One immigrant’s 25-year journey reaches from Sierra Leone to Spain, through piracy at sea, terror on land, the allure of adventure and the shame of a family left behind.
Engines whir as the plane flies south over the Sahara Desert. Ernest Joseph Thomas rests his head against the window. He watches the sea of sand pass below. A ray of sunlight reflects off the beads of sweat on his forehead. Ernest is dressed in a white linen suit, with faux snakeskin loafers. His ten-gallon red felt cowboy hat sits on his lap; his polished lion-head ring decorates beaten hands. The Brussels Air flight is like a bus route. It stops every few hours unloading and picking up passengers and baggage: Madrid to Brussels, Brussels to Casablanca, Casablanca to Dakar, and finally Dakar to Freetown. Ernest left his home in Freetown, the Sierra Leonean capital, more than 25 years ago. While his return will take many hours, his original journey from Freetown to Barcelona took decades.
Ernest Thomas’ adventure began shortly after the death of his mother. At eighteen Ernest left Sierra Leone for neighboring Liberia in search of educational opportunities and a new start. He settled in the capital, Monrovia. Liberian cousins let Ernest stay in their home and he got a job as an engineer on an international fishing rig. It was a good job, but a tempest was brewing along Liberia’s coast.
In 1991 while at sea, his ship was captured by Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). The First Liberian Civil War had begun two years earlier when Taylor, who would be convicted of war crimes in 2012, led a small rebel invasion, entering Liberia’s Nimba County through the porous northeastern border with the Ivory Coast. As Taylor prepared for an advance on the capital, he needed boats to transport his soldiers. Four of Ernest’s crewmates were summarily executed, but his skills as a mechanic saved his life. Engineers were in high demand to maintain Taylor’s growing fleet.
“They came and negotiated with us, [said] that we are not going to be set free,” Ernest remembers. “We are going to be used to promote the war…any attempts to escape, or any refusal to orders, then you will be killed. So that is how we became part of them.”
Within days he was ferrying NPFL forces fighting troops from ECOMOG (Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group, a peacekeeping force sent by various West African states to defend the capital). Ernest spent nearly a year working on Taylor’s ships. He became a trusted “chief engineer” in the ragtag NPFL navy. Yet he says he always considered himself a POW, and felt no loyalty to Taylor’s homicidal bloodlust. While stationed in the coastal city of Buchanan, Ernest met and fell in love with a local woman named Deakontii. He paid a dowry for her hand, as is customary, and within months Deakontii was pregnant with their daughter Kadie.
In September 1992, the NPFL was preparing Operation Octopus, in which they hoped to capture Monrovia, the capital. Ernest was busy transporting fighters and logistics, as well as participating in naval attacks on ECOMOG positions. After one of these missions, “a message came to the battalion that they needed a qualified mechanic,” Ernest recalls. “It was a dangerous mission. We have to cross through the ECOMOG forces, through Monrovia, and head to Cape Mount.” He recounts how they stashed their weapons, munitions and amulets under their seats, how an admiral carried multiple bags stuffed with fifty- and one-hundred-dollar US bills, bribes to get through the ECOMOG checkpoints. The group drove directly to their enemy’s base in the heart of Monrovia. Ernest says this was the moment he promised himself that if he survived he would escape. He was done with the war. On the return trip he’d make a run for his cousin’s home in Monrovia.
While their convoy stopped at a brewery, Ernest says he asked a friend to watch his rifle and ammunition and told him he was going outside to get cigarettes. “From there to [my cousin’s house], it was less than a mile,” Ernest explains. Once out of sight Ernest caught the first taxi to cross his path and he disappeared into Monrovia.
Shortly after escaping, Ernest sent for Deakontii and baby Kadie, still in NPFL territory. For three months they kept a low profile. Ernest worked day jobs at the port, and was able to care for his young family. But he worried about Operation Octopus. The city was under siege, and the only safe exit was by sea. Ernest knew that if the NPFL was successful in taking Monrovia, it would only be a matter of time before he was recognized. If he was caught, he would be executed for treason. Most likely his wife and daughter would pay with their lives for his crime as well. Ernest says he had to make an impossible decision. “I left them there,” he regretfully admits. “I’m a military man, I have to be strong. And believe that anything that happens, it is God’s will…And I know if I’m there, I’m a dead man.”
