Monday, February 13, 2012

Valentine in exile

He was once the world’s youngest leader of a country (Sierra Leone), but if you weren't directly affected by his regime, and if his name weren't Valentine, you probably wouldn't remember him, and neither would I.

It's fitting you associate his country with blood diamonds, with a name like that, the so-called Hallmark-card holiday of forced romantic gestures. He made Valentine's Day a national holiday when he was in charge, because it was his name. He did the same for Bob Marley's birthday. Remember, he was 25.

They say Valentine Strasser became the face of the military coup because he spoke the best English, so his was the voice you heard on news broadcasts informing the world that the children had taken over.

Maybe he tried to be a good leader. His heart could have been in the right place.

Soon after he took over, members of his junta walked 29 people down to a Freetown beach and executed them; they were suspected of planning a counter-coup. Later it turned out the 29 were innocent, so Valentine ordered another national holiday, one of mourning. The regretful gesture seemed sincere but was a sign that the young government did not know what they were doing. (A Western reporter later asked an ousted Valentine, drunk on gin at a gas-station cafĂ© near his mother’s home, about the beach killings. He flew into a rage and said, “In Texas, they kill people every day.” He didn’t want to go down in history as a bad guy. Or at least, no more bad than anyone else.)

They say Valentine was also put in charge because he was easy to manipulate, a naive puppet. So one day they deposed him, the fellow junior military officers with whom he'd fought rebels in the jungle and had later overthrown a government, bundling the previous leader in a helicopter off to Guinea. They kicked Valentine out the same way, a novelistic rhyming, foreshadowing and flashback. He claims the decision to split was mutual, the way a person does when he's been dumped.

He cashed in an old international bargaining chip that let him attend a university in the West. He picked a quiet town in England and enrolled to study law. But local papers got wind of his presence, and residents protested in op-ed columns countrywide. University officials argued he was not directly implicated in human-rights abuses. But people heard "African dictator," and the dark spots in their knowledge about the continent blurred and shadowed, and the bottom line is he was unwelcome.

Everywhere he went, he fled unwanted attention but was alone.

There was a check-out girl who worked at a food mart near the apartment where he lived. She heard the rumors but she liked him. That's all I know – not whether she was pretty or plain, if they had a connection or were just two people who came together out of mutual loneliness. I don't know where they went on their first date – to a movie, sitting in dark anonymous bliss watching other people's stories; or a restaurant, maybe one that was a little expensive for the stipend that he lived on while at the university and that he complained was too small. I don't know about the first time they made love, or if they ever did.

I don't know if she sat up at night and Googled her exotic new boyfriend, wondering whom to believe – the authors of the incendiary op-eds or him. I don't know if she felt it made her life grander; she was surely now at least a biographical footnote.

I know a few facts. I read about his life: the explosion that happened when he fought rebels in the jungle and the shrapnel wound, and the lack of a military helicopter to fly him out, an indifferent government that under-resourced its soldiers and pushed Valentine to the other side. There was the insouciant young Valentine attending a world conference in a tourist T-shirt and trendy sunglasses. The declared holidays, like the fulfilled promises of a student-council president. I read about how nowadays he lives with his mom in a once-elegant ruined house on the edge of the capital, drinking gin on the porch. I might forget all of these things.

What I’m likely to remember is a lonely boy named Valentine, exiled among strange green hills, a world-stage player turned cashier's paramour, flinching at strangers' approach; the neon glow of a convenience store in the cold night.