Geopolitics

An Asylum Seeker's Despair: Why Don't They Believe What I Say?

Mohamed "Momo" Kamara
Mohamed "Momo" Kamara
Heiner Effern

ROSENHEIM - German authorities don’t believe his parents are dead, nor do they buy the stories about living on the streets as a child. And so Mohamed Kamara, an 18-year-old asylum seeker from Sierra Leone, is now due to be deported.

His integration in Germany has been exemplary, and his therapist is convinced that he is not faking his story. Indeed, the doctor says the young man is one of the most severely traumatized patients he has ever treated.

When the buzzer rings up in Kamara’s small apartment, the sheer panic sets in. The teenager who goes by the name "Momo" must think that this could be it: they’ve come to get him. They’re going to put him on a plane back to Sierra Leone, and his flight from his native country, the four years he’s spent in Germany, will have all been for nothing. He goes out on the balcony and looks down toward us to see if it’s the police.

It’s not – but just to be on the safe side, Momo, who is in his first year of apprenticeship, a proficient German speaker, and a striker with the A-Jugend (top level under 19 soccer), decides to do the interview elsewhere.

“The boss,” his employer Arne Katzbichler, has agreed to let us use his conference room. During this interview Momo is going to do something he doesn’t want to do – and can’t do, with regard to many areas of his life: tell us his story.

And if this is painful, the alternative to not doing so – deportation – is worse. He’s sure he has no chance of staying in Germany unless he publicizes what’s happening to him.

Alone and homeless

"I’ve lived on the street since I was four," he says. He tells people that his parents “disappeared,” but admits to those who win his trust that they are dead. His two daily worries as a child in Sierra Leone were: "Where can I get something to eat, and where can I find a safe place to sleep."

At age 15, when he had been in Germany for just a few months, he told representatives of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) that his father was a rebel who had held up a bank and that he, Momo, had used some of the money from this hold-up to get to Germany.

According to German authorities, Mohamed is a liar. Notes in their deportation order dated June 22, 2010, include the observations: “not at all credible,” “not persuasive,” “can’t trust what he says.”

They do not believe that his parents are dead or that he was a street kid, but they also do not believe he’s telling the truth about his name or age. After an oral hearing, the Administrative Court in Munich reached the conclusion that Momo is unable to recall the details of his past into chronological order or location, and that by his own admission his only health problem is insomnia.

Ask his friends and trainer at the DJK SB Rosenheim sports association, his employer and workmates, his teachers and therapist about Momo and they’ll tell you he’s a hard-working, dependable, eager-to-learn and lovable guy.

Violent killings and atrocities

After resisting therapy for a long time, Momo finally agreed to see child psychiatrist Daniel Drexler, who has since become convinced that Mohamed is one of the most severely traumatized patients he’s ever treated. Drexler knows something about the traumas of African children, having worked with them in African refugee camps when he was with a humanitarian organization called Cap Anamur.

About Mohamed, he says he cannot exclude the possibility that there could be some lies. But he does believe his patient was orphaned as a young child, and has witnessed “violent killings and other atrocities” during his country’s civil war.

Momo was not yet of school age when massacres took place in Freetown, his hometown. Through his work, which also took him to Sierra Leone, Drexler knows of the systematic hacking off of limbs; the hunt for kids whose organs could be sold to traffickers. The safest places for street kids to sleep were cemeteries, because the perpetrators of atrocities were often superstitious and afraid to enter them.

After his sessions with Drexler, Mohamed gets the rest of the day off: the sessions are so draining he’s in no position to go back to work.

The psychiatrist says that he finds it hard to believe that a young man could be deported based on one interview through an interpreter, and a subsequent court date. All the problems the authorities keep focusing on such as Momo’s inability to master the details of his story are classic symptoms of severe trauma.

To survive atrocious experiences, the brain adapts, he says: memory becomes fragmented, many things are “processed wrongly,” and the brain shuts some of the worst stuff out. Patients will avoid talking about what happened – in fact, they will avoid anything that brings the memories back. And such a patient will play down physical symptoms, the way Momo plays his down his insomnia: "Patients like that try to smooth everything over; they want to be normal."