When the opportunity to escape Monrovia presented itself, Ernest didn’t think twice. He learned that a fishing company was getting ready to depart from Monrovia. “They wanted to get it out,” he says, “but they needed a very good crew that can handle a trip straight to Canary Islands,” the Spanish archipelago off the coast of Morocco.
The vessel made it to the Canary Islands, unloaded and left, but Ernest remained. “I declared myself to the Red Cross,” he says. Claiming to be a Liberian refugee from the ongoing civil war, Ernest was granted refugee status by Spanish immigration authorities. With the corresponding documents he was temporarily allowed to move freely within Spain, however he was prohibited from working. “It’s like that; I’m a refugee,” he says. “Life goes on.”
After months in Las Palmas (the capital of the Canary Islands), surviving on church handouts, Ernest left for nearby Lanzarote, where he immediately approached a charity for help. A social worker there suggested he travel to Almeria, in southern Spain. The region’s “Green Sea” (as the area is known locally due to the expansive network of industrial greenhouses) was in constant need of laborers. He says the charity paid for the flight and gave Ernest the equivalent of ninety euros when he got off the plane in Almeria.
Ernest spent more than four years picking tomatoes and vegetables. It was backbreaking work, but it paid well, more than he’d make for years to come. However, the election of the right-wing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and the resurgence of xenophobic politics made it hard to get residency in Spain. “Some friends start coming from Portugal, and every time when they are coming they are like, ‘We can move, we got paper, we can move,’” Ernest says. They told him residency documents were easier to get in Portugal. Lisbon was preparing for the 1998 World Exposition and immigrant workers made up the backbone of the construction force. So Ernest decided to test his luck in the Portuguese capital.
His friends weren’t lying. In Lisbon there was plenty of work, and the immigration bureaucracy was far simpler than in Spain. Within months he had his first construction job, and a girlfriend from Mozambique. When the World Exposition was complete, Ernest won his temporary Portuguese residency and was offered a contract to work in the Azores, a string of Portuguese islands in the North Atlantic). For six months he bent rebar rods on an airport expansion in the middle of the ocean.
Upon returning to Lisbon, things had changed. The girlfriend had moved on to the Netherlands and the construction job market was dry. Ernest decided to return to the fields of Almeria. But he quickly remembered why he’d left the hot greenhouses in the first place. He fell in with an African gang that laundered money in the region. “I met some brothers from Liberia; these were a bunch of criminals during that time,” he says. “We start grooving you know, money flowing.” Ernest spent a few months with the gang, running money from southern Spain to Madrid. While he’d never seen so much cash, he quickly recognized the risk involved. After totaling a car in an accident outside of Albacete, Ernest decided this was not the life he wanted. He moved to Barcelona to start anew. But he didn’t know anyone there. He didn’t know the city, and his Portuguese documents were about to expire.
The first years in Barcelona were a hard-knock life. He hustled to survive, doing odd jobs, recycling things from dumpsters and reselling them, and dealing hash and marijuana to tourists. Bouncing between squatted buildings, he was never able to hold on to anything. By 2001 Spain was facing the reality of mass immigration from North and Sub-Saharan Africa. According to a 2003 Migration Policy Institute study, migration flows to Spain exploded at the turn of the century. The foreign population living in the country grew by 23% between 2000 and 2001, more than double the average growth in previous years. Thousands of people had already lost their lives in the dangerous boat rides from Africa to the Canary Islands and southern Spain. In Barcelona, Plaza de Catalunya had become a campsite for recent arrivals to the city. More than two hundred undocumented immigrants slept on the benches and sidewalks. The National Police would eventually evict them from Plaza Catalunya, detaining and deporting dozens.
In October 2002, almost a year after the eviction, I met Ernest in Plaza Catalunya when I was researching my final thesis project for Hampshire College. Over the years, he and I developed a close friendship and as a result he invited me to tell his story, and to accompany him on his first trip home to Sierra Leone.
* * *
In the decade since leaving Monrovia, Ernest never communicated with his family. With the onslaught of Operation Octopus, Monrovia became a violent battlefield. Ernest didn’t know if Deakontii and Kadie had survived. The war he escaped in Liberia eventually spread to Sierra Leone, where Charles Taylor sponsored Foday Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in exchange for blood diamonds. Ernest worried that his sisters had been caught in the fighting. Together the two conflicts spanned more than a decade and left over 300,000 dead.
