Journalist Recalls Disturbing Prison Ordeal

Jailed editor tells of his shock at condition of prisoners and their surroundings.

Journalist Recalls Disturbing Prison Ordeal

Jailed editor tells of his shock at condition of prisoners and their surroundings.

Wednesday, 29 April, 2009

Hell. That’s how journalist Ngoy Kikungula wa Maloba sums up the hunger, fear and misery he experienced during his six months in a Congolese prison.

Released a month ago, Kikungula, editor of the Lubumbashi newspaper Le Lushois, was arrested after publishing an article about Rwandan rebels advancing on the Katangan capital.

The story upset the local authorities, and he was taken to a Lubumbashi military prison, just the beginning of his ordeal. Kikungula told IWPR that his first glimpse of the other inmates and their surroundings was shocking.

“What did I see behind the door? Imps. Dirty, skinny with red and threatening eyes, almost naked, walking in a room with a repulsive odour caused by hemp smoke, cigarettes, urine, faeces and people who haven’t washed for a very long time,” said Kikungula.“It is just like hell. The only one missing is the devil, to push you inside with his fork.”

He was deposited in small room, 7 by 3 metres, packed with 120 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,” said Kikungula.

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.

Kikungula said the visitors began arriving at noon to bring food, “One by one, women give to the soldiers the food they brought … and they give it to the person concerned. But most of the detainees have no visits, hence no food. They must satisfy themselves with crumbs left by those who have eaten.”

At 6 pm he said the prisoners were ordered to buy a plastic bag and two cigarettes.

“I’m told that we can go to the toilet only once a day, at 5 am. The guy at my left tells me that when you need to relieve yourself, you stand up and defecate in the bag. Before that, you give a cigarette to the person in front of you and to the person behind you so they won’t smell it. What a hell,” he recalled.

Civilians like Kikungula are often held at military prisons and vice versa, with soldiers accused of crimes held in civilian facilities where they mix with the general population including children. There are even babies who come with their mothers, either in pre-trial detention or serving long sentences.

The appalling conditions in the Lubumbashi prisons are repeated around the Congo, prompting detainees – as the only way to avoid this misery and possible death – to organise frequent escapes with all risks entailed.

The poor state of Congo's prisons and its judiciary in general has cast serious doubts on its ability to try those accused of committing war crimes during the recent conflicts that have ravaged the country. The International Criminal Court, ICC, stepped in in 2004 and now has four Congolese in custody. A fifth man, Bosco Ntaganda, is indicted but remains at large.

Kikungula was transferred after two weeks to a civilian facility, Kasapa, about six kilometres from the Lubumbashi city centre. Kikungula told IWPR that Kasapa was better than the military prison but is feared by all Lushoi, residents of Lubumbashi, as inmates there are reported to eat mice and cockroaches to ward off starvation.

“When I see the prison wall, more than three metres high, I understand that from now on, I’m really a prisoner,” he said.

It was 20 days after his arrest before Kikungula saw his family who arrived with a much needed mattress and supplies. Congolese prisoners are usually not provided with bedding and most sleep on the bare ground. “They brought me a foam rubber mattress, bed sheets, two saucepans, a brazier, a flour bag, a bottle of oil, some salted fish and some money, just enough to buy a few items at the prison market,” he said.

A group of “100 scrawny prisoners, more dead than alive” made a big impression on Kikungula during his time at Kasapa. He said they were the remains of a large group of soldiers, many of whom had died since arriving. “Starvation and illness wiped them out. Had the Red Cross done nothing, they would have all died,” he said.

The Red Cross is working with Katangan 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 Thierry Schreyer, 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.”

There has been some progress in Katanga. The provincial minister in charge of prisons, Jean Marie Dikanga 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 Dikanga 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.”

After six months in “hell”, Kikungula is home. He was released after a trial at which he was found guilty of slander and ordered to pay a fine.

Héritier Maila is an IWPR contributor in Lubumbashi.

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