I Was in the Motorcade That Struck and Killed 6-Year-Old Toussaint Birwe
Times Insider delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how news, features and opinion come together at The New York Times. In this piece, Helene Cooper, The Times’s Pentagon correspondent, explains why she went back to Cameroon months later to write a second article about “The Boy, the Ambassador and the Deadly Encounter on the Road.”
Villagers in Mokong, Cameroon, watched in April as the motorcade of Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, returned after one of its vehicles struck and killed Toussaint Birwe, 6.CreditAndrew Harnik/Associated Press
I was in the motorcade in northern Cameroon on the morning of April 18, when we struck and killed 6-year-old Toussaint Birwe.
It seemed to happen in an instant. Our heavily armored 14-car convoy was barreling up the road from Maroua toward Mokolo, where Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, was scheduled to begin the first in a daylong series of meetings with people who had suffered at the hands of Boko Haram. Security was heavy — our flight, upon landing at the Maroua airport, had been greeted by fierce-looking Navy SEALs, supposedly in plainclothes but all of them packing machine guns and wearing bandannas.
Once we loaded into the motorcade and began the journey to Mokolo, a helicopter appeared overhead — additional security. Cameroonian special forces joined the convoy, and local gendarmes lined the road. They waved back the locals who plied the road taking their farm goods to market. Children darted back and forth, as they always do on rural roads in Africa, dangerously close to the convoy.
We didn’t slow down when we approached the village of Mokong, where more people lined the road to watch. And suddenly, in the corner of my eye, I saw a small body, two cars ahead, flip into the air before disappearing out of sight. As my vehicle roared past, I saw the boy on the ground, his head bashed in. Nearby, a man, looking horrified, was running toward the boy, both of his hands on his head.