By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In November of 1993, he entered the American Embassy in the Surinamese capital of Paramaribo and initiated negotiations for his surrender. After nearly a year of back-and-forth discussions, a surrender agreement was reached — Watani would return to America to serve out his sentence, and in exchange, the American government would pay for Nisha, Raoul and the other kids to come to America.
On a warm November afternoon in 1994, Watani said goodbye to his family and turned himself in to the American Embassy in Suriname for extradition back to San Quentin.
Kishana Stiner remembers the day her father left home. “I was 10 at the time,” she says. “My father gathered all of us together and told us he had to cross a giant bridge, and when he got to the other side, he’d come back and help us cross too.”
The oldest daughter in the family, Kishana obediently kissed her father goodbye and waited anxiously for his return. But Watani wasn’t coming back, and despite the deal he brokered with the government, Kishana would have to wait 11 years before she could stand on the other side of the bridge he talked about.
As it turned out, after Watani turned himself in, arrangements were made to send the family to live with Watani’s sister Tamu in San Francisco. But the government reneged on its deal after the state of California determined that Tamu and her husband weren’t financially capable of supporting Nisha and the children, and they were all in danger of becoming wards of the state. Despite the lobbying efforts of several extremely powerful political figures, including Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Nisha and the children were left to fend for themselves in Suriname.
As time passed, Kishana and her siblings still had no idea where their father had gone and why he hadn’t returned as promised. Nisha didn’t want to let the children know their father was in prison — protecting them from a harsh truth but also leaving them to wonder if they’d been abandoned.
“Other kids would tease us that our father was in prison,” says Kishana, “but none of us had any idea what they were talking about.”
The psychological toll left by Watani’s departure aside, if the day-to-day struggle to find adequate food and shelter was dire with Watani present, it completely broke down after he left. Nisha proved unable to handle the tremendous pressure of raising the children on her own and turned to drugs to cope. Her habit worsened over time, increasingly leaving the burden of caring for the family to Kishana and 13-year-old Raoul.
“I was pretty much the mother,” says Kishana. “I did all the cooking and cleaning.”
One of the few fortuitous breaks in the children’s lives came in the form of Elaine Belle and her partner, Sheilah — a San Francisco couple who had become friends with Watani in rather unorthodox fashion. Upon his return to America, Watani was brought up on charges stemming from his escape from San Quentin, and Elaine happened to be in the jury pool for his trial. Though she was dismissed before the trial began, something about Watani intrigued her, and she couldn’t get him out of her mind.
“Watani was such a presence, and I was so moved by his story, that I felt compelled to do something to help him.”
Elaine and Sheilah met with Watani, then began sending money, books and medicine to Suriname. They had semiregular phone conversations with Nisha to keep apprised of the situation, but as time went on and their conversations with her became more erratic, Elaine and Sheilah realized that something was wrong.
“Nisha would call at all times of the night and tell us absolutely horrible stories,” remembers Sheilah. “Soldiers coming in the night to beat her and take her money . . . sexual assault . . . I’m sure many of the stories were at least partially true, but it became apparent that the money we were sending wasn’t going to help the kids — it was being spent on drugs. So we eventually had to cut back.”
Three years after Watani’s departure, Nisha lost all control over her addiction and was committed to a mental institution. With their mother gone, the children were scattered in foster homes across Paramaribo.
Raoul, meanwhile, moved in with his girlfriend’s family and tried to keep in close contact with Elaine and Sheilah. Despite their occasional financial care package, and the best efforts of Raoul to look after his half siblings, life in foster care was, for the most part, horrific. Being the oldest child, Kishana was forced to wake every morning at 5 to cook breakfast for the rest of her foster family. This was only the beginning of her daily chores; after that she spent the rest of her day cleaning. The duties imposed on her prevented her from going to school.
The other children didn’t fare much better. Any education past an eighth-grade level cost money, and the children weren’t able to go. Foster caretakers ranged from negligent to abusive.
“These kids were being absolutely traumatized by their experience in foster care,” says Sheilah. “They needed to come to America — and they needed to get here as soon as possible.”