the boys even write the letter? Some Guinean officials doubt it. They
insist it's too sophisticated for a 14-year-old. While the handwriting
appears to be Yaguine's, they say he may have copied it from a letter
written by a teacher, an older friend, even an opposition politician
trying to discredit Guinea.
its very artlessness is striking. It is peppered with grammatical
errors. It feels like the work of a child trying to sound like an adult
— and failing.
government gave each family $300 and paid for the burials; then
officials dropped all contact with them. Yaguine, officials said, had
betrayed his nation, embarrassed Guinea before the world.
has an informal social network and family values to cope with poverty,
they said. It wasn't life in Conakry that killed Fode and Yaguine, they
said; it was the false allure of TV images from the West.
responses infuriate Bayo Karamba, a Guinean aid worker and children's
advocate. "They are concerned with keeping the army quiet so there
isn't another coup — period," he said. "They don't care about the
the months that have followed, Europe's cries for change have melted
into letdown. The boys' story faded from front pages. The politicians
started talking about other things. Life went on.
did revive an aid plan for Guinea and forgave about $10 million of
Guinea's $ 3.3 billion in foreign debt, a droplet in the ocean of
"It created hope, but everything is so slow," sighed Michel, the foreign minister.
"It's been forgotten," said Karamba. "By everyone."
the boys' letter rests inside Dossier No. 46.93.123506/99 of the
Belgian state judiciary. And on another continent, in a public
cemetery, two graves 10 feet apart mark the end of the journey for two
boys who had a message for the world.
Staked to each grave is a small metal marker.
Both are blank.