Who killed Denko Sissoko? by Olivier Favier.


« It wasn’t me that made him fall.
No, you can’t blame me at all. »
Bob Dylan – Who Killed Davey Moore?


Seen from the window of room 796 from which on January sixth last, a sixteen-year-old teenager from Mali jumped out into the void in circumstances still partially unexplained, the city lights give the landscape a strangely inaccessible appearance. We are at a thirty minute walk from the center, on the heights of la Résidence Belleveu. In the evening haze, the modest Marne county town takes on the image of a dreamed-about Europe.

After six PM, you go in and leave the home almost without control, under the hypothetical eye of a few surveillance cameras. « In fact, the SAMIE* does day reception and the rooms are paid by the Conseil général. It’s a funny set-up, » aptly told me Ibtissam Bouchaara, educator for La Sauvegarde, the association managing the place. Supervision is minima, four educators for seventy-three spaces reserved for unaccompanied minors over fifteen and a half years old. « Outside the working hours of the SAMIE educational team and in case of an emergency, please contact the guard (at the entrance, ground floor on the left), reads the poster in the entrance. « He will see to contacting the SAMIE representative on call. »
The young men tell me that, a few days ago, two of their buddies were very ill. From what I understand, the first had an epileptic seizure (clearly, no one took the time to explain the nature of this trouble, nor how to protect the victime from injury, should a seizure should re-occur). The other was feverish and shivering. In both cases, the guard didn’t respond (and for good reason, he is not paid by the association and works full-time during the day), no more than madame Picard, the Home’s director, when contacted by a resident who had her phone number. Some of the teenagers finally called the firefighters while others ran to the police station.

I look at one of the rooms with it’s moldering walls and its peeling wallpaper, one of the rooms in which the kids gather at night to fight off boredom. We are far from the « cocoon » described by a journalist from the local paper, L’Union, in an infomercial cleverly orchestrated by La Sauvegarde a few days after Denko Sissoko’s death – in which his suicide from the eighth floor is surprisingly described as « the angel’s leap ». One must mention that madame Picard has an engaging smile and a soft voice and that she loves to tell stories. On arrival in Châlons for instance, when I come across a young Pakistani who boarded as I did at Gare de l’Est in Paris, and who bears a paper with her name, I see that no one has come to wait for him. Marie-Pierre Barrière, an active member of RESF51** who has come to meet me, decides to call the SAMIE director whose number appears in large print on the paper. Over the phone, madame Picard explains that she came to pick him up and didn’t find him (the train had a slight delay, announced on the screens in the hall). Never mind, web ring the young man to his destination. When we arrive, madame Picard tells us about her difficulties: « A few days ago, I had found permanent lodging from the 115*** for the young men expelled from this structure, well, they all disappeared. One of them even burned his papers and the x-rays of his bone tests establishing his majority, with the risk of burning down the building. » That same evening, this same young man claims he never got to see the x-rays, a recurring complaint by the teenagers in the Foyer : « They only tell you that you are over eighteen years old. That’s not an age…I know my age, I’m seventeen and a half years old : over eighteen doesn’t mean anything, if the x-ray proves something, how come it can’t give a precise age ? » On that day, like others expelled from the structure, some ten or so twice a month, he explains that they came to get him at twelve, telling him to be downstairs with his bag at two o’clock. The 115 would pick him up for the night. « That would be a first, Marie-Pierre Barrière tells me later, usually they put the young men out with no place to go, telling them to call the 115 number, where they’re refused help because they’re considered as minors. » At six PM, the 115 still hasn’t shown up, the educators go home and the teenagers search for another solution. As for the burnt papers, the cry springs from his heart : « It’s not true. » He also adds that on that day, Madame Picard repeatedly mentioned his relationship with RESF.

Since Denko’s death, there’s an incomplete « rogues’ gallery » in the educators’ office. Forty-five young men appear on the wall, others refused. « At first I didn’t agree, » one of my contacts says, « I told them I’ve been here for four months, you never come up to our rooms and now you want to know who we are ? » There is despair in his voice. Like others, he waits here without schooling or activities for a problable denial of his minority, and eviction out on the street. The Marne Départment is a zealous link in the exlusionary machinery applied against unaccompanied minors by France and Europe. Many of them then disappear, trying their luck in another Département or in another country, giving up on the education goals that made them risk their life through the crossing of the desert and of the Mediterranean, and ultimately feeding the contingent of unqualified illegal manpower, exploitable at will. The Département and the State proceed through intimidation and judiciary harassment. In order to counter this, a youth must have boundless courage and determination and benefit from the support of organized and well-prepared activist, convinced themselves that they must carry on the fight to the very last recourse. But in most cases, this expensive and harmful war of attrition destroys youths fille with hope and energy. That same afternoon, I met again one of these kids who had just received an OQTF (Obligation de quitter le territoire français) for his eighteenth birthday, despite the fac the had signed an apprenticeship contract with a promise of hire. His boss protested, in vain. At the Préfecture, no one answered the phone. One of his friends who was going to school, was placed under house arrest and obliged to sign in at the police station every morning between 8h30 et 9h30. « Madame, I haven’t stolen, I haven’t killed, why must I go to the police ? ». He decided to leave before finding himself in the same situation. He will join the contingent of 10 000 disappeared ones that the French press denounced this year just as it had done last year at the same period.

