The boy, the ambassador, and the fatal encounter on the road
Villagers cheering a US convoy in Cameroon watched in horror as a child was struck and killed
The asphalt road where six-year-old Toussaint was struck links cities in Cameroon’s Far North. Photograph: Andrew Esiebo/The New York Times
Irish-American US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power was in the motorcade when one of its cars struck the child. Photograph: Bebeto Matthews/AP Photo
Samantha Power’s motorcade returns to Mokong so Power can apologise to the family of Toussaint Birwe. Photograph: Helene Cooper/The New York Times
Locals get water from a well built by the US government near Toussaint’s family’s house in part-compensation. Photograph: Andrew Esiebo/The New York Times
Toussaint’s grandmother Pauline Yassedi with a portrait of the boy. She was at home when she heard the accident taking place. Photograph: Andrew Esiebo/The New York Times
All life travels the ribbon of asphalt that cuts through this remote village. The women carrying their onions to market atop their heads step aside when a car approaches. The occasional stray cow ambles down the centre, chased by local herders. The men with logs balance jerkily, while an entire family wobbles precariously by on one bicycle.
And children – so many children – dart across the pavement, keeping an eye on the cattle while kicking soccer balls back and forth. So the villagers gathered to watch when an armoured convoy of US officials, led by Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, came bulleting down the road that links cities in Cameroon’s Far North.
They pointed at the gleaming white SUVs and marvelled at the truck carrying Cameroonian “BIR” special forces – fierce men with AK-47s, flak jackets and helmets. They peered at the US Navy Seals guarding the 14-car motorcade, automatic weapons in their arms and bandannas covering their faces.
Six-year-old Toussaint Birwe was one of the curious. Sturdy and serious with deep-set eyes, he was always scrambling across the road, between his grandparents’ house and the market where he would sweet-talk his idol, 18-year-old Aboubakar Oumarou, into buying him candy. Abou was at school, so Toussaint was alone as he skipped alongside the road.
As the first three vehicles passed that day in April, travelling about 45 mp/h (72km/h) through the village at 10.46am, a roar sounded above. Toussaint’s eyes shifted upward to the helicopter that suddenly appeared. Two more SUVs whizzed by, then Toussaint ran onto the asphalt, pointing at the sky. He didn’t see the sixth SUV bearing down on him.
Just 30 or so yards away, Pauline Yassedi was at home when she heard the sound of metal hitting flesh and bone. Some farmer, she thought, was going to be upset that a car had struck his goat. Curious, she hurried out to the road. There, she saw her grandson. Her heart convulsing, Yassedi ran to Toussaint. She knew instantly that he was dead – his head was crushed, his blood was splattered on the asphalt.
Around her it was chaos, people running toward her screaming, officials shouting. At 65, Yassedi often felt aches in her bones, but she found the strength to get on her knees and lift her grandson into her arms. She struggled to get back up, and someone helped her.
But she wouldn’t let him take Toussaint. Wailing, she stumbled home and handed the child to her husband, Voumbele Datchaka. Then, she walked to the river to find Toussaint’s mother.
‘You come here to help’
She still remembers the anger she felt at the sight of the Americans’ SUVs disappearing down the road after one of them had hit Toussaint. And she has not been able to purge the image of the broken boy from her mind.
Power described April 18th as the “worst day of my professional life”. “What can you say?” she said on ABC’s Nightline after the accident. “You come here to help.” Her motorcade had been heading to a UN refugee camp at Minawao, swollen with 60,000 people who had fled Boko Haram, the Islamic extremist group that has terrorised Nigeria for years and moved into Cameroon, Niger and Chad.
Boko Haram has left at least 20,000 people dead and has targeted girls, many of whom have been raped and forced into marriages with their captors.
Soldiers from countries in the region, with help from US special operations forces, had some success in pushing the group back in the months before the ambassador’s visit, though sporadic Boko Haram raids still occurred. The militants have never attacked Mokong, 40km from the Nigerian border, where 55,000 people are scattered in packed-mud houses along creek beds that fill during the rainy season.
But the Islamic group has struck villages closer to the border and the Sambisa Forest, where US military officials believe most of the fighters have been hiding. Two weeks before Power’s convoy came through, Boko Haram kidnapped three children from Maroua, the capital of Cameroon’s Far North.
To the villagers in Mokong, that assault was a distant 32km away. To the US security officials escorting the convoy, that attack was far too close for comfort. That difference in perception says much about African and US cultures, and the varying tolerances each has for risk.
Hunger and poverty take a toll
The killers that the villagers know do not involve armed men. Malaria took the life of one of Toussaint’s sisters at two. Contaminated water fatally sickened another sister at three. Hunger and poverty take a toll: there may not be enough food or money if a family loses its few goats or cows, or if the crops – sorghum, millet, cowpeas (black-eyed peas), rice – wither. And the road has claimed victims. Two teenagers were killed and another injured in the last two years in accidents on a bad curve near where Toussaint was struck.
But for those charged with ensuring the safety of US government officials abroad, the world is a map marked with danger areas: war zones, the shifting terrain occupied by terrorists with Islamic State or al-Qaeda, small-scale insurgencies and other threats. Just being a US official in some countries can make someone a target.
Failure is unacceptable: Congressional panels spent two years and more than $7 million (€6.7 million) investigating why the state department, the Pentagon and the CIA were not able to prevent the deaths of four Americans, including the ambassador to Libya, when the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi was stormed in 2012.