Unbeknownst to Ernest, his wife and daughter did survive, settling near Buchanan in Bassa County. In Sierra Leone, Ernest’s sisters were scattered by the RUF’s invasion of Freetown. Three stuck it out near where they’d grown up, seeking refuge with ECOMOG troops at the height of the fighting. Annie, his youngest sister, went on the move, working the country’s network of rivers as a smuggler.
Ernest says he tried countless times to call his wife and contact his sisters. But during most of the period when the dual wars were waging, telecommunications were spotty at best and each futile attempt was a painful reminder of what he’d escaped and left behind. “It was impossible, I just look at them in the televisions, seeing people running with amputated arms, and all this kind of thing,” Ernest says. “The war in Sierra Leone, I only saw it like a movie.” Having participated in Liberia’s war, Ernest knew what the conflict in Sierra Leone felt and smelt like. But he ignored his worst fears and hoped that when it was possible he’d see his family again. With the war in Sierra Leone finally coming to a close in 2000 Ernest started sending messages home with friends – “go and tell my sister this is how she can get in touch with me” – and eventually he received a call from his younger sister Josephine. Within weeks he tracked down Deakontii and Kadie in Liberia. Miraculously, they were all fine.
Since locating his family, Ernest has regularly sent home remittances both to his wife and daughter in Bassa County and to his sisters in Freetown. In 2007, years of living precariously gave way to some semblance of stability. Ernest won his Spanish residency, allowing him to move freely and work legally. He became a licensed welder and learned to operate complex industrial laser cutters. He built a loving relationship with a Cuban woman he’d been dating for years. Now Ernest could finally think about going “down line” (back to Africa). Before this, he says the thought didn’t cross his mind. He couldn’t let nostalgia overshadow the sacrifices he’d made.
* * *
April 8, 2007 – the jet taxis through a graveyard of airplane skeletons before it stops 150 feet short of Freetown-Lungi Airport’s main terminal. Stepping out of the air-conditioned cabin, a wave of heavy tropical heat reminds Ernest he’s home. After the appropriate twenty-euro bribes to customs officials and baggage handlers, he finds the car that has been sent to pick him up – it is paid for by Dr. Abbeh, a wealthy Sierra Leonean expat living in London; Ernest has won a contract to lead the renovation of Dr. Abbeh’s home in Freetown.
The driver navigates the dark but busy Freetown streets. Ernest is silent, watching everything, his jetlag forgotten. Small things jog his memory, but the time past is disorienting. The bloody wars of Liberia and Sierra Leone left Freetown scarred. Some buildings are still littered with pockmarks from small arms fire, and others remain the ruins they were reduced to during the war. Basic infrastructure like electricity and running water are unreliable at best, and non-existent for most. Regardless, the city is alive. The hum of generators and music blasting from sound systems mixes with the constant bleat of car horns. At night, traffic is an organized free-for-all, with pedestrians and vehicles weaving seamlessly together. The smell of burning plastic wafts through the air. “It’s like it’s the same but not the same,” Ernest says almost to himself as he instructs the driver where to turn to get to his sister’s home. Hoping to surprise his family, he has kept his return a secret.
They park the car but leave the headlights on to illuminate the wooden single-story cabin that Ernest points out. He pauses and takes a deep breath like he’s about to dive into a pool. “I think this is her house,” he says. The residential street, unlike the center of the city, is abandoned. People sleep in their beds, resting for the coming day. His knocks echo through the silence. Inside there is a commotion, as sleepy bodies stumble to their feet. “Who dat?” a groggy-sounding woman yells from inside. Ernest is silent. “Who—”
“It’s me,” Ernest cuts her off. There is silence and then whispering. Clack, the door’s locks are opened from the inside. A woman covers her eyes from the shine of the headlights. “Is that you?” she asks. Ernest gives her a hug, knocking off his red felt hat in the process. She is laughing and crying, hooting and hollering. They step off the front porch, holding hands. Josephine, Ernest’s second sister, is in shock. She can’t contain herself and the tears stream down her cheeks. They hug again and Ernest wipes his glassy eyes. Again there is silence, as they gather themselves. Then, just as suddenly as he arrived, Ernest tells his sister he’ll visit her tomorrow and instructs the driver to start the car. He’s not staying with family. Using my comfort as his excuse, Ernest explains we’ll be sleeping in Dr. Abbeh’s guesthouse.
