A gesture for Denko, by Moussa Badjè Doumbia.

I learned of Denko’s death through a Malian exchange group. Someone just threw out : « It seems a young Malian committed suicide in Châlons-en-Champagne to escape from the police who had come to get him. » This was on Monday January 9. Nobody in the group seemed to pay attention. This indifference disturbed me especially since, in this group, there was talk of mobilizing against the European Union’s new immigration policy. How can we not understand that the death of this boy whose very name I don’t know is linked to Europe’s immigration policy, and to France’s in particular ? Even if we’re talking about the death of someone who probably had no family in France, why remain passive ? We could at least go searching for a bit of information, if only to offer our condoleances to his family.

A few minutes later, I sent a message to the person who had relayed the information. He didn’t know anything more. So I looked around on the web. I came across the France 3 article that mentioned autopsy results showing no traces of battery on Denko’s body. Questions streamed through my head : why talk of battery ? How could the autopsy have been performed and the results known between Friday night and Monday ? Was a serious investigation done in so short a period ? And his parents, are they aware that their son has died somewhere ? Will they have the opportunity of burying him among his own ? I wanted to know more and contacted Réseau Éducation Sans Frontières (Resf) who was organizing a white march for Denko with other youths.
On Wednesday January 11, I arrived in Châlons-en-Champagne for the first time in my life. I was shown the préfecture as starting point for the march. After a few exchanges with the youths from the Foyer where Denko resided, as well as with RESF activists, I learned the Departmental Council (conseil départemental) had asked associations to stay out of the affair, that the Council would handle everything. I asked myself another question : why did the Council want to keep the associations away so badly, to the point of wanting to handle the body’s repatriation ? I have no faith in policitians, and told RESF I didn’t believe it and that, upon returning to Paris, I would do everything in my power to contact the family and learn more before getting back to them.

The march lasted about an hour and took us to the foot of the building where the tragedy occurred. I raised my head and estimated the distance between his room on the eighth floor and the ground. I wondered what he could have told himself during the few seconds from his window to the ground, what he thought of this world, whether he had time enough to think of his parents ? My tears flowed, I was filled with a feeling of unease and shame. Personal memories re-surfaced, I saw my cousin, the boy who, in 2005, had come to say goodbye to my mother, for he had decided to leave. He couldn’t stand avoiding the eyes of his own widowed mother who couldn’t afford to feed him and his sister anymore, but who, out of dignity, didn’t want anyone to know this. « What dignity remains to one who extend the beggar’s hand ? » she would ask my cousin.

On that day, my mother tried to talk him out of it. Nothing doing, he was determined. What was our life worth if we had the feeling we were worthless ? He fell into my mother’s arms, my adolescent mind didn’t grasp the despair feeding my cousin’s decision. I brought him a glass of water, looked him in the eye and said : « Cousin, you are right, you must leave, I promise I will join you. » Ignorant myself, I was encouraging him to do something about which I knew nothing. And even now, I know little about it, I who arrived in France on a student visa and after a five-hour flight to Paris. A year later, we learned of my cousin’s death. One of his travelling companions called us, he had witnessed the tragedy. He drowned in the murky waters off Gibraltar. We will never know more. They had exchanged family contacts in case of a tragedy so that the other would call and inform the parents.

A few years later, in 2007, it was one of my friend’s turn to take to the road. The itinerary had change, from Northern Mali then to Libya through Niger before taking to the sea. My friend returned a year later, but he remained traumatized to the point that many considered him mad. According to him, the hardest wasn’t the sea crossing because you die quickly on the sea. The whole suffering of the journey was the Sahara. In that immense stretch of sand under the pitiless sun, many died of thirst and hunger. Sometimes, I told him he was exaggerating, but he swore he wasn’t. Today, I am ashamed, ashamed to have doubted his words, to have not once tried to put myself in his place to imagine – be it only for a second – what he lived through. Finding myself at the foot of this building made all that long-buried sadness resurface. I asked myself what I could do in concrete terms if ever the Departmental Council did not follow through on its word, and if Malian diplomatic authorities did not want to handle the repatriation. On the train ride back to Paris, the notion of raising funds started to grow in my mind.

In Paris, I contacted Sékou Magassa, an association leader in Kaarta, the township of the province in which is found Denko’s native village, Didinko. With him, I called on several occasions to the Marne Departmental Council to be told finally that the Council would not pay for the repatriation of Denko Sissoko’s body. The Council had no budget allowances for such cases. We heard the same thing from Malian diplomatic authorities. Structures active in the Malian community didn’t seem to want to get involved either. We turned again to RESF for a funding appeal. I also decided to open a facebook account « Un geste pour Denko ».

The funding appeal provoked a solidarity movement beyond my expectations. I was pleasantly surprised by the humane response. Between January 18 and 25, we collected sufficient funds not only to return Denko’s body to his parents, but also for a plane ticket so that his uncle could accompany him. Under family pressure, he was on the verge of putting himself into debt in order to bring back his nephew’s body. He told me that the last time he had seen him, Denko was but a little boy. Friends of Denko called from Italy to inform him of his death in France. On arrival here, Denko had kept quiet because he wanted to make it on his own and not be a burden on his handicapped uncle who lived in a home for African workers. The uncle had trouble believing me when I told him total strangers had contributed enough to finance his ticket along with the repatriation. He didn’t know me either. He had only heard of my initiative with RESF through a visit from Sékou and Mamadou Koné.

He called Denko’s family in Didinko and his parents told me : « Words fail us to thank you and to describe what we feel faced with such humanity. We can only say may life pay you back in kind. » On my way home, I told myself that his parents had great dignity ! They have lost their child but they had the strength to pray for me. That evening, I called my mother to tell her I love her because I don’t even know if Denko had the chance to do as much. Writing this, I secretely hope that Denko was able to tell her, recently.

I wish to take this opportunity to thank from the bottom of my heart all those who made a gesture for Denko. I reiterate my unshakeable support to the educator whois at risk of losing her job for having expressed her personal distress. In memory of Denko, we must pursue our struggle for a better welcome for isolated minors, but mostly, for that of all men in the world of mankind.

Translated from French by Renée-Lucie Bourges.

Moussa, Paris, février 2017. Photo: Olivier Favier.
Moussa, Paris, february 2017. Picture: Olivier Favier.

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