Rajeesh was the only one who knew anything about the city of Cotonou, Benin, and having gone out regularly he had picked up a working knowledge of French. At the beginning of their stay, Liady Furaimo’s African friends would shop for the Indian men, but not long after Rajeesh would go out on his own for the marketing. Only now that Liady Furaimo had absconded with US$22,000 and Rajeesh was entrusted by the eleven stranded men with the job of getting food, did he realize that Liady Furaimo had instructed all the stallholders he usually patronized to overcharge him so that they could share the profits. When Rajeesh began buying from other shops, he recognized that this was another way for the Africans to squeeze the money from them. Finally he could attempt to bargain on his own, and even with his undeveloped French, he was saving money by handling the transaction himself.
Embarking on quest to find Liady Furaimo, Rajeesh assumed that their residence belonged to Liady Furaimo and that neighbors would know him. This was a dead end. His next lead was the French Embassy to ask about the transit visas that they’d been promised. The French Embassy official, Emil, immediately detected that the Canadian visas in their passports were fake, but for a fee he connected Rajeesh with his friend Crystal, who would solve that problem and get them to Canada. Crystal had the resourcefulness and competence of someone who worked for a travel agency. Six years in the US and four years in the UK lent him the qualifications, expertise, the language and the manners to deal with smart white people. $2,000 each should be enough to solve this minor problem, thank you very much.
Crystal, their new guide and adviser, suggested transiting through Morocco rather than through France: the white people are cleverer at spotting irregularities. Rajeesh turned over some of the remainder of their money for Crystal’s assistance. They would dispatch one man first and if he succeeds, then the others could follow. Everyone wanted to be that man, but because he had the most pressing financial problems and the nicest English, Boomi was chosen. He still had the invitation letter from Liady Furaimo’s company in Canada, and was confident that once he arrived in Montreal, he would capable of persuading the Canadian authorities of the authenticity of the job and talking his way through.
With his ticket to Casablanca on Royal Air Maroc, Boomi made his way to the Cotonou’s airport on 19 Mar 2011, two and a half months after leaving India. The $2,000 that Chrystal passed to the immigration officer who checked the passport on leaving the country facilitated that step. Boomi was finally making progress.
Landing at the Casablanca, passengers were directed either to the baggage collection or the transit hall. Boomi presented his passport again to be scrutinized by the officer. Not having benefited from Crystal’s acquaintance, this officer peered at the visa through a magnifying lens, rubbed it with his fingers, scratched it for surface integrity, and asked Boomi to follow him into another room.
The room had 18 men from various countries, including Benin, Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, and India. The men were asked to produce supporting identification and documents, which were also inspected and fingered for weight and quality. Even the airport cleaner could have ascertained that the Canadian visa was bogus, but these men were far more careful in their investigation.
The flight from Benin landed in the morning, and the afternoon flight bound for Montreal came and went. Other men showed outrage about missing their flights and demanded to know how long they’d be held in this indignity. If the documentation was genuine, they’d be allowed to board a later flight, they were told, but if not they could be sent to jail. Boomi’s check-in luggage had already gone, and he had only his hand-carry with him. He tried to remain calm.
That evening twelve of the men, including Boomi, were taken to a small room and told to strip down to their underwear for a body search. These men were all under suspicion, but Boomi’s false visa was less serious than a false passport and Boomi would be sent back to Benin. The visa wasn’t his fault, he’d paid an agent for it and had no idea that it was a forgery, he explained. While they waited, the airlines provided the men with an inadequate meal that must be what Moroccans like, pita bread stuffed with meat, coke and a banana.
He spent one night and one day in that small room in the Casablanca airport together with twelve other men who’d been selected and separated from the various planeloads of passengers that day. Whenever Boomi asked the police how long he’d be held, they told him to talk to the airline people. One good thing about the police, though, was that they treated the men decently. They’d offer a cigarette, even lighting it themselves and like a friend placing it in the man’s mouth. Boomi had been given some US dollars by Rajeesh and asked a policeman to buy him a SIM card so he could make calls. He called Rajeesh and told him the fake visa had been spotted, and he was being detained.
Rajeesh, never one to make a decision on his own, called Crystal who assured him that this could be sorted out in no time, the officials only needed to ask Boomi a few questions about where he was going and why. There are so many flights every day and they’ll hold him just a while longer and let him go. Boomi was relieved to hear this, even if it meant waiting longer.
Without windows to the outside, the men had no way to judge the time. It seemed like hours later that a policeman came with a big ledger book to write Boomi’s particulars and tell him that his offence was not jailable and he’d have to return to Benin. Another call to Rajeesh elicited the advice to bribe someone in charge. Boomi’s persistent questions were exasperating enough to the airline officers, so he knew that further attempts at persuasion, even with monetary enticement was not likely to work. They told him that he would go to jail if he continued to pester them with questions.
The airline officials took his passport from the police and wouldn’t let him hold it himself. They escorted him to the plane through a separate channel, like a prisoner. Boomi preferred to accept the personal treatment like a VIP.
Crystal saw this as an opportunity to earn more by employing his diplomatic skills. If Boomi were to return to Benin so soon after leaving, immigration would know that something had gone wrong and might create more problems. Crystal could handle this for another $2,000. Rajeesh paid the required amount, and Crystal must have worked his magic because when Boomi arrived at Cotonou airport at 2:30 am, he was not incarcerated but allowed to walk out freely.
And back to the upper floor room where he and ten other once-hopeful men from India had been half-confined since January.