Congolese Jail

As a local coordinator for Eirene, I got the opportunity to spend a few days in the Democratic (Ha-ha-ha) Republic of Congo to assess the possibility to send a fellow volunteer. I had heard the worst about the country, considered as one of the poorest in the world and where armed rebels and militias in North Kivu has resulted in the death of more than 6 million people since 20 years[1]. Having plenty of resources is a curse on that planet. This is where small exploited kids’ hands work every day to extract coltan, most likely the one that was used to build the electronic device used to write and read that article[2].

I obviously wasn’t in the heart of the conflict, especially now that Ebola is killing hundreds. It is Bukavu, in North Kivu, that welcomed me with open arms. Hospitality and joy of life of Congolese is clearly inversely related to the dire situation in which the country is stuck for so long. Roads are miserable, terrible poverty is everywhere and we would not dare going outside by night, except for those with high risk taking behavior or complete stupidity. Overall, it sucks, yet my time there was very instructive.

In particular, I will never forget my tour in the central prison of Bukavu. As I am doing work with prisons in Uganda, it was a not to be missed opportunity (if I can say that). If hell on earth does exist, then it is not so far from there. By comparison, Ugandan prisons are almost five-star hotels (I said almost, shit is real there too). I saw the worst face of humanity, with the least dignity. What human can do to human often makes me sad and angry, yet that time it almost gave me nightmares.

Thanks to the chaplain of the prison, I could enter this gruesome place. Abbot Adrien is a fascinating and fantastic human being. I wish there were more people like him. He spends most of his time in Congolese jails, using a whole set of gimmicks to help inmates as much as he can. This trickster with a good soul would probably have ended up himself behind the bars if he did not choose to follow the divine path. On top of that, his sense of humor never leaves him.

He comes and goes inside prison any ways he likes, as if that was his own kingdom. When entering it with him, I wasn’t even searched. Once inside the courtyard, my first surprise was to see no guard. According to the Abbot, it is better that way. If one would try to put prison officer in there, a riot would likely burst within an hour. It is then a prisoner named John, former military dude, who maintain order with a deft hand. 50 other prisoners work for him and constitute his private army. The least we can say is that we would not dare blowing in his nostrils (this is directly translated from the French expression, look for it if it does not make sense). When he goes out of his luxury cell (forbidden to everyone but the Abbot Adrien, who says he can “sit on his bed and watch his TV”), someone blows in Vuvuzela to warn everybody that they better behave well.

Every new inmate has to pay him a tax of 70 dollars, a big amount over here. Those who cannot pay have to accomplished the most abject work and suffer from the worst living conditions. Malnutrition has devastating effects. Since December, 19 inmates died from hunger. Owing the thinness of some of them, that is not going to stop soon. It felt like walking in a concentration camp, and that was not nice at all.

The day I visited the prison was special, as it was a Sunday during Lent. Many people (mostly women, what a surprise!) come to bring food to the prisoners for the apostolate. For many, this is the only weekly meal worth of the name; the micro rations of fufu (also known as ugali or posho) that they get the other days are definitely not enough to cover their basic needs. It is fortunate that the church take care of it, otherwise the situation would be much worst. I was almost reviewing my opinion about this institution, when I saw well-dressed people preaching in the female prison, asking for money in exchange. How happy was I to hear my friend the Abbot calling it a scam!

The culmination of the visit was certainly the tour in cell number 2. This is where 262 of the worst inmates are packed. 50 would already feel jammed. To go there, we had to walk through cramped obscure corridors. I would hear “Muzungu” shouts from the darkness. No doubt there were for me. There was of course no guard there. Even if no one would dare arming me or the Abbot, John’s henchmen being always nearby and inmates being conscious of the fact that you better not bite the hand that feeds you, I was close to shit my pants not feeling comfortable at all. I insisted to leave quickly, yet the pictures of that cell may haunt me for long.

As if that wasn’t enough in terms of misery, we ended the visit by having a quick look inside the dungeon, lighted with the phone of the Abbot Adrien. This is where those who messed up inside the prison are kept. There were 5 packed in a ridiculous small space. I was at least feeling a bit better when I was told that they have the right to go out to use the bathroom (which, by the way, I did ask to see, for obvious olfactory reasons). To sum up, I got a big slap right in my face, and I will skip the paragraph on the minor sex trade workers network…

The worst in all of that is that many of these people have done nothing, or almost nothing. One of the women we talked with was there since one month because she bit her neighbor. She was stuck there because she could not pay the small amount of money that villainous “public servant” are asking in exchange of her freedom. Abandoned by everybody, dehumanized, luckily these prisoners can count on the empathy of the Abbot Adrien. He does not hesitate to move heaven and earth when needed. Constantly smiling, he fiercely fights human ignominy; a fight that he will probably loose, but a fight that he keep doing just in the name of love and compassion. If humanity could show even a small part of his altruism, no doubt the world would be a much better place.

As for myself, once again I got a punch in the face. It reminded me again why I do what I do.