Hostages of the System: “All in all, it was worse than a prison”, says a young Ghanaian

“Waiting is the worst. You just wait and wait and then you wait some more. It’s even worse than if you were actually in prison because you don’t even know what you are doing time for or what your sentence is. I saw grown-up men lying down on the floor and crying because they did not know what would happen to them. One of them even said that he would rather be dead,” says a young football player, an immigrant from Ghana, about life in a guarded centre for foreigners.

I am from Ghana, from a nomadic tribe. We travel from place to place, looking for the best pastures for our cattle. In our world, a cow’s life is often worth more than a man’s life – there are bands of armed robbers taking animals from farmers and nomads such as ourselves. If we resist, blood is spilt.

I saw my cousin get killed like that. He was quick to anger so he tried to fight and they just bashed his skull in. This is not something discussed or written about openly because all media in Ghana are state-controlled. Besides, it’s not a matter of any interest for anyone in the world.

This account is a part of the “Hostages of the System: Stories from guarded centres for foreigners” campaign carried out by the Association for Legal Intervention as part of the “No Detention Necessary” initiative.

My father died when I was little. My mother raised my brothers and myself on her own. I heard that she had fled to Burkina Faso so maybe we will meet again someday. I do not know where my brothers are, both have gone missing. I fear that they might be dead because they were in an area where fighting was taking place.

To score a goal

I have always wanted to be a football player. I have practiced a lot ever since I was a kid and imagined myself scoring a decisive goal in a World Cup match. When I was seventeen, a recruitment agent from Europe noticed me and I ended up in Moldova. I played in the major league there but there were few opportunities to develop there so I accepted a proposal for being transferred to Poland without a moment’s hesitation.

It was only after my arrival that I understood that the man who was supposed to find a football club for me in Poland was only taking money from me while not getting anything done.

I filed for permanent residence with a Polish office and started looking for a team on my own. I lived with a flatmate and sometimes went to parties with him. One day, we went to another city for a friend’s birthday party. As we were coming back on an early train, dozing off like one would after a night of partying, we were suddenly woken up by two people wearing uniforms. They wanted to see our IDs.

Detained on a train

It was then that I learned that a negative decision had been taken with regard to my stay in Poland two months earlier and that my stay in the country had been illegal ever since. I was not notified of this in any way, there had been no letter, no e-mail, and no phone call from the office.

They twisted my arms behind my back and handcuffed me. I was frightened because I had never been handcuffed before and it hurt. People on the train looked at me like I was some sort of a criminal – a black hooligan apprehended at last. They put me in the back of a van and drove me to the airport to the border guard. There, they stripped me naked for a pat-down. I feel like crying every time I recall those events. I mean, I was not aggressive in any way, I cooperated.

I was locked away for the night in a detention facility. The smell of urine there was so strong it was nauseating. The window was slightly ajar but it only made the room colder. It was February and I was wearing light clothes which were barely warm enough to go to a party and back again. I slept on the concrete floor with only a thin mattress and a blanket. In the morning, I got a cup of tea and a slice of bread with butter. The cup was sticky with grime.

They said I had no right to an attorney

They undressed me again in the afternoon and then took me to court. I had no attorney. They said I was not entitled to one and I believed them.

After the proceedings were over, they transported me to a guarded centre for foreigners. They undressed me for a third time. I think they were making sure I was not carrying a concealed weapon.

I do not know why that place is called a guarded centre. Why not just call a spade a spade and say it’s a prison? As far as going for a walk is concerned, you can circle the facility and that’s that. Our cows back in Ghana had more space to themselves. Guards watch over you at all times. If you row with a guard or with another inmate, they may hit you, handcuff you, or put you in solitary confinement. It’s a dark room without windows and with a bed as the only piece of furniture.

The food is all right and served on clean plates but the portions are so small that they would not be enough even for a woman, let alone a young man such as myself. Pangs of hunger wake you up at night even if you manage to fall asleep after the last visit of the guards for the day. Breakfast is served at nine. It’s difficult to kill time until then – people just walk up and down corridors anxiously. It’s best to save some bread from the canteen and take it to your room. I think I’ve lost around 10 kilograms during my stay there.

Waiting is the worst

Waiting is the worst. You just wait and wait and then you wait some more. It’s even worse than if you were actually in prison because you don’t even know what you are doing time for or what your sentence is. I saw grown-up men lying down on the floor and crying because they did not know what would happen to them. One of them even said that he would rather be dead. I did not cry over my misfortune any more after I learned more about how they ended up there.

My case is still pending. Most of my friends stopped contacting me after I was sent to the centre. I wish I could go back to playing football professionally. I could even start at the very bottom, from the fifth league.

Text: Magdalena Olga Olszewska

Drawing: Daniel Chmielewski

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