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20fév/110

Man on the run

By Agnes Bun

Souhalito Timité - crédit : Agnès Bun

Souhalito Timité does not walk, he runs. Especially this morning, as he is late for his soccer practice. At the stadium, the game has not started yet. The other players are shivering. Timité only wears a light jacket, but he does not feel the cold. He lights a cigarette, kicks imaginary balls, and asks for the time, twice.

In soccer, Timité is a striker. But in life, he is a runner, who spent most of his existence running away. First from the Ivory Coast rebel army, who enlisted him as a child soldier. “My life was in danger,” he says. Then from the French police. Timité may be a political refugee, but according to the French law, he is an illegal immigrant.

He belongs to this new wave of stateless souls, who found the door closed after former colonial empires toughened their immigration laws. Today, Timité faces the refugee’s dilemma. “If you send me back home, you could just as well take me to the slaughterhouse," he says. If he stays, he is an outlaw. “Where will they put me? Right in the middle?”

Timité cannot remember for how long he has been in France. Born in Abidjan, he was coerced as a child to serve in the Ivory Coast rebel army. “They locked me in a box without any light, drugged me. In the end, I was mad and I became an uncontrollable element of war.” Since then, he quit drugs, but still suffers memory problems. For instance, he cannot remember his age, and only guesses that he is in his early thirties.

There is one memory he cannot forget; and that is how he got his scar, a neat horizontal line which runs across his nose. “One of my friends, Mohammed, was hungry and took a fish without the authorization of our chief.” Mohammed was executed, “for a sardine!” On that day, Timité decided to run away. He got caught. “They took me back to the chief. He stared at me, then put his knife on my nose. And he pushed it.”

Now, Timité lives in France, yet a part of him remains at war. “I still hear the explosions in my head.” He pauses. “I lost many of my childhood friends, the pain won’t leave me. One of them was hit by a rocket in the head. He died in my arms.” Timité stretches his arms in the air, in the cold stadium, his mind thousands of kilometers away. “I couldn’t let him go.”

“In life, some are lucky, others aren’t,” he says. According to him, some kids from his village have become professional players. “It’s the same for the leaves of the forest. They belong to the same season, but some have brighter colours than others.” Timité blames the rebel army for having stolen his life. “They ruined my future, I was meant to be a great player. I’m convinced of that.”

For a long time, he could not talk about his experience, not even to his girlfriend, with whom he lives in a tiny studio in Paris. The rent is cheap, but the place is “for only one person,” with toilets but no bathroom. “Every morning we boil water and wash with a bucket, Ivory Coast style!”, he laughs.

Since a UN-staff member helped him to leave Abidjan, Timité found his parents, his two sisters and four brothers in France. To earn a living, he does all sorts of jobs: security guard, construction worker... One month, he worked “for 406 hours!” He repeats the number, proudly.

Timité has also revived an old flame: soccer. Every Saturday, he trains with a team set up by a local charity. “Soccer helped me a lot. If you ask me to choose between eating or playing soccer, I will play, that’s for sure!”

In the stadium, the day is drawing to a close. Timité has put his hat and his jeans back, but he kicks in the ball until the very last minute. “There’s a motor in my body when I’m playing!,” he shouts with a smile. During these games, he is running for fun, not for his life.

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