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Goma Prison Riot Lessons Not Learnt

Fears appalling conditions in DRC jails could lead to repeat of rebellion which saw female prisoners raped.
By Lucie Bindu, Passy Mubalama
  • The international aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres has worked to improve the health of inmates at the dilapidated and overcrowded Bunia prison in eastern DRC. (Photo: Claude Mahoudeau/MSF)
    The international aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres has worked to improve the health of inmates at the dilapidated and overcrowded Bunia prison in eastern DRC. (Photo: Claude Mahoudeau/MSF)

More than a year after an attempted jailbreak during which a number of female inmates were raped, little has been done to change the dismal conditions in Goma’s notorious Munzenze prison.

At the time, the United Nations mission in the country – then called MONUC and since renamed MONUSCO – appealed to the government to improve jail conditions in order to prevent a repeat of the violence. This call was echoed by other international bodies, including Human Rights Watch and the presidency of the European Union.

But the dire situation, including serious overcrowding and a lack of adequate separation between male and female inmates, appears unchanged, prompting fears that the violence of 2009 could be repeated.

Christine Musaidizi, head of the local NGO Children’s Voice, recently visited the women’s wing of Goma’s prison, where on June 21, 2009, 20 female inmates were raped during an attempted jailbreak by male prisoners serving long sentences for serious crimes.

“While I was there, one of the prisoners from the men’s section just walked in,” she said. “This was a big well-built man. I was very frightened. If he had tried to do something to me, there was no way I could have defended myself.”

Musaidizi notes that the wall separating the male and female units of the prison still does not have barbed wire on top of it.

Munzenze was built in 1953 and has the capacity for 150 inmates. Currently, though, some 960, including many army deserters, are being held within its walls.

Inmates have to sleep in shifts due to the lack of space, and food comes irregularly and in small quantities. The provincial government provides irregular supplies of beans, rice and sometimes salted fish, although never in sufficient quantities, so most prisoners only eat one meal a day, late at night.

Regular water shortages aggravate the situation, meaning prisoners can neither drink nor wash. Dysentery is another problem.

“There are cases of infection and people suffer a lot,” John Masenge Katamba, a prisoner, said. “People are going to die here in the jail.”

Elsewhere in the region, the situation is even worse. In Sake, a town close to Goma, detainees have to share their quarters with goats and sleep on the floor, in puddles of urine. There is no organisation that provides assistance and prison inmates have to rely solely on their relatives’ goodwill in order to eat and drink.

“These living conditions violate basic human rights and the dignity of the detainees,” a lawyer from Goma, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. “The people in power should take this into account.”

The authorities recognise that prison conditions need to be improved, but say that a lack of funds makes this difficult.

“The living conditions are still a concern for us,” Tuhihimbaze Rutchomboza, the provincial minister of justice, said. “We are looking at how to improve the situation of prisoners [throughout] the province. But we have not been able to do anything because of a lack of funding. The province alone cannot cover all expenses. We are waiting for support from the central government.”

International NGOs also try to help. For instance, the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, supplies some food to DRC prisons, while the Association of Female Doctors provides medical aid and assists with prison hygiene.

Another problem which remains to be resolved is the long time that it takes for the case file of a prisoner to be dealt with. This was noted as an additional reason for the 2009 violence.

“I was arrested on May 16 for attempted rape,” Isumbiya Eli, one of the prisoners at Munzenze prison, said. “I have been here over six months and I am still waiting to see the judge.”

Rutchomboza accepts that, in many cases, justice takes too long.

“The slowness in the treatment of detainees’ files is due to the insufficient number of magistrates in the region,” he explained. “Also, some files were destroyed during the volcanic eruption [in 2003].”

He said he was planning a visit to the region’s prisons in order to see how some of the detainees might be freed and discuss how to find a solution regarding the missing files.

There have been some attempts to improve prison security and living conditions since the 2009 riots, but with limited effect.

Shortly after the attempted breakout, the provincial government decided to build a dedicated women’s prison, just next to the existing Goma jail. But construction has been hampered by accusations of embezzlement and no one seems to know when the new facility might be completed.

On August, 19, MONUSCO established a special unit to look at the issue of prison conditions in the country, and to support the national prison administration.

“Prisoners in the DRC encounter many difficulties because of degrading prison conditions,” Youssoupha Ndiaye, acting head of this unit, said. “This is why we have decided to set up this new unit, aimed at improving the living conditions of detainees.”

On September 16, MONUSCO said that it had earmarked 13,000 US dollars for a new detention centre in Bunia, Ituri district, to house up to 50 female inmates.

Elsewhere, in Tshikapa in Western Kasaï province, a new initiative has been started to regularly review the case files of detainees, and consider whether they should continue to be held. As a result, the number of prisoners has fallen from 500 to 150.

In Bandundu province, also in the west of the country, the governor recently decided to build a new prison, which has eased overcrowding and led to a dramatic improvement in living conditions.

People in North Kivu are now wondering when things will be improved in their province, and whether changes will come before there is a repeat of the 2009 violence.

“Penitentiary conditions are very lamentable,” Zihalirwa Rubanda, a human rights defender, said. “If the government does not do something soon, then there will once again be violence.”

Lucie Bindu is an IWPR trainee in Goma. Passy Mubalama, also an IWPR trainee in Goma, contributed to this report.

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