After Toussaint was struck, security officials decided not to halt the speeding motorcade because of safety concerns. An ambulance travelling with the group stopped to offer aid, but there was nothing that could be done. US security officials barked orders to those in SUV No 6, which pulled over briefly after hitting the boy, to rejoin the convoy.
“Keep going!” a voice said. Fifteen minutes later, the motorcade arrived in Mokolo, the provincial capital. Colin Thomas-Jensen, an aide to Power, alighted from SUV No 6. His eyes were watery. The New York Times reporter approached him. “Do you think the little boy is alive?” she asked. “How would I know?” Thomas-Jensen said, adding that he was in the car that didn’t stop after hitting a child. He looked stricken.
A friend had diedChicago
Among them was Aboubakar Oumarou. For reasons Abou never understood, Toussaint had attached himself to him. Abou came to view himself as a big brother to the boy, who was often underfoot begging for piggyback rides to the market. That morning, Abou had been in maths class when the accident happened. With the other students, he ran out to the road. And there he stayed, walking back and forth, anger mounting. He could see the spot, marked with blood, where his little friend had died.
Toussaint was different from most of the children who played along the road in Mokong. His father, Emmanuel Dague, later described him as “exceptional,” saying that his son was thoughtful and avoided trouble.
He spent hours hunting for insects and small rodents, sticking them with pins, saying that they were sick and that he was making them better. Toussaint (so named because he was born to his Catholic family on All Saints’ Day) had recently told his father that he wanted to be a veterinarian. He explained that he had to dissect the creatures to learn what was inside them. After Dague objected, Toussaint often hid behind his grandmother’s house to work on his captives.
He had four siblings – two brothers and two sisters, ranging in age from 11 to not yet one – and when he wasn’t administering his veterinary services, Toussaint was playing with his nine-year-old brother, Aristede. Or pestering Abou.
Abou went to Toussaint’s house after the accident, but the boy’s mother, Fanta Makachi, was sobbing. Yassedi had fetched her from the river, where she had been washing clothes. Toussaint’s father was at a clothing factory in another town; he did not know what had happened because he could not use his mobile phone at work.
Now, five hours later, the police and security officials were yelling at the villagers to stand back. The important US dignitary would be returning. Travelling towards the front of her motorcade that morning and having email problems with her BlackBerry, Power knew nothing of the accident until arriving in Mokolo, near the UN refugee camp, her aides said.
‘Returning to the X’
The security officials didn’t like the idea, US officials said, speaking only on condition of anonymity about internal discussions. They called it “returning to the X”, a diplomatic security phrase that means what you shouldn’t do. Don’t retrace your steps. Don’t fail to change routes at will. And especially, don’t return to the scene of an accident where angry villagers and family members will be waiting.
Throughout the afternoon, Power grimly made her way through the refugee camp, sitting with women who had been brutalised by Boko Haram. But she was insistent about going back to Mokong.
For Power, who declined to be interviewed for this article, there was an awful irony to the events that day. An Irish-American former journalist who became a human rights advocate, White House adviser and diplomat, she had pressed president Barack Obama to intervene in civilian catastrophes.
Along with Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state, she had successfully argued for the use of military force in Libya in 2011 to prevent a humanitarian crisis. The attacks in Benghazi came a year later. The US deaths there may well have influenced Power’s security in Cameroon.
As the vehicles in her entourage left the refugee camp that afternoon, hundreds of children lined the dirt road to wave at the departing dignitaries. Once the SUVs turned onto the paved road, the convoy travelled at about 40km/h, much slower than in the morning.
Vulnerable to attack
That decision to slow down, one US security official said later, was one that he regretted. He said the convoy would have been more vulnerable to a rocket-propelled grenade attack, if Boko Haram militants had launched one.
In Mokong, the front room of Toussaint’s grandmother’s house became crowded with Cameroonian officials and US aides securing the premises. Toussaint’s grandfather, Datchaka, had begun to organise a group of men to dig a grave, but the officials stopped him, telling him to wait for their visitor.
Later, the state department would provide compensation to Toussaint’s family – about $1,700 in cash; two cows; sacks of flour, rice, salt, sugar and onions; and cartons of soap and oil. The US government also had a well built near the front of the family’s house. The money provided for a new roof, according to Dague, Toussaint’s father.
State department officials say such payments are standard for civilians abroad who die as a result of US government activities. The package amounted to about four times what the average family in Mokong subsists on annually. Power also set up an escrow account to personally pay the school fees through high school for Toussaint’s siblings.
Datchaka had never heard the name Samantha Power. At 72, he had spent most of his life in Mokong, where he had farmed until he was too old to chase animals. He had never heard the name Barack Obama, for that matter, and did not know, he said later, that a black man was president of the United States.
Their mood was far different from the welcome of hours before. Where there had been cheering, now there was silence. Where hands had been clapping, now arms were folded across chests. Kitkel, leaning on his walking stick, stared at the motorcade. “I was thinking the whole time how Toussaint was special,” he said later. “American people don’t come here. I had joy that they were coming here, but that turned to anger over what they did.”
Power walked over to Toussaint’s family home. She tried through translators to convey her sorrow over what had happened, US officials said; the child’s grandparents spoke no English or French, only Mofu. Toussaint’s mother was too distraught to say much. His father was still at work, unaware that his son was dead.
Datchaka said he remembered the moment that Power entered his house. He was bewildered, he said, because he had been expecting a president. Who else could command so many people, with so much security, in a motorcade that moved so fast through a town full of people, with a helicopter overhead?
What he saw was an ordinary woman, he said. He couldn’t understand her words of apology, but he remembered that she was crying.
New York Times