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Monday, April 07, 2008

A Sierra Leonean Endangered And Abused In Philly.

AS THE CARGO ship docked at a port near New York City, 16-year-old Mohamed Fornah sat hidden inside a shipping container, alone and scared.
He had fled Sierra Leone with no money, clothes or possessions.

All he carried was the guilt of fleeing his homeland without his three sisters who were kidnapped by diamond-hungry rebels.

Life had not been kind to him. When he was little, rebels killed his parents. When he was a teen, they raped his sisters, then stabbed him, leaving him for dead.

Mindful of his illegal entry into America, Fornah, who now has a green card, crept out of the shipping container on a summer night in 2002. He made his way to Philadelphia where a childhood friend from Sierra Leone had moved.

He hoped he'd be safe here.

But Philadelphia, it turned out, offered little refuge from the terror and torture he left behind.

At 19, Fornah was jailed on a robbery charge and a series of misdemeanors in December 2005 after a dispute with his girlfriend in which he took her car keys. Unable to post bail, he was locked up at the city's Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.

The night of March 24, 2006, just two weeks before prosecutors dropped all charges against him, his mentally deranged cell mate savagely beat and raped him in a dark, isolated cell while top prison officials debated how to rescue him, according to internal prison documents obtained by the Daily News.

The stand-off lasted two hours.

"I don't think anyone knew how to handle the situation and meantime, Mohamed [Fornah] is going through his own private hell in there," said Fornah's attorney, James D. Famiglio. "It was awful. He was just a mess when they finally pulled him out."

By the time a rescue team finally busted into the steel cell, Fornah was barely conscious. His eyes were bloodshot from his being repeatedly strangled with a towel. His entire body was covered in feces, documents show.

Fornah was rushed to Frankford-Torresdale Hospital, where he spent five days fighting a fever and viral infection caused by ingesting his own feces that his cell mate, Antwone Williams, had crammed down his throat.

Williams admitted he attacked Fornah, but denied raping him, though prosecutors believe otherwise. Williams was sentenced last month to a maximum of five years in prison for aggravated assault.

That same day, Fornah filed a civil suit in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, arguing that the city and prison officials failed to protect him and took too long to rescue him. Prison spokesman Bob Eskind declined comment, citing the pending litigation.

Fornah, who speaks in halting English with a heavy accent, said his manhood and psyche have been irrevocably damaged.

"The memory is never going to be gone," said Fornah, now 21.

Trim, handsome and quiet, Fornah said that in his native country, male rape victims are abhorred, shunned and sometimes even killed.

"They know you are not a man no more. People are always going to look at you like you are a female," said Fornah during a recent interview in his attorney's Broomall office, with Famiglio and co-counsel Stuart A. Carpey by his side.

"Now I don't feel like a man."

Trapped in 'the hole'

A1, Pod 4, Cell 5. To those on the outside, they're just numbers. To inmates, the numbers are code for "the hole," - the Punitive Segregation Unit. Fornah landed there after a tussle with a cantankerous, older inmate who repeatedly struck Fornah with his cane.

Cell 5 is bare-bones, with a set of metal bunk beds, a toilet, a sink and a desk fastened to the wall. A steel door with a small, thick-plated window is the entry and exit.

When Antwone Williams first entered the cell, Fornah regarded him with caution. Williams boasted that he liked to fight. Fornah noticed he had streaks of blood on his prison jumpsuit, he said.

At first, things were calm. Both practicing Muslims, they prayed together. Williams, 23, a high school dropout who lived not far from Cobbs Creek Park, talked about his baby and family.

Williams struggled with "severe" drug addiction and had been in and out of jail for mostly nonviolent offenses, including drug possession and theft, according to records and prosecutors. He also had a history of mental health problems, according to an internal prison memo.

Those problems soon played out in Cell 5. The second day in the hole, Williams suddenly just "wild up," as Fornah put it.

"C.O.! C.O.!, take me outta here," Williams yelled out to corrections officers. "I'm going to hurt somebody. I'm gonna hurt myself."

Fornah worried for his own safety. He asked to be moved to a different cell but guards thought Williams' tirade was just an act, he said.

As the evening wore on, however, Williams screamed louder, warning guards he'd get violent.

In the middle of the night, officers put Williams in the so-called "rubber room," a special behavioral unit where inmates are stripped naked so they don't use their clothes to hang themselves.

When officers returned Williams to Cell 5 the next morning, he seemed more enraged than before, but eventually grew quiet, Fornah said.

Peace didn't last.

It was early evening on March 24, 2006. Fornah was asleep on the top bunk, clad in boxer shorts and a T-shirt. He awoke to feel something tighten around his neck. He tried to jump up but couldn't. Williams was on top of him, kneeling on his back.

"Don't move. I'm about to rape you. I'm going to kill you," Fornah recalled Williams telling him.

Fornah couldn't breathe. His eyes and neck veins bulged. His tongue swelled. His cries for help grew weaker until mere rasps. Williams used his feet to force apart Fornah's legs, according to Fornah.

Once penetrated, Fornah said his limbs went numb. Fornah pressed his foot into the wall with such force that he flipped himself off the bunk bed. His head slammed into the concrete cell floor.

Two hellish hours

Fornah lay motionless when Officer Shawn Jay took a routine patrol of the unit. Loud voices and bangs drew his attention to Cell 5.

Jay peered inside. The cell was completely dark. He shined a flashlight through the window. Williams was on top of Fornah on the floor. He had him in a headlock. Williams had something that looked like a sheet wrapped around Fornah's head, according to prison documents and court testimony.

Williams threatened to kill Fornah. Jay feared he had a weapon so he alerted superiors.

