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Tuesday, 5 November 2002

From Niger to The Netherlands: Barkar, between hope and fear

Source: Behind the mask
 By De Gay Krant/Henk Krol

November 2002: Barka Hara doesn't know how old he is. He grew up in Kari, a small village on the edge of the Sahara. Like in many parts of Niger, no records are kept of births and deaths. Especially not in Barka's case. He doesn't know his parents, nor does he know whether they are still alive. He has lived in Kari as far as he can remember, staying with an older man he called "my uncle". This Wada looked after Barka as well as after his own two children, Saidu and Mansuru. By now, these two, who were quite a bit older that Barka, no longer lived at home and had children of their own.

The uncle taught Barka basket weaving. At first they were able to make some money this way, but as time passed by, the market collapsed. Barka and his uncle could hardly sell baskets in the Bagagee market place any more.

Barka always loved going to Bagagee with his uncle. This neighbouring village was considerably larger that Kari. It was a place where you could always meet interesting people. When his uncle decided no longer to go to the market every week because the costs had started to outweigh the profits, Barka decided to seize the opportunity.

He went to the market all by himself. There he met Alhadji Maishi, a man who made quite an impression on him. From that moment on, they had regular contact. Also, Barka and Alhadji got on well sexually. When the uncle died of old age some time later, Barka decided to move in with Alhadji. Alhadji was always finding ways of making money. He knew quite a number of married muslim men who were willing to pay for sex with a young man, particularly a minor. The two friends simply assumed that Barka was a minor, as he had never received a call-up for national service in the army. And there was no official information available, simply because there was no written record of Barka's birth. All Barka had was a piece of paper with the names of his parents written on it: Rashid Mama and Ajara Abdullai. Where they lived or whether they were still alive he did not know.

At first, Barka wasn't happy. He didn't want to make love to other men, but the need for money was great. Alhadji calculated that they could earn between 1000 and 2000 francs (R.15 - R.30) per customer and promised Barka that he could keep half the profits. Eventually he agreed. Together they entertained two to three men a week. After four months, during the week before Ramadan, things went wrong. Apparently they had been betrayed. While they were busy with a customer, the chief's (local headman's) bodyguard crashed through the door. At least six armed cops arrested and handcuffed Barka and Alhadji. Barka recognised some of the militias. They were the same men that forced merchants in the market place to part with a percentage of their profits. The customer, who apparently was part of the plot, was allowed to leave. The two friends were transferred to the compound of Bora, the local headman of the villages of Babagee and Kari. They were locked in the cellblock. There were already three prisoners in the cell in which they were locked up. Within just a few hours, the sentence was made known: they were to be hanged. The three other inmates were not surprised; the same fate awaited them. The next day, the longest serving inmate was taken away for his sentence to be carried out. His eyes were covered with a black cloth when they took him. He never returned. In the following days, this horrific procedure repeated itself. Barka and Alhadj were now the only remaining prisoners. The prison guard, who brought them some porridge, bread and water once a day, took them before the headman, who told them the executions were temporarily suspended until after the Ramadan.

One evening, a week after the sugar festival, the thatched roof of the prison caught fire. There was a panic, and the guards had their hands full fighting the fire. Barka and Alhadji seized their chance and took flight. Because of the mayhem they lost contact with each other. Barka ran straight through the forest. He kept on running all night. The next day he arrived in Dougoudonor, not far from the town of Zinder. Exhausted and tearful, he sat by the side of the road. He was accosted by a truckdriver from Zinder, whom he told his whole story. The driver advised him to get out of Niger completely, especially now that he was a fugitive and that it was known he had worked as a prostitute and would probably be killed eventually. The driver offered to smuggle Barka to Benin. He was going there to collect goods in the harbour of Cotonou. From there, Barka could try to flee to Europe.

It was a journey that took many days. From Zinder they went to Maradi and then in the direction of Niamey. There they took the main road to Parakou in Benin. From there they still had to go to Cotonou. All this time Barka was forced to hide in the small sleeping quarters behind the driver's seat. Once at the harbour, Barka saw the driver negotiate with the captain and give him money. Eventually he was allowed to board, on condition that he wouldn't ask questions. He then spent many days on bread and milk in a small space behind the engine room. At the end of the trip he was put out onto the quay. It was cold and wet. That was Barka's first experience of Europe, in January of this year. Suddenly he found himself in Rotterdam. At the police station he was given a train ticket to Breda and a connecting bus ticked to Rijsbergen, where he had his first of a long series of interviews in order to obtain asylum.

