The Thief


The young man is struggling to get up on his elbow. His legs are tied and he is so badly beaten that every move he makes is painful. The crowd around him shows no empathy.

– He stole two bed sheets and a bag of clothes, and now he gets what he deserves, a man tells us, spitting in the dust a few inches from the accused. We beat him until he told us where the bed sheets were hidden and we’ll keep on beating him until he tells us where the bag is. The crowd chants to show how much they agree, and how much they despise the young man lying in the dirt. The spokesman of the angry crowd is Peter Doc Wech, appointed by his fellow refugees to be the judge in matters like this. Ethiopian police won’t take action in cases of petty crime among the refugees, and therefore people in Kule camp have made their own tribunals where the question of guilt is discussed and where criminals are given what the jury considers a fair punishment.

A story normally has two or more sides, and this one is no exception. Here are the two versions we were presented, one by the accuser, and one by the accused.

Khan Niual Malual (20)
– I stole the stuff to be able to get enough money to travel back home. I fled my country when the fighting started, but now I want to return to Jonglei State. I came alone, and I feel bad here all the time. The situation in Jonglei is very unstable and the fighting can start again any day, but I am willing to take my chances. Anything is better than this. It will cost me 1000 Ethiopian Birr ($40) to pay for the transport, but I have no money at all, and no one to borrow such an amount from. So I stole some stuff I was planning to sell. They caught me, and beat me up, and now I’m here.

Even if Khan admitted to the crime he refused to say where the bag of clothes were, being fully aware that would mean more beating.

Peter Doc Wech (32)
– The guy there in the dirt is a thief. The only thing that matters now is to get the stolen goods back. He knows the consequences if he refuses to talk. To you two bed sheets and some worn out clothes might seem as a crime to small to worry about, but you must take the whole situation here into account. The thief was living in the same tent as the guys he stole from. The rightful owners have next to nothing themselves. Loosing all their clothes is very dramatic for them. We punish the criminal to get the stuff back, we punish him to teach him a lesson and we punish him to scare others from doing the same thing.

As journalists, we are supposed to report what’s happening and not attempt to influence the events. But still it is hard to se an angry crowd beating the shit out of a young man without doing anything. Before we left, we asked the mob to think twice before beating the accused more. Maybe there were smarter ways to set things straight? Some of the men nodded, while others were angry that we intervened. Peter Doc Wech promised to treat him fair, and even untied his legs before we left. Whether it was to please us or a result of his conscience we will never know, but we hope the crowd didn’t do things they will regret.

We don’t know if we reacted correctly. What would you have done? Bear in mind that there were no other authorities around that could be called to mediate.


25 Responses to “The Thief”

  1. […] In a refugee camp even the smallest petty crime is a serious offense. To lose two bed sheets or some old clothes may seem like nothing for most people, but not if you have nothing else. However, does this mean that the thief should be treated inhumane? See the whole story on Øystein’s and my blog; Untold Stories. […]

  2. lindajeffers Says:

    I hope I would have done what you did Otto…..voice my thoughts in a take it or leave it way…..not like I know what is best for the others but more like I am being true to myself and my beliefs. Sometimes I let my fear of what others will think prevent me from expressing myself. I resent myself at those times. Ultimately, I wouldn’t want to leave with regrets that I hadn’t said something that just might (probably not) made a difference in how they treated the thief. I try to ask myself what my motive is before saying something. Then I try to say it like I’m just sharing something I believe without making someone or others feel I’m judging them. The last thing I want to do is make people defensive. It seems to me you were kind, principled and just relating your thoughts rather than trying to impose them on the others. Very Courageous. What an experience you are having. It must have been really difficult to watch their actions based on their customs.

  3. I had a very similar experience in Mozambique. A thief was caught steeling shoes from a tourist campsite. It wasn’t the first time he had been caught stealing, in fact he had recently been released from jail for stealing a few chickens. He was warned by the police that if it happened again, he would be ‘dealt’ with.

    We arrived at our beach campsite at dusk and on our arrival, we heard a lot of shouting and movement. A few minutes later a group of hyped up, angry men paced through our campsite, dragging a dead body behind them. One of them turned to us and said, “Now you can have a good holiday.”

    The brutality and harshness of this tragic incident continues to haunt me. I spoke to some of the Mozambicans present that night, trying to understand how they justified the killing of this man. Their answer was that ‘once a thief, always a thief and likely to get involved in worse crimes as time goes, that he was an ‘animal.’ That they had nothing and that the small tourist industry in that area is their livelihood – something they felt they needed to protect at all cost.

    I often think about that man, why he felt he had to steal? What was happening in his life for him to risk everything. And how could they kill him over a pair of shoes?

    I hope your thief got out alright and was afforded a little compassion. Africa is certainly a harsh continent. Especially when the police, supposed protectors, often seem to be the very reason why the villagers feel they need to take the law into their own hands.

  4. I can understand both the harshness of the refugees and of the compassion you showed. Seems like their response to you is “there goes those westerners, interfering in our affairs again.” i think that you were diplomatic in your response. Well I hope I could have had the nerve to speak up. What is the saying about the worst thing one can do is to do nothing.

