"One night Barthe Cortes, Essam Ishimve of ASADHO, four Ugandan boys and I were dragged to a yard at the back of the prison and we faced the death squad "
Your first impressions after passing the prison door?
Dilapidated walls, dark halls full of cannabis smoke and dirt. Wailing of people in pain. And immense stench. It is just like hell. The only one missing is the devil, to push you inside with his fork. The cell was very dark, it had a kind of a 30 x 30 cm window, but it was so high that I was unable to look outside. It did not let much light in, the cell was dim all the time. I was sleeping on a piece of cardboard on the floor, there was no bed. I spent three months there, alone in this tiny cell, in all that stench, in darkness. Once a day I was allowed a 10-minute shower time outside. And I was let out three times for... let's call it interrogation. I was numb all over, my eyes grew intolerant of light. I could do nothing but sleep. I did not know then which was better - staying alone in this solitary confinement or a multiple occupancy cell. After three months I experienced the other option as well. I was deposited in small room, 7 by 3 metres, packed with 100 other prisoners. As night fell, the conditions deteriorated further when a can filled with urine overflowed, soaking those who slept nearby. There was no air. To breathe, you have to be close to the bars but to get there you have to fight. And the next morning brought little relief. It became clear there was no food, water, medicine or access to healthcare. Inmates under escort are often forced to forage for food and drink outside the prison. The lucky few have families living nearby who can help out.
Which of these options was more acceptable?
It is difficult to say... man has immense capacity for adaptation, of which we are not aware in our daily life. You would certainly be unable to imagine how to spend three months in a tiny stuffy cell with the stench of death, in the darkness with rats, spiders and wall graffiti painted with the blood of former inmates. And suffering dire hunger. Afterwards, the company of others is life-saving, but soon the living conditions in an overcrowded cell become just a different kind of hell.
You said "let's call it interrogation" How did it look like? Why did they interrogate you?
I went there three times. They do not seem to question everyone. During my stay there, only people suspected of subversive activities against the government were questioned. Most often they were journalists; a couple of them besides me. I met also a man from human rights organization ASADHO, jailed under a charge of falsifying reports on respecting human rights to the detriment of the state. He was interrogated as well, similarly to Barthe Cortes head of African airlines BVC who disarmed a minister which was interpreted as an attempted coup. They interrogated Ugandan political prisoners too. Some are detained for six months, others for more than a year before they go to trial and most of them are detained for minor crimes
Have you been tortured?
Not physically. I was pushed around, kicked at times. Naturally, if you do not count standard prison conditions which alone can be considered as physical torture. But I know that people are tortured there, although it grew less common in the past year when the world focused its attention on Congolese prisons. I was tortured mentally
What do you mean by it?
During questioning they told me that I would stay there for at least ten years because they received such orders. This was just hope killing. The wardens were telling me about murders in prisons. It was quite believable: people spend long years there, they fall ill and die, they are murdered. They also suggested that my family was in trouble. I never knew which was true and which was not. Ending with the worst, with fake executions.
Can you tell more about it?
One night Barthe Cortes, Essam Ishimve of ASADHO, four Ugandan boys and I were dragged to a yard at the back of the prison and we faced the death squad. At first they covered our eyes. I remember that when they removed the band I felt burning light, although it was dark and the yard was lit with one lamp only. They put guns to our heads - large machine guns. Even today I remember this feeling, the touch and smell of metal. One of them was pretending to be a priest. From today's perspective, I think there was no real priest there, but one member of the squad was just playing the role. He blessed us and I was sure that we would die. They were prolonging this, enjoying the game. The Ugandan boys broke down, because they were just boys, the youngest was 17 and the oldest 24 at the most. They started crying, one of them fell on his knees, he started to shout, calling for God and for his mother, he grabbed the leg of Barthe Cortes who was standing near to him. Barthe helped him to his feet and said something to him. I do not know what he said but the boy went quiet and the squad fired a shot... in the air.
Can anything happen in the prison? Are there no rules?
Nobody is in control, and the guards are just crazy. I remember that in 2008 I read about goats being kept in a Congolese prison. A deputy minister found them during routine inspection. He explained that it was the fault of prison personnel which often lacks proper training. You can imagine what sort of people is in charge of everything there, can't you?
From the editors: The Red Cross is working with Congolese government and prison authorities to try and improve conditions for the inmates. It hosted a three-day round table in March attended by provincial government representatives and eight provincial prison directors to discuss prison management. Participants urged the authorities to renovate decaying buildings like Kasapa and build new facilities to replace the warehouse and sheds that currently house some prisoners. "This round table is a continuation of our work on behalf of detainees," said Thiery Shreyer, an ICRC protection coordinator. "Although we are delighted at the quality of our dialogue with the different parties, there are ongoing problems which require urgent action - prison sanitation and hygiene, detainees' access to medical care and the administration of justice." The provincial minister in charge of prisons, Jean Dukanga-Kazadi, has pledged more money to improve facilities in four prisons - Kasapa, Buluo, Kipushi and Kalemie.He promised major improvements. "Renovation works will be conducted in the prisons," said Dukanga-Kazadi. "We also plan the creation of a prison police in order to secure the prisons. Prisons will be equipped with a vehicle for the transportation of detainees and some handicraft tools for carpentry, sewing and brick manufacturing. Training sessions will be organised for prison employees."