* * *
With a warm Guinness in his hand and his red felt hat on his head, Ernest struts across the dance floor of Paddy’s bar in Aberdeen, a shoreline neighborhood of Freetown. Back when Ernest left Sierra Leone, Paddy’s didn’t exist. During the war it was a popular hangout for diamond traffickers, government officials, aid workers, mercenaries, “big men” and prostitutes. Eventually the bar would close due to fighting, only to reopen shortly before Ernest’s return. Tonight the crowd is more subdued. But its makeup of the clientele is similar as it was during the war, with the addition of more diplomatic staff and missionaries. Ernest dances with a prostitute to the music of the Nigerian pop sensation P-Squared. He drinks and laughs with new friends, enjoying the night and the access his return has brought him.
The next morning, bare-chested Ernest eats breakfast – he spreads fried fish across his bread, mixing it in with some mayonnaise and a tomato – and unpacks the clothing he bought and dumpster-dived for in Barcelona. Shirts and pants sit in neat piles, the majority of which end up back in a military duffle bag. All of Ernest’s sisters and their kids are coming for lunch and he makes sure there are gifts for everyone. For most of his nieces and nephews this will be the first time they meet their uncle, and he wants to make a lasting impression.
Seated comfortably at the head of the table, Ernest pours himself a glass of Rioja from a bottle he brought from Barcelona. He’s the only one drinking. There is Josephine, plus Sally, Miriam, Annie, and all of their children. Between sips Ernest interrogates his sisters and nieces. What are they doing? How is school going? Whatever happened to so-and-so? Ernest is playing catch-up. His sisters thank him for the money he has sent over the years. They talk about the war, and the dead. Ernest doesn’t really delve into his own participation in the war in Liberia. His sisters talk about his grandmother’s death. How the funeral went. How they were dressed.
Ernest describes his journey from Monrovia to the Canary Islands, and on to the Iberian Peninsula and eventually Barcelona. He tries to describe the tomato fields of Almeria, the construction sites in Lisbon, and what it means to be illegal, without documents. He wants them to understand how he has struggled while in Europe. But his position contrasts his words. He is strong, he comes bearing gifts and wearing fancy clothes. He has quickly assumed his role as the family patriarch, as the “Big Man.” All of his teenage nieces and nephews are enamored by his story. Their uncle’s stature is not lost on them. “Not all that glitters is gold,” he tries to persuade them. Europe is not all that it’s made out to be. But his words fall on deaf ears. His eldest niece insists “Up Line” (Europe) has treated him well.
Ernest and I have talked many times about what he was trying to say that day. For him, starting a new life in Europe was a process full of sacrifices, regrets, guilt and disillusion. While this new life brings him status in Freetown, Ernest was telling his family that he’s lost something along the way.
* * *
2011 – four years have passed since Ernest’s inaugural trip home to Freetown. In 2008 the Spanish economy collapsed and it still hasn’t recovered. Ernest is unemployed, again. I’ve noticed a change in him. The years in Spain have taken their toll. He is tired of Europe and doesn’t want to grow old here. Today he is preparing a convoy of trucks he’ll lead from Barcelona to Freetown. They will take the ferry to Tangier and then drive south along the Atlantic Coast. Parts of the route are fraught with bandits, pirates, Islamic militants and corrupt government officials, but Ernest seems unfazed by the potential threats. His eyes are on the prize.
With the economic crisis many of the large Spanish logistics companies have been forced to downsize, auctioning off their vehicles below cost. An entrepreneurial Spanish-Dominican duo bought a fleet of semis and tractor-trailers and sold them off to migrants heading home. Ernest and a Spanish friend invested everything they had in their convoy. All of Ernest’s $8,000 severance package is tied up in the trip. If it goes smoothly he says the investment will be well worth it.
Ernest squeezes car tires tightly around the Renault Magnum packed inside one of his trailers. From floor to ceiling are boxes of clothing, furniture, an industrial stove, kitchen supplies, car parts, and other odds and ends. For years he has been collecting from worksites, bargaining at flea markets and dumpster-diving. He pulls down the trailer’s doors, careful not to let anything fall out. He locks the latch and moves on to another. The undercarriage of the vehicle is sagging dangerously low.
Ernest has plans. Once in Freetown he’s going to sell the semis to raise capital for future projects. Then he’s going to set up a bakery and cafe for his sisters to run, and finally he wants to use the cars he’s transporting to build a taxi empire in Freetown that can support all of his family when he returns to Europe. Ernest climbs into the cab of one of his trucks. He revs the engine and smiles. Everything is almost ready.