I open the door to the toilets on the eighth floor. The light sends the cockroaches scrambling. Vexed, I go back to talk with the young men. Several of them knew Denko. « He didn’t know how to read, he didn’t speak French well, he’d never been to school. » The day after his death, after hearing several testimonies, madame Picard gave them to understand that he suffered from psychological problems, that he was « ill, suffering and frustrated. » This vocabulary doesn’t belong to them, hard to believe they could have made up such a quote. All those who knew them see them as unfounded allegations. « I knew him for two and a half months, and I wouldn’t have noticed a thing ? » one of them tells me. It seems useless to specify that none of them has met a psychologist. Concerning the circumstances of the tragedy their narratives converge, and they all say the precise unfolding of events is hard to establish. On the night of the suicde, a man claiming to be the guard came knocking on their door saying he’d heard a suspicious sound (the man was the director, in fact, but none of them had seen him or the guard until then). He was accompanied by two policemen. One was in Denko’s room, the other at the end of the hallway. The man asked them if they knew Denko Sissoko. Thirty minutes later, throwing a quick glance through the window, they will recognize the body of their friend by his shoes. He fell between the two stairwells, among the garbage cans. Policemen were trying to re-animate him.

Why did he jump ? Was the police already on the premises when the tragedy occurred, called in to expell him ? According to the young men, Denko had learned on that very day that he would no longer be in the structure, whereas the state prosecutor first told journalists (before changing his version) that his file was still under study, that nothing had been decided on the day of his death. «He had packed his bag, monsieur, that shows he wanted to leave, » one of his friends tells me, and adds :   «You don’t prepare your things when you want to jump out the window. »   I’m not so sure of that, but mistrust is solidly achored in these young people. But there is another point on which all the testimonies agree : the use of police force is systematic when a young person is accused of using false papers. Two months earlier, another teenager also jumped out the window when the police came knocking at his door. He fell from the second floor and only suffered bruises. Taken to the hospital, he was thrown out on the street the following morning, with no consideration given to this mental exhaustion. This climate of fear is fed by the threats from madame Doublet, la person in charge of appraisal at the Conseil départemental : «If your papers are false, they will come to get you, they will handcuff you and put you in jail. »   Dread mixes in with a feeling of injustice and the obstinately repeated words : « You haven’t stolen, you haven’t killed, you haven’t done anything, and you see the police. » In many of the countries, including Mali, the administration of civil services is unreliable. In others, such as Somalia, the services is practically non-existent. Various networks linked to smugglers may intervene on behalf of the youths who are often illiterate, credulous or incapable of obtaining the required documents on their own. «The lawyers often plead irresponsibility because of their minority, »   Marie-Pierre Barrière explains to me, « and then they find themselves out on the street with no protection. »

The kids appear very much alone with their anguish. The setting up of a game console in the common room after Denko’s shouldn’t suffice in reassuring them. On each of the floors, mixed in with them, there are adults in profound social distress. The teenagers call them the « alcoholics », they avoid them when they go by, and complain about their violent behavior in the halls where some of them when they come in at night pound on all the doors. Of all the kids I talk with, only two are in school. Brilliant students, they were transferred from one school to another in the middle of the school year with no information concerning the reason for this transfer. One of the mis preparing his B.A. The others, the unschooled ones, stay up all night until dawn : « That way, you wake up around two PM and time goes by faster. » In flagrant under-staffing, (the norm is one adult per five teenagers), the educators never come to their rooms. Many of the youths complain that their papers were confiscated and their money stolen. « I left with the door closed, I came back it was still closed but my savings had disappeared. » During the medical visit blood sampling, five, six, sometimes eight tubes of blood are taken, which isn’t abnormal but makes a strong impression when you know nothing about medical practices in Europe. Some of the boys faint just at the sight of the doctor. Despite this, they receive no explanations. None of them know the reason for these blood samples and rumors run wild.

« In the days preceding Denko’s death, we spoke of nothing else, » a young man tells me, mentioning the dealings between François Hollande and his counterpart in Bamako, concerning the repatriation of undocumented Malians. I begin to make out a whole game of Russian dolls that pushes into the background the question of whether policemen knocked on the young man’s door or not before his desperate act. In brief terms, the kids evoke their past suffering, the crossing of the Sahara, the violences in Libya and the voyage aboard boats of fortune on the Mediterranean. All of them have braved death to live among us but they remain invisible in our eyes. « Here, there is safety, there are rights, and we suffer in hiding. »
A boy looks at me and shows me an empty chair. « Since Denko died, I ask myself who will be next, the one who was sitting there a minute ago, or him, over there, or me ? ». Mohamed Kone, a jurist and activist from the Mali League of Human Rights follows this affair closely. «  In Mali, suicide is very rare, » he tells me the following day. He is right, of course, just as the young man was right when he entered Denko’s room : you don’t pack your bags before putting an end to your days. But while repeating these gestures, done so many times on his road to arrive here, did Denko feel that they no longer made sense ? What image formed in his mind out of the pieces of this obscene puzzle ? How not to combine all the fragments : the international dealings between his country of origin and the one in which he dreamt to live, the threats from l’Aide sociale à l’enfance ****, the neglect of the association responsible for his protection, the silence of the town below heedless to his suffering, the lack of means at the 115 and its refusal to shelter minors, the negative thermometer readings on that January night, the State and its justice relentless determination to deny his minority, the fear of the police. Under such circumstances, can one still talk of suicide ?

Translated from French by Renée-Lucie Bourges.

An armchair in the river Marne, Châlons-en-Champagne, january 2017. Picture: Olivier Favier.

An armchair in the river Marne, Châlons-en-Champagne, january 2017. Picture: Olivier Favier.

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