The Red Cross Hotel (Part Five)

There are ten of us in a locked cell back at the police station at the airport. Outside the cell in the corridor is a female soldier in camouflage fatigues, boots, and assault rifle. I'm weak from a bout of diarrhea during the night, no breakfast and trying to act brave. I'd been counting on that stale baguette and yogurt and they wouldn't even let us have that. It's 8:30 on Monday morning. We've been here since 6:30. Our plane is due to leave at 11:45.

They brought us back here in the white van, with four Chinese kids who look like they were plucked from their high school and college campuses, perhaps on their way to chem lab or advanced calculus. Three girls and a boy. They don't speak a word of English. They don't even speak among themselves. They sit in stunned silence with their cool haircuts and American jeans and bright new sneakers.

This must be the locked cell that Isobel was referring to. It's a dirty room with a slit of a window, metal grids covering the air conditioning ducts in the ceiling and cameras in the corners. There are thin brown stains trailing down the wall from the back of the bench and unknown crud along the edges and in the corners. If there was a fire we would not be able to escape. They would have to let us out.

We thought once they brought us back to the airport they'd set us free. We thought we'd be able to sit at an airport cafè and eat a sandwich and drink orange juice. We should have known.

The other four women are African and all speak some English. While we are on our way out, they are all on their way in. The older two are from Ghana and are around my age. Traditionally dressed, they've kicked off their sandals and stretch out on the bench. The other two women are Nigerian students. They're young and attractive and determined not to take any shit. They pout and complain and stand with their hands on their hips, rapping on the window, demanding their rights. While we admire their spunky attitudes we fear where it will lead.

A frail looking elderly African man is brought in. He's wearing a perfectly pressed pinstriped suit, pointy brown shoes, a crisp white shirt and tie. He holds onto a brown hat with thin trembling fingers. Between his meager English and the translations of the other women, we piece together what has happened.

He lives in Paris. He has lived there for years. He visited his country in Africa just like he always has. He flew back into Charles de Gaulle where his wife and daughter were supposed to be picking him up. He was arrested and brought into the cell. He doesn't understand why. They are going to take him to the detention center and his family is waiting at the airport to pick him up. There is a phone on the wall in the cell and the police said he can use it, but it doesn't work. He is distraught.

Once again people need to use the bathroom and have to bang on the window so a policeman can let them out and escort them to the toilet.

We wait.


They call our name. We get our luggage, our camera, the battery of my cell phone. We don't get our travel documents though. These are held in a bag in the black gloved hand of a policeman who escorts us through the airport, past the glittering duty free shops, past all the tourists on their way to their vacations. People stare. I can hear them thinking: they don't look like terrorists so it must be drugs.

We are escorted by the policeman right up to the door of the plane. We reach for our passports and travel documents but we are informed we may not have them. The flight attendant apologetically tells us they will be held up front with the pilot until we disembark in Atlanta. She tells us we need to wait until everyone else is off the plane and then they will give them to us. I am drowning in shame and humiliation.

We arrive in Atlanta. My palms are slick with fear. What if the French police have stamped things in our passport, untrue things that will prevent us from being allowed back into the United States? What if they won't let us go home?

At the customs desk we hand over our passports.

"Good afternoon Mr. and Mrs. Brett," the customs officer says. "How was your vacation?"

"It was bad," I say. "It was very, very bad. We spent two nights in a French detention center."

His eyes widen and he asks what happened. As briefly as possible, we tell him. His face flushes with anger. "How dare they do that to you," he says. He looks something up on his computer and says that as permanent residents of the United States we did not need visas to travel for up to 90 days. (We find out later that this is incorrect.) He says we have had our rights violated, that we need to get ourselves a very good attorney. He wishes us luck and shakes his head again in disbelief.

I am dizzy with relief when we walk away but we still have to find a flight back to San Diego.
When the attendant at Delta Airlines hears what has happened to us, she immediately arranges for us to get on the next flight.

"This is happening more and more with permanent residents," she says as she hands us our boarding passes. "I don't know what's going on in Europe but lately they're making it very hard for some people to travel."

In the middle of our first night back home I wake up screaming.

"It's alright, Brig," Norman says, stroking my damp hair. "You're okay now. You're home."

I lie in the darkness, grateful for the gentle weight of my cat on my feet. Memories of the last days float like puzzle pieces in my head.

I see the policeman at the detention center turning to me before he opens the door to let me out after using my cell phone.

"Do you speak a little French?" He asks me in French.

"Just a very little," I reply.

"Well, are you going to take a good souvenir of France home with you or a bad one?" he asks.

He smiles, waiting for my answer. I pretend not to understand. He shakes his head, gives an irritable sigh and opens the door to let me go. I am dismissed. Norman snores softly beside me. The cat rolls over and purrs.

The woman with the headscarf and young daughter comes over to talk to me just before we leave. We give her Norman's unused phone card. Her little girl grips her hand. I ask where they are from.

"We are Kurds, from Iraq," she says. "I do not know what will happen....."

We hug goodbye.

Rajiv's smiling face floats past and then Isobel's. Norman and I are playing rummy on the white-sheeted bed. I hear the astonishing sounds of a woman making love in the middle of the night. Then the undecipherable announcements of police over the loudspeaker before sunrise.
I try go back to sleep but now I see, as clearly as if he was standing there, the Boy who Belonged to No-one. We also called him the Fellini boy -- he had that kind of cheeky face and dark intelligent eyes and his striped T-shirt and jeans were too small for his thin preteen body. He always seemed to find someone to tag around with, either a group of older Middle Eastern men -- maybe one was his father -- or someone else's mother. "Bonjour Madame!" he'd say whenever he saw me, a little too flirtily for his age. Now he moves away from the foot of my bed into the shadows and then disappears into the night.

The End.

Epilogue: On February 24 we became American citizens. The next time we travel out of the country we will have United States passports. We continue to be concerned about the treatment of men, women and children in the "no man's land" of immigration detention centers around the world.

Subscribe to the World Post email.