A few seconds later, at about 6:25 p.m., two lieutenants and two sergeants stood outside the cell door and tried to talk Williams down.

"I have my [cell mate] tied up. If anyone comes in, I'll kill him," Williams shouted, prison memos show.

Williams ranted that Fornah was related to people who had kidnapped his daughter, and he needed to use the phone.

Not knowing what to do next, the officers went to speak with their shift commander, Capt. Eugene Thompson, who alerted the warden.

Then-warden Louis Giorla activated the prison's Correctional Emergency Response Team (CERT).

Giorla, whom Mayor Nutter named last month to become prisons commissioner, stood near the cell and waited for the CERT team.

"Some of the supervisors wanted to go in there, but I guess somebody overruled them and said, 'Wait,' " recalled Officer Lorenzo North, who was on duty that night.

It took nearly an hour for the specialized cell-extraction team to arrive, prison documents show. Even then, the team didn't take immediate action.

Instead, prison officials sent a staff "behavioral health" doctor to talk to Williams, who reacted by further choking Fornah.

CERT leaders blasted pepper spray under the cell door using an "MK-46 canister," or so-called riot extinguisher. They burst into the cell with "stun shields," a riot shield that emits an electric shock when touched. One officer pressed his shield against Williams for eight seconds, prison documents show.

At 8:20 p.m. - nearly two hours after Officer Jay first heard the commotion - team members carried Fornah to safety.

"I feel lucky to come out of there alive," Fornah said recently.

Officer North, who is also president of the corrections officers union, said prison brass should have isolated Williams from other inmates.

"That inmate [Williams] was in the rubber room before," North said. "He should have been housed by himself. He shouldn't have been in that cell [with Fornah] in the first place."

"I thought that the crime was very brutal, just in the physical assault," said Assistant District Attorney Bill Davis, who prosecuted Williams and had asked the judge to jail him for seven to 14 years.

Fornah said he often wonders why violence and cruelty seem to follow him.

"Is this God's way of telling me that I got to go through pain to be a man?" Fornah asked.

Trauma begins early

Fornah was born to politically active middle-class parents in Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, where he played on beaches rimmed with mangrove trees.

More than once, rebels took over Freetown, slaughtering people and cutting off their limbs. Fornah often saw wild dogs and buzzards devouring bodies left on streets.

When he was about 4 years old, rebels stormed into his house and shot his parents dead in front of him.

Fornah and his three sisters went to live with their uncle, Sembu Fornah, a widely known politician who served as the country's deputy minister of mines.

A "house boy," who lived with the family mopped floors and greeted visitors. His uncle had a driver who ferried Fornah and his friends to the beach.

Then, on a spring night in 2002 - four days before his 16th birthday - rebels, some as young as teenagers, broke into his house through the garage. The gunmen, who wore masks and desert combat gear, came for his uncle, according to immigration-related paperwork filed with the U.S. government.

"They told me, 'We need the diamonds. We need your uncle. Otherwise we gonna kill you. We always see you with your uncle. We always see you around here, always looking good. We out there, suffering. So this is our time,' " Fornah recalled.

Fornah told them his uncle mainly resided in government housing and only came home occasionally.

A rebel grabbed his older sister, put a gun to her head, and ordered her to take off her pants. His youngest sister, about age 5, sobbed loudly and a rebel locked her in the bathroom, according to documents.

They tied Fornah's hands behind his back with strips of animal hide. He watched them rape two of his sisters.

Then one rebel stabbed him with a bayonet, leaving a long gash along the left side of his abdomen.

A neighbor called police. Nigerian-led armed forces, established to fight the rebels, arrived, but rebels fled with Fornah's three sisters. Fornah was taken to a hospital, where a Red Cross nurse helped sneak him onto a ship. She introduced Fornah to a man he only knew as "Mr. John."

"She said, 'We gonna put you on this ship and anywhere he drops you, you just make your way,' " Fornah said.

For weeks, he hid in a room under the ship's deck with four or five other refugees. Mr. John brought him meals three times a day and warned him to stay hidden.

When the ship docked at port, Fornah said he had no idea he was in America. In fact, he's still not sure which port he arrived in - New York or Newark, N.J.

A taxi driver, a Muslim like him, helped Fornah call his friend in Philadelphia and paid for a one-way bus ticket here.

"I told him, 'I don't know where I'm at and I'm scared. I'm afraid,' " Fornah said. "He said, 'You are in the U.S. You better find a way to support yourself. If not, they are going to arrest you.' "

Fornah soon reunited with an uncle who had fled Sierra Leone and settled in Philadelphia years earlier. Fornah moved into his uncle's Southwest Philly rowhouse.

"I was shocked - shocked when I saw him," said his uncle, Edward Abu, who works as a taxi driver. "I said, 'Oh my, I thought you were dead. How did you get here?' "

It took Fornah nearly four years to get his green card. The government granted him "special immigrant juvenile status," said his immigration attorney, Judith Bernstein-Baker, executive director of HIAS, an international migration and refugee resettlement agency.

"He had a very tough time in Sierra Leone and a very tough time in the United States," Bernstein-Baker said. "The system was not kind to him, but in the end, the system in the United States did right by him and now I hope he can become whole and live out his potential."

Fornah is applying for trade jobs and plans to go to school to become an electrician.

In December, he traveled back to Sierra Leone and spent a month searching for his sisters, in vain. "I was asking people who can't even find their own peoples," Fornah said.

He returned to the United States where despite it all, he still feels blessed to call this country home.

"I think this is the last world where everyone wants to live," Fornah said. "You have medication. You have human rights. You have privacy.

"You have freedom." *

***Philadelphia Daily News

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