* * *
December 2015 – I park the ZipCar I’ve rented for the evening and run towards the arrivals terminal of Barcelona’s International Airport. I’m fifteen minutes late and Ernest is probably wondering why I’m not there. I’m paranoid about immigration and Ernest’s residency documents are just a few weeks from expiring. As I run, I scold myself for not being on time. I find Ernest surveying the crowd of people waiting for arriving passengers. I walk up to him and hug him, relieved he’s back. I take his bag and we head to the car.
We drive out of the parking area and into the Barcelona night. It has been more than three years since Ernest drove his convoy to Freetown. I’ve had a second daughter since he’s been gone, and my first daughter isn’t the baby he remembers. We have years to talk about.
We start with the overland trip to Freetown. He complains of the days lost in border crossings and the chaos of African bureaucracy. He didn’t like Mauritania, and says the Mauritanians didn’t like him. The trip was far longer and costlier than he expected. Once in Freetown he admits that his plans didn’t pan out as he’d hoped. He overestimated what he could sell the semis for, and underestimated what it would cost to start a business in Freetown. But there is no regret in his voice.
I park the ZipCar in its spot and we walk toward my apartment. My eldest daughter immediately recognizes her “Uncle Ernest.” Clinging to my leg she giggles uncontrollably, her sudden shyness overwhelming her. Ernest hugs my partner and our one-year-old in her arms. “This one is going to be troublesome!” he says. My partner says she’ll take the kids to bed, so Ernest and I escape to my office.
Ernest sips a cold Voll-Damm, a malty Spanish beer popular among seasoned Barcelona drinkers. We talk deep into the night. I ask him about the Ebola outbreak and he admits it was scary but he’s thankful no one close to him fell ill or died. He describes watching people run from a sick man in Freetown’s fish market, and the precautions he enforced in his compound. Fundamentally, this consisted of washing everything regularly with bleach – furniture, bedding, clothes, feet, hands and body. He asks me about my time as a photojournalist covering the conflict in eastern Ukraine. He says he read my articles on the uprising in Maidan and saw my photos of Donetsk on Facebook. Ernest says “now we’ve both been in war,” and reminds me of a popular rhetorical Liberian saying: “Where were you, when men were men?” We both chuckle, though mine is more nervous than his.
We talk about his family and friends. He laughs and jokingly says he needed to get away. He explains how shortly after his return to Sierra Leone he paid for his wife and daughter to come live with him in Bo, a city in the south of the country. It had been decades since they’d lived together and Ernest says he wanted to try to pick up where he left off. But the gulf of years apart was too wide to bridge. The one-year-old baby he’d left in Monrovia is now a 22-year-old woman. Ernest explains she wants to come to Europe, adding she thinks everything is easy here. He laughingly complains, “she has a hard head.” Ernest describes how his relationship with his wife has grown distant. He says she was always a God-fearing woman, but he thinks that since the war her faith has become more zealous. He says she is constantly nagging him to come to church, and condemning what she calls his “blasphemous lifestyle.”
Ernest makes a painful admission: when he arrived in Spain he buried his memories of his family. His life had to go on, otherwise the impossible decision he’d made would have been made in vain. He says there was no other way to look but forward. He became accustomed to the solitude of his bachelor life in Europe. When I ask him if he thinks his wife resents his escape, Ernest pauses for a while, then he acknowledges that he doesn’t know.
I ask him what his plan is, now that he is back. With the current refugee crisis in Greece and Italy, Europe isn’t as welcoming to immigrants as it used to be. But Ernest is confident things will eventually work out in his favor.
Within three weeks he lands a construction job and within three months his Spanish residency is renewed. He rents a room in the apartment of a woman from Equatorial Guinea. Ernest is still focused on moving forward. But now his gaze is fixed on Africa. He talks about his responsibilities to his family in Freetown and Bo: “When I’m here I’m taking care of them.”
Ernest’s ultimate goal is to provide for one of his family’s next generation to be educated in Europe. Only then he says, “I can retire to Freetown. Kick up my feet, and enjoy life. You know, cool runnings.”
* * *
Wil Sands is a photojournalist and documentary photographer based in Barcelona, Spain. In 2011 he co-founded Fractures Collective, an international photography collective. As a storyteller Wil is particularly interested in stories that add nuance and complexity to public discourse.