On Halloween day, I was sitting at an outdoor restaurant on campus with a friend when our conversation was interrupted by a strange commotion. We heard some shouts followed by a small stampede of Ghanaians running out of the nearby dorms, through the restaurant area and toward the fields behind the building. I would have gone back to my business if the kitchen staff hadn’t followed the mob in hot pursuit. I was, obviously, curious about what was going on and suggested that we go outside to investigate. Upon leaving the cafe, I noticed a man watching the swarm of Ghanaians running.

“What’s happening?” I asked him.

“There was a thief,” he responded.

“Oh my God,” my friend said in disbelief. “It’s a lynch mob.”

In America, when we hear of lynch mobs, we tend to think of the hate crimes committed against African Americans, which usually involve mobs hanging individuals. However, lynching also took place very early in America as a more general form of punishment undertaken by mobs or vigilantes without due process against alleged criminals. The Ghanaian concept of lynch mobs mirrors this second, more loosely defined version. Due to the ineffective police force, poor police-civilian relations, an increasing crime rate and the breakdown of traditional methods of conflict resolution, locals take it upon themselves to punish criminals — usually thieves.

In any case, my friend and I rushed over to see what was going to happen. What we witnessed was deeply disturbing.

A group of about 50 men, all who appeared to be University of Ghana students, were beating the thief in a field as others gathered at a safe distance to watch. By the time we arrived on the scene, the victim of the mob was on the ground receiving a series of brutal kicks. A few individuals took thick branches and, even though I stood at a distance, I could hear the thumps as they struck his body. Others took off their belts in order to lash him and some used their shoes to protect their hands as they mercilessly beat him. Most just used their bare hands to pummel the supposed thief.

Then, to my horror, they dragged the thief across the field as if he were the remains of an animal sacrifice. After they finished dragging him, they continued to beat him until the campus security officers drove up in their truck, sauntered over in an almost leisurely fashion, broke up the group and carried the man into the bed of their truck. Even as the man sat in the truck bed, men lashed at him from a distance with belts and branches. The truck drove past me, and I saw the thief — who was miraculously conscious — with a thoroughly bloodied and mangled face. If he wasn’t a University of Ghana student, then he definitely appeared to be the same age as an average student.

Regardless of whether or not this man was a thief, I don’t personally believe there’s anything he could have stolen that would have merited the violence I witnessed.

The worst part of this experience was not the brutality itself. The worst part was not that the police force is so corrupt that Ghanaians feel as though lynching is the only legitimate way to seek justice. The worst part was not watching men sing, dance or even laugh as their fellow Ghanaian was endlessly beaten, and the worst part was not watching these same men leave the scene of the incident and go on with their business as though nothing had happened. The worst part was not the fact that this incident occurred on campus, which made me rethink how safe I feel in the place that I’ve come to consider home.

The worst part was the complete feeling of helplessness as I watched this scene unfold. I kept saying over and over again that we had to do something, that we couldn’t just stand there and watch the violence.

“But there’s nothing we can do,” my friend responded to my words.

And she was right.

I always believed that, if I saw violence of that nature taking place, I would step in and do my best to end it. I never imagined myself standing there, watching a man being beaten nearly to death, trying my hardest to be numb. But when your safety is compromised, what can you do? How can you stand up to what you perceive to be an act of injustice when the community perceives that same act as their only true form of justice?

It devastates me that, at least while I’m in West Africa, my decisions have to be thought of in those terms.