Mohamed says that after he got to Germany: "I just wanted it all to go away. So I focused really hard on schoolwork." That’s not all he focused on: he was so responsible at the home where he first lived, doing his homework on his own, working in the kitchen, that he was given his own apartment at the unusually young age of 16. His former teacher, Bad Aibling, says: “He impressed everybody from the start by his his exemplary behavior and a willingness to work very hard.”

His employer, whose bookbinding company also produces stationery articles, hired him on the spot because he sensed "determination and interest." Mohamed dreams of finishing high school and going on to university to study the law.

The only problem now is that he’s supposed to return to Sierra Leone. According to the deportation order, "by returning to Sierra Leone the asylum seeker would not find himself in a hopeless situation." Momo’s deportation papers have arrived, and the final deadline for leaving Germany is November.

Unless something changes. The Appeals Committee of Bavaria’s state parliament will be looking at the case in October. If everything goes well, the committee will refer the matter to the Bavarian Härtefallkommission, which decides on particularly difficult cases. If two-thirds of its members vote for his staying in Germany, the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior could then approve the decision.

Mohamed says he's hoping to experience what he experienced for the first time after he got to Germany: “Somebody being there for me when I need help.”

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food / travel

Town Annihilated In Spanish Civil War Now A Paranormal Attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite. A growing number of tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town.

A famous old village in Spain, this place was witness of a bloody fight in the Spanish civil war.
Paco Rodríguez

BELCHITE – Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, the town of Belchite in northeastern Spain became a strategic objective for the forces of the Republican government, before their assault on the nearby city of Zaragoza. Belchite seemed a simple target, but its capture took longer than expected. More than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting, and the town was decimated, with almost half the town's 3,100 residents dying in the struggle.

The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one. The streets remained deserted. Stray dogs were the only ones to venture into the weed-covered, pockmarked ruins. A sign written on one wall reads, "Old town, historic ruins." Graffitis scrawled on the doors of the Church of San Martín recall better times: "Old town of Belchite, youngsters no longer stroll your streets. The sound of the jotas our parents sang is gone."

Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, must remain exposed.


For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

Haunting the filming of Baron Munchausen 

The journalist and researcher Carlos Bogdanich decided to find out whether such claims made any sense, and visited Belchite on a cold October evening in 1986. He went with a crew from the television program Cuarta Dimensión (Fourth Dimension). Toward dawn, he related, a force seemed to pull and control them for several hours. They moved as if someone were guiding them, unaware of what they were doing. He recalled later, "We went up the Clock Tower. We thought we'd go right to the top. The next day, when we saw what we had done, we couldn't believe it. We could have gotten ourselves killed, and still, something enticed us to do this."

The true sounds of war reappeared.

They didn't see anything strange. But listening back to the recordings, they discovered sounds that could be easily identified with the war: planes, bombs, tanks, shots or army songs. The mysterious recordings made a big noise at the time, in Spain and around the world.

The legend began to take off then and has yet to subside today. Another example of paranormal events took place in the town during the filming of Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989). Some members of the film crew saw two women dressed in traditional clothes who vanished when approached.

Belchite's mysterious ambiance also inspired the Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who shot parts of Pan's Labyrinth here; and Spain's Albert Boadella, who had his grotesque version of General Francisco Franco in Have a Good Trip, Your Excellency returns to Belchite.

Ruins of the village of Belchite, in Zaragoza, Spain

RICHARD MURPHY/WOSTOK/ZUMA

Tourists drawn to unexplainable phenomena 

Ordinary visitors have also encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends.

Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

There are four zones where the experiences have been more intense: the Plaza de la Cruz, the mass grave, and the town's two churches. In fact, there are mass graves in all four spots, both from the Civil War and the plague epidemic that hit the area in the Middle Ages.

Whatever the truth of the accounts, Belchite has become one of the most visited sites in the province of Zaragoza in recent years. And regardless of ghosts, its streets were the setting of horrible acts and a history that should not be repeated. The streets of Belchite are the open wounds of a town that had to reinvent itself to go on living.

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