When I was 16, my father’s job in the Diplomatic Corps took us to Lagos, Nigeria. We lived on Victoria Island, half an hour’s walk from the ocean. We had a servant named Christopher, who became a friend and my personal tour guide. One day, my parents went out for the day, I was thoroughly bored doing homework and Christopher was thoroughly bored with cleaning silver, so he asked me if I wanted to go to a picnic. He said that the government had declared a national holiday and all of his friends would be at the beach, so we could go and have lunch with them. I thought that was a great idea and agreed. I didn’t ask why it was a national holiday, because it seemed to me that the government declared national holidays at the drop of a hat, so I wasn’t curious about it.

When we arrived at the beach, there was an astonishing number of people there. We wandered around for a bit, but we couldn’t find Christopher’s friends. We were on the verge of leaving, when a platoon of Nigerian soldiers on horseback came over the ridge above the beach. They were holding wooden batons (actually, more like clubs) and they began to drive everyone back and away from the section of beach we were standing in. People began to panic, trying to get away from the horses and clubs, and Christopher and I got caught in a dense crowd of people moving toward the ocean. We were pushed back until we and a lot of other people were standing up to our waists in water. It was hard to stay balanced, as people were jostling each other, and I couldn’t see any way to escape. It was very strange, looking back, seeing the empty ocean and looking forward, seeing a sea of people. We all became very quiet, perhaps hoping that it would calm the soldiers and they would stop hitting people with their clubs.

Things did become a little calmer, and the soldiers formed a line separating the crowd from a circle of beach. As we stood waiting, a flatbed truck came over the crest. On the back of it was a huge oil drum and more soldiers. When the truck stopped, they climbed out, erected a platform and placed the drum on it. Then a second flatbed truck arrived. This one held six soldiers, a Nigerian man dressed in white lace, and a coffin. The soldiers pulled him out of the truck and dragged him onto the platform, where they stood him against the drum and bound him to it with thick rope. Then they went back to the truck and lifted automatic rifles from it.

Everything went into slow motion for me. I watched as they formed a line, raised their rifles and started shooting. They didn’t aim to kill. They deliberately prolonged his death by firing at his hands and legs with the first round of fire. He screamed as the bullets very nearly severed his right hand. There were pauses between the next two rounds. It took him what was for me, an eternity to die.

Then the soldiers untied him and two of them carried him off the platform and dumped him in the coffin. They sprinkled a white powder, which I later found out was lye, over his body, closed the lid, and pulled the coffin onto the back of the truck.

As I stood in the water watching all of this, I glanced up at the ridge above the beach. I spotted the communications officer from the Embassy taking photographs. By this time, I was so shocked that the image of him capturing images of this death, these people standing in the ocean, the soldiers, the sky, is still one of the strongest images I have of that day.