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“She was beautiful and charming,” remembers Watani fondly. “And what a businesswoman! She was incredibly sharp with numbers.”
Though he spoke no Dutch and she spoke little English, they fell in love and decided to raise a family together. Nisha already had a 4-year-old boy, Raoul, whom Watani agreed to adopt, and over the next decade, the couple had six children of their own together — Kishana, Latanya, Natisha, Tamania, Lige and Mtume.
But life in Suriname was hard, and Watani struggled to feed his family. “I grew cassavas — traded in the markets. Nisha and I managed to scrape by, but just barely.”
As the political situation in Suriname deteriorated into borderline civil war, national instability became more than just an existential dilemma and an economic burden. Soldiers raided the Stiners’ house on more than one occasion, driving them away in the middle of the night and seizing their property. Outbreaks of malaria and tuberculosis ravaged the country, and the inept medical system couldn’t deal with the problem. By November of 1993, Watani and his family were living in the bush in a cinder-block home with no electricity or running water. “It was terrifying to be completely powerless to protect my children and provide for them.”
For Watani, it was all too familiar. “I had seen firsthand how fast the situation deteriorated in Guyana. I saw children selling cigarettes in the street just to keep from starving to death. I didn’t want my kids to end up suffering the same fate.”
But what could he do? He was an outlaw — there were no other countries he could safely travel to, and staying in Suriname wasn’t an option. Finally, Watani realized there was only one solution — he would sacrifice his freedom for the safety of his family.
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.