Meditations On Freedom: Refugee Finds Peace In U.S.

Musa Saidykhan had been a reporter in his home country of Gambia for more than a decade when he was arrested and later tortured by government officials. Following Saidykhan's imprisonment, he fled the country with his family and now lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Saidykhan explains how he will commemorate freedom on this, his first, Independence Day in the U.S.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. More of our meditations on freedom as we look toward Independence Day. In a few minutes, we'll hear from a Baltimore mother of three who walked out of prison just a few weeks ago. She tells us what prison taught her about freedom that she'll never forget and what she's teaching her children.

But first, we have another perspective on the value of liberty from a man who lost his for speaking truth to power. Musa Saidykhan spent more than 15 years as a journalist in the West African nation of the Gambia, rising to become the editor-in-chief of the national paper, The Independent. In March of 2006, after an alleged coup attempt, Gambian authorities arrested scores of people they accused of being enemies of the state. Saidykhan was one of them, targeted he believes, because of his tough reports on government corruption and media censorship. He endured 22 days of incarceration and torture before international pressure lead to his release. First he fled to Senegal, and then last November, he and his family settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And Musa Saidykhan joins us from there now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. MUSA SAIDYKHAN (Journalist): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: When did you want to be a journalist? Did you always want to be a journalist?

Mr. SAIDYKHAN: Yes. It has always been my dream to be a journalist because I believe that I have a right to make sure that I correct the, you know, the injustices that have been taken place in my country.

MARTIN: What kinds of injustices?

Mr. SAIDYKHAN: The kinds of illegal arrests, you know, detention without trial, and also the fact that politicians have been cheating on people. They have been telling people the kind of stories that they are not committed to.

MARTIN: Some people would say, well, it's crazy to think that you can change that with your pen or your typewriter, as it were.

Mr. SAIDYKHAN: Oh, yes. I believe I can change because I believe in the power of the pen and I believe that whatever, you know, I do will count, no matter how small it is.

MARTIN: What kinds of stories did you do?

Mr. SAIDYKHAN: I write on political stories. I right on judicial matters. I was a reporter who was sent to go on assignment at the president's office. So I was writing from - I was writing about a lot of issues.

MARTIN: And then at some point, you and your other colleagues at the Daily Observer felt you had to quit as a matter of conscience. Why was that?

Mr. SAIDYKHAN: Yeah, because the government had tried to interfere with the editorial of our company. We believe that we have a duty to protect the rights and citizens of the country, (unintelligible). But if the government has that interference, it means that our standard was going to be compromised, and we were not ready for that.

MARTIN: And then you all quit as a group. Many of you quit as a group. And then, April of 2005, you became editor-in-chief of The Independent, and it had already had this reputation for being outspoken. And then immediately - almost immediately, as I understand it, people started saying to you things like your editorials are too itchy.

Mr. SAIDYKHAN: Yeah. Exactly.

MARTIN: What did that mean?

Mr. SAIDYKHAN: Yeah. Well, they feel that, you know, I was talking about issues that the mainstream media was not talking about. Well, these were issues -there was vigilantism at the time at home. This was something that we never knew. And then we - my paper did an investigation thoroughly to make sure that we expose some of these things. Some of the injustices that were there, and they were uncover. So we made sure that we uncovered them.

MARTIN: Did the people seem to want this information?

Mr. SAIDYKHAN: Oh, yes. Once we make sure that we put them to light, people always comment on them. They express their opinion, and the government never wanted that.

MARTIN: And finally, one day you were arrested. Can you tell us what happened?

Mr. SAIDYKHAN: Yeah. I was arrested on the 27th of March, 2006, after the government had abruptly, you know - how do you call - foiled a coup, which they say was an - was at an advanced stage. I never knew I was going to be arrested. I was just at home, you know, sleeping with my family, midnight. A group of soldiers came, sealed my compound, you know, knocked at my door. And I opened it and I was arrested. Nobody told me why I was arrested. They didn't tell me. Well, later I came to realize that I was arrested simply because they see me as one of the perceived enemies of the government, and they used a coup to make -to justify that. So what the plan was to implicate me in the coup so that I could be executed. But once all those plans failed, the best thing they resorted to was to torture me.

MARTIN: May I ask, forgive me, the scars, how did that happened?

Mr. SAIDYKHAN: Oh...

MARTIN: I have seen pictures of these and…

Mr. SAIDYKHAN: Oh, these scars, these were as a result of beatings. And also they, you know, they were beating me with gun, boots. They were beating me sticks, and they also had bayonets. And that was the time that they, you know, put electricity on my genitals and I went into coma.

MARTIN: Hmm.

Mr. SAIDYKHAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: How did you sustain yourself in this time? How did you remember who you were? How did you hold on to yourself?

Mr. SAIDYKHAN: Well, because of my strong faith, because I am somebody who came from a very faithful family. And since I was young I was told faith and hope are the most important aspects of one's life. So matter how, you know, difficult times I went through, I was able to maintain my hope and faith. And then, here I am. At first, I never wanted to share my story. But I believe that the more I didn't tell my story, the more disturbed I am. But now I'm relieved because I am sharing my story with the whole world.

MARTIN: And now you've settle in the U.S. As I said, you came here last November 4th, our Election Day. This is your first Independence Day. Would you tell us, what do you think freedom means?

Mr. SAIDYKHAN: Oh, the freedom means a lot, and I'm very much about - I'm impressed about the freedom in the United States. This is a country where people of all nationalities, people of all colors. I'm so much very much happy.

MARTIN: Do you have any message for people who have not experienced what you have, about what you would wish us to think about when we think about Independence Day and when you think about freedom?

Mr. SAIDYKHAN: Oh, I think they are missing a lot because the most fundamental aspect of human lives is freedom. Because even God is allowing us to speak and have our freedom the way we want to. But it's very unfortunate that many people across the world have been denied this freedom, and being denied freedom means you are in prison. That's how I see it.

MARTIN: And freedom, at the end of the day, what does it mean? Does mean the freedom to be able to say what you want? Or is it to be able to move about as you wish, to think your own thoughts? And the other question I had is do you think that all humans have a desire to be free? You know, there is a saying that the limits of the oppressor is the patience of the oppressed.

Mr. SAIDYKHAN: Everybody has the right to be free, free to move the way you like, free to assemble with people, free to do whatever, free to speak you know, free - the freedom of worship, freedom of whatever. So I respect freedom of, you know, all kinds.

MARTIN: Musa Saidykhan is a journalist and media activist from Gambia. He lives now with his family in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Musa recently wrote about his experience. You can read his blog entry at our Web site. Just go to the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org.

Musa, thank you so much for speaking with us, and Happy Fourth.

Mr. SAIDYKHAN: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure.

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