In the meantime, Barka is staying at an asylum-seekers hostel in the east of Holland. In the hospital, his fictitious birth date was determined as the 1st of January 1982. He shares his room with three other Africans. In a few months, next to his own languages Hausa and French, he learned to speak quite a bit of Dutch and quite a lot of English. Two weeks ago he was told that his request for asylum had been denied. He has to go back to Niger, and is terrified. His first lawyer has deserted him. Barka can still appeal, but then his second lawyer then has to resort to every trick in the book. While awaiting expulsion, Barka is no longer allowed to attend Dutch classes. That is why he watches Dutch TV every night. "That way, I can still learn a bit of your language", he says in Dutch. Two weeks ago, someone gave him the address of the Gay Krant (a Dutch gay newspaper). Maybe they could help him. That same weekend he went to a gay festival - for the first time. The party was in full swing: a heart-rending contrast, a sad Barka in the midst of all those exuberant Dutch queens. That night, the last bus to the asylum-seekers centre had already left. In the middle of the night, using his last few coins, Barka bought an old bicycle near the railway station. Barka doesn't realise that this is undoubtedly a stolen bike. There are many things wrong in Niger, but stealing bicycles is not one of them.

Muslim commandos

Apart from police and justice officials, Niger also has Muslim commandos that see to the adherence to Islamic law. Ninety percent of the inhabitants are Islamites. According to the French press agency AFP these commandos raid groups that do not adhere to their norms and values. They smash everything to pieces. People who are seen as anti- Islamic are assaulted. Last year, the members of these militia groups saw to it that radio and television stations stopped broadcasting safe sex education. They had started these programs in order to fight the spread of Aids. About 8000 people in Niger are known to be HIV-positive. The commandos also removed all the educational billboards and confiscated the wooden penises that were used to demonstrate how to put on a condom. In the capital city they destroyed bars and the interior of various clubs were alcohol was served.


Consulted lawyers are pessimistic about Barka's chances. In Holland, only the legal situation in the country of origin is usually looked at. In Niger, the laws are not extremely anti-homosexual. If the practice is different, solid evidence will have to be presented. If, for instance, Barka can prove that the three fellow-prisoners were actually executed, this will make his case a lot stronger. Also, if there are known cases of homosexuals in Niger that have been executed because of their sexual preference, his chances will improve. People that may be able to supply this information would be of great assistance to Akasa. If this doesn't work out, chances are that Barka will have to go back to Niger.


The Republic of Niger is situated in Mid-Africa, on the southern edge of the Sahara. The country is strictly Islamic. Partially because it does not border on the sea, there are few outside influences. Niger has a population of just over 10 million people. The Penal Code has very little to say on homosexuality. There are however, laws against "public indecency" (articles 275 to 282) with sentences of a fine and a jail term of between three months and three years. This applies in any case to someone who has sex with a same-sex minor. In practice, the situation is much harsher. This is confirmed by Amnesty International. According to Behind The Mask, an organisation for African gays, homosexuality is denied in Niger. "You cannot criminalise what doesn't exist. The iron logic of this has put the Dutch immigration service on the wrong track." Local authorities put whomever they want behind bars. People are being sentenced without a normal judicial process, there is no freedom of the press and every year people are killed for political reasons. Yet Niger seldom makes international headlines. The last time that happened was in 1999. The then president Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara, together with four associates, was assassinated at the airport by his bodyguard, at the request of an opponent.

During the past year, Niger only provided some insignificant minor news items. Dozens of students who have been incarcerated for months without any form of judicial process, journalists whose lives have been threatened and political opponents whose lives are in danger. But totally shocking was the discovery of a mass grave in Boulhoungoure (Diffa Province) with at least 150 bodies. They are mostly fugitives from Nigeria.

The name of the person involved has been changed for his own protection. We have changed some place names for the same reason.
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