• Guyana Francese
Guyana Francese1 2 3 4 5


versione italiana

(published in the weekly newsmagazine “Diario”, february 1998)

Following Dreyfus and Papillon's footsteps , between past and future

The escapees of French Guyana

Yesterday hell, today paradise. They escape from France, from the nightmare of modern society, following the route of the past convicts, to move to the Cayenne or to the Iles du Salut. Yet the past ghosts are still felt and ask a sneaky and oppressive question: what is freedom?

“You can't rebuild a life as you sew a button”. Henri Charrière, called Papillon, knew it well. The most famous lifer ever arrived here, to Saint Laurent du Maroni, with one goal: to escape and go back to France, to take his revenge on those who condemned him to walk “the path of decay”. Guyana was the point of no return of French scum, sent by judges to die of hard work, malaria, dysentery, abuses in the notorious overseas prisons. Scene of the eternal colonial conflict among France, Great Britain and the Netherlands, this piece of Amazon rainforest close to the Equator, definitively passed to Napoleon Empire in 1807. It was legally a place of deportation since the Revolution (1792). Saint Laurent du Maroni was built in 1857 by order of Prince Louis Napoleon. Thenceforth, the French flag flies on the east side of the Maroni River. But the police officers of the gendarmerie, in their summer uniforms and with their orderly “kepi” try to control who enters and not who runs away, thousand Surinamese immigrants crossing the river for the small frontier traffics or to search for a work in this remote corner of France, 120.000 inhabitants, of which 90.000 in the insignificant administrative capital, Cayenne. That area is about one third of Italy, 80% occupied by forest, (overseas) department like Savoy or Normandy, with its own members of National Assembly, but it still looks like a colony. French Guyana is the only one which has remained to the ancient owners (British Guyana became independent in 1966, the Dutch one in 1975 changing its name in Suriname). There is an evident difference: the dugout going from Albina to Saint Laurent leaves an African-way managed border (Surinamese one) behind, whereas on French side you immediately feel the imprint of European reassuring, tidy, polite and twice much expensive civilisation. Yet there is something strange, opaque and negative in the air: you find it in the glances and words of French managers of the few opened restaurants and hotels, you feel it in the nervous coldness, bordering arrogance, of the conscript soldiers when they check local people documents (almost all of them Afro-Americans and a minority of Indios Caribe): you feel it in the resentful words of the hospice assistant, a stone's throw from the old prison (which has remained virtually unchanged), a woman in her fifties who, unwittingly, reminds me Miss Ratched of “One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest”. The old guests of the hospice are in good hands, but their glance are lost toward the sunset line: the memory and the past are lost, or maybe they are lacking in words. “There was an ex-con, but he died a few months ago.” The assistant is sorry. “Was he the last one?”, obliged question. “Yes, he was the last one.” The last prisoner of Saint Laurent of Maroni. But maybe others have the illusion to be free. Because here, now, they come to escape, or maybe they enter in a new open-air prison, made by sleepiness, heat, drugs (in a 13 thousand inhabitants town, crack is incredibly easy to find), isolation and silence. Far from the normality of a home-work-home life of the Western civilization, of France, “en métropole” as they say here. French are simply “les métros”, the others are “les créoles”, ie the bushnegroes or Amerindians who do not integrate much. They escape from normality to find another more real (or more alienated) one in the periphery of the world, abandoned by everyone except the eternal, opaque river which is hard to go up because of strong currents. Movements, flights, knowledge are up to dugouts. If they want to go to near village they often have to wait for the market day, to look for a lift for the outward and one for the return. Paying a French boatman is a fancy only for the few tourists who come here (70 thousand people per year, throughout Guyana). They parade through the places of memory as they look through a book. Here are the outer walls of the first escape of Papillon, here is the Pigeons Island, called island of lepers, where “Papi” found unexpected solidarity by the dregs of society that live on this rocks of palm trees and mangroves in a long boring agony. It is a past which never lets go, the past of Guyana, at least that one of Saint Laurent. And maybe it is better than tho thousand fake lights of Kourou, space base of European satellites "Ariane”, luxury in the middle of the jungle, soulless and without poor people, tailored for engineers and officials. The decline of Saint Laurent is more real, a city rotten like its old hospital beams, rusty like its abandoned railroad tracks, aground like the Brazilian ship stuck to the bed of the river for thirty years, raped and held from the nature which takes revenge and surrounds the highest yardarm with climbing plants. “Fifty years ago, life was more hectic here in Saint Laurent”, said Jean Pierre, the boatman, thirty years old, been in the army here and then returned, he has bought a canoe and now drives tourists. In 1946 the administration suppressed the penal settlement, the French law had already prohibited hard labor in 1937, at the time of “Front” of the Left, led by Léon Blum. “There was a project for a touristic port with a long promenade, but it never started. Local government is in the hands of four, five Creole families which always lay down the law. It is hard to have private initiatives, they drive you crazy because of permits, controls, taxes”. Yet Jean Pierre does not go away. The presence of soldiers is easier to understand: much higher salaries than in France, allowance, “each day in Guyana is worth two days for the purpose of the retirements.”, explains the commander of the Gendarmerie. He has a boyish face, but he has definitely passed his forties: he talks about the difficulties to be in touch with local population, he tries to show that everything is alright, but he exudes bitterness and nationalistic pride. Only a certain idea of France (De Gaulle's one, of course) takes up a place like this, too many costs and no revenue: imports are five times more than exports (676million dollars versus 133, represented by fish, handicrafts, gold and timber), the budget deficit costs to the French government about one billion Francs. For the natives that's okay: being French is worthwhile, there are people (like Chinese of the “Charbonnière”, district of huts close to African majority prefabricated houses, modern version of African village) who will enter in Europe without ever leaving the jungle. But you, “métropolitains”, what are you doing here? “I wanted to travel, but I had no money to do so – says Nathalie, 20 years old, from Toulouse, a bartender in a nightclub – I started with a seasonal job outside my city and even abroad; then it happened that I saw a documentary about Guyana and I left with a little money, without knowing anyone”. How did you feel here? “The beginning was hard, I did not have a fixed accommodation nor a job. But after a while, you know everyone in Saint Laurent and we help each other. In this place, I am learning that it is possible living without all the European comforts. In France, people get mad if the washing machine does not work anymore: here people wash their clothes into the river, and they are peaceful. Anyway, we grow up upwards, not downwards”. Dominic, 28years old, began in the restaurant of Cayenne in 1994, then he settled in Royal Island, the largest (28 hectares) of “Iles du Salut”. He works in the only public place of the area, an exotic bar-restaurant (wooden bar, ceiling fens, nautical charts on the walls) with a terrace overlooking the famous Devil's Island: "I love the wild side of this island. It is a little paradise. We are ten to work here, the only fixed inhabitants of the area belonging to the space center. Isolated? I don't know: we have got a phone, a fax, a satellite link-up. The French mail comes to us in three days. I think I will never go back to Europe. Angela Saracino, director in her fifties, clear Italian origins, is on the same wavelenght: “I left France 17 years ago, no regrets. I was in Martinique a long time, but the situation there has become painful: natives are becoming more aggressive towards white people, tourists. Here we are much better". Maybe. But walking through the closed sheds which housed the convicts, or in front of the old wooden church falling apart, you feel oppression, a sense of death never leaving you. Opposite, separated by a stretch of sea that you would cover swimming (but it is dangerous because of currents and sometimes of sharks), Devil's Island, a forest of palm trees in the middle of the ocean. It is a natural reserve, controlled by the Foreign Legion, you needs a special permit to visit it. Two legionaries station on the Island: they are often young people from Eastern Europe. Two legionaries of the Devil's Island. A story that no one will write. Who knows they go to sit on the bench of Dreyfus, the Jewish Officer wrongly condemned for spying at the end of last century. I wonder if they know that just a century ago Emile Zola began on the page of “Aurore” the battle for the freedom of most famous political prisoner of the French history. Who knows what freedom means for them.
Cesare Sangalli