    • To be perfectly honest, I still don’t know if we did the right thing, or if we should have done more or less…

      • You did what you thought was right at the time, knowing what you know. You raised a point to intervene in a violent mob situation where people can be swept with a mob….you made a space for some to breath and reconsider their actions. Journalists, like us all, are people and the fallacy of the ‘observer’ being apart and merely ‘reporting’ reminds me so much of discussions about ethics in my development anthropology masters….ethics were a new consideration to many of them, as a social worker it was the basis of my degree. We were asked for example what we would do if we were aware of the perpetrators of a murder ….its all about context and you are never a passive player even if you do nothing. You did what you thought was right at the time, knowing what you know.
        Thanks for the post and your reflection.

  5. This is a most impressive photo story, it makes me think twice about my views and actions. So important nowadays as we are showered with the opinion of others.
    Good night to you all,

  6. There are definitely 2 sides to every story. I do wonder if after you left, the man might be tied up again?

    The camp need your journalistic skills to communicate to the world, so they probably untied him to appease you, but I think that they would prefer to administer petty crime under their own terms (which the perpetrator and other would-be criminals would understand).

    Personally, I couldn’t condone continued beatings.

    Since the man has nothing, what other punishment could they give him (I wonder).

    Let’s hope there was some other option to find the stolen goods, but I imagine they would be sorely missed.

  7. This is a terrible situation for all people involved.
    I really wouldn’t know how to react or to react at all.

  8. The hardest part is sometimes to do nothing.
    As a journalist your job is to tell the story, not to be a part of it.
    Violence begets violence and always will 😦

  9. It must have been so hard to not intervene more strongly. I’d say you did what you could under the circumstances. We can’t really intervene in another cultures methods of “law” practising. It seems that he was a least given some form of “trial” before being sentenced which may be how they justify what they do. Agreed, the sentencing seems harsh and cruel to us but I don’t think there is anything else you could have done to change the situation.

  10. Journalism ethics is a peculiar thing, as are many others. People of good conscience cannot blindly follow orders or work standards. There are times when one has a moral right to get involved for the benefit of another human being whose existence is in jeopardy due to the deliberate or accidental wrong doings of others.

    All of this has been ratified repeatedly since at least the Nuremberg Trials I know but truth is the truth.

  11. Western morale seems to be too “flexible” when we are at home in our comfortable homes.
    We tend to judge others based on the way we were educated and cannot even consider the possibility to beat other humans if not in a boxing match.
    Except when somebody hurts our family, our religion or our car.
    These poor guys have nothing at all, not even the police to beat the thief for them (yes, when the police intervenes, there, it gets even worse for the thief).
    I cannot judge the crowd – I do not want to.
    I try to judge the thief the same way I would if he burnt my house down.
    I understand the Oystein’s dilemma, not knowing whether to have just said something was enough or too much, but I think he did the only reasonable thing to do at theat time.

  12. There just doesn’t seem to be a win-win there.

  13. Anything that you would do in that situation would be just a drop in the bucket of the overall. Any compassion you demonstrated was from your upbringing and learned values; theirs are different. In the case described, there is a system and the accused (who admitted to the theft) it seems, is in control of how much punishment he will receive. If he returns the stolen items, will the beatings not stop? Seems his choice. We here in the US release dangerous criminals back into society. The people you encountered might think that not wise.

  14. I am in awe of the work you do, Otto. I believe I really know you as a compassionate and very caring man, so to be in your journalist role and not somehow truly intervene must be very difficult. And at the same time I do believe there are situations in cultures far different from our own where there are circumstances that the members of that society have agreed upon and we aren’t to step in and change it. This would be way over my head, I’ll tell you. I’m really glad you had the opportunity to say something to the angry crowd. I can’t imagine the majority would be receptive to think differently, but your words may have caused a little bit of letting up on the brutality. What a complex problem.

  15. I think there is nothing more frightening than mob justice and I think you did as much as you reasonably did under the circumstances. Very tough situation.

  16. An important story. And thought provoking problem.
    I think it’s impossible to judge what is right to do – sitting here in my safe home and prosperity in a rich and privileged country. But one thing you must remember: You are NEVER neutral when present in such a situation – whether you act or do not!

  17. I think I would have had to say something, too. And it’s difficult to judge them from the comfort of my own home…

  18. Tough situation ~ never knowing what really is the whole story and in a culture that seems quite difficult to penetrate, makes it difficult to know if you’re actually doing good or the opposite.

  19. Ha, Africa! And yet some are defensive to say we are not a country – of course we are in so many horrible ways.

    I can say someone is being done same way in Nigeria now – yes, we don’t prosecute those who stole millions of dollars but jungle justice on petty thieves. I have witnessed similar more times than I can remember.

    Obviously people are angry but misplaced justice most of the time.

    If I were to be in your situation, I would’t know what to do either than to watch however, as an African who is familiar with this sort of jungle justice, I’d persuade the crowd to let him go after getting the stolen items from him and remind them people like him is really not our problem, that he is a product of a very messy society – chances are they would not listen to me but I’d give it a go in the off chance.

  20. A person set himself on fire, he was getting filmed by the news crew. The video got viral, it was all over the news. The reporters were praised for their work. The guy survived, and they interviewed him, asking him, how he was feeling.

    I was gritting my teeth, shivering with anger. They were recording it. Instead of stopping him from doing it, or helping him, they were recording it. I am not sure what laws does journalists operate by. This is the first time that I’ve read that they can’t intervene in anything, but what’s more important? To cover a news, or save a life?

    What you did was right, and I would like to thank you for that. I am not sure if it was just from perspective of your job ethics, but from humanities perspective, it was.

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