Thursday, October 20, 2011

Behind the Bars


          I avoid the prison for several days.  There are times I avoid going to the villages for identification or follow-up on the rotational credit programs; sometimes, my heart feels deflated and I subconsciously find other work to do, in a rather weak attempt to let the little red organ recover.  The prison, in my mind, is somehow more terrifying than any of the villages I’ve travelled to, regardless of which military group was present.  My aversion to returning is so strong, there’s nothing subconscious about my finding menial jobs and errands to fill a few days.
          When Urbain and I finally do make it back, Maman Vee is there.  Maman Vee is the woman in charge of the prison; numero uno, the head honcho, and she perfectly owns and looks the part.  Since the prisoners took over all of the offices inside, Maman Vee is sitting on a wooden chair in front of the prison, looking down at the city of Butembo stretched out before her like a wrinkled quilt. 
          Maman Vee scares me more than the prisoners do and although she’s the representative of “order” in the strange little box of chaos, she adds to the ethereal, nightmarish quality of the prison.  Maman Vee is the largest woman I’ve ever seen; Ms. Trunchbull in African pagne.  Her chest juts out from under her chin like a shelf, her pagne falling off of the cliff at the end of the shelf dropping straight down giving her a boxed appearance.  She brings to mind a snake that has swallowed a pig, except this is a woman who has swallowed a refrigerator.
          Urbain and I climb the mud hill to her open-air office.  The sky is already dark, garnering its fury for the now daily rains. 
    -Bonjour Maman, I say and reach out my hand. 
          Maman Vee shakes my hand but gives me a look that makes me uncertain of myself.  She has kindness in her face, but the authority screaming from her entire person makes me want to kneel down in front of her and beg for forgiveness.  I feel like she’s either going to kill me, eat me, or pull me to her bosoms.  I don’t know which of those things would be worse, and I look to the prison window, now preferring to be speaking to the caged men.  The men who I was too frightened to even touch are still at the bars, and there’s a little toddler of a girl with colorfully braided hair climbing across the bars. 
    -You can’t go inside today, says Maman Vee.  There was shooting inside the prison yesterday and you didn’t bring food this time.  You have to bring food to enter.
    -Inside the prison there was shooting?  I ask, feeling even more nervous about entering.  Between the prisoners?
    -No, the guards went in and the prisoners tried to fight them so the guards shot.
    -Okay well, that’s better than prisoners having guns.  We’ll bring food next time, I say slightly relieved by the refusal.  When did the prisoners take over the offices?
    -February, she responds curtly.
    -Wow, I had the impression it was more recent than that.
          Maman Vee doesn’t respond, she just smirks a little and keeps staring out at the city.
    -Can we talk to Urbain’s friend again from the outside, I ask.
    -No, since there was shooting yesterday you have to leave.
          I nod quickly and immediately start moving back down the hill towards the motorcycles.  If this woman told me to punch myself in the face I’d probably do it. 
          Again, I procrastinate the prison for a couple days, but when a donation arrives for the prisoners I can’t put it off any longer. Potatoes, beans, and porridge powder.  Urbain suggests we bring salt and I have to remind him that although people should have spices for their food, salt isn’t something you bring a person who’s starving.
          We go back to the prison in the afternoon, since Maman Vee only works there in the mornings.  This time we’re greeted by a young woman named Eliza, who eagerly escorts us to the main metal door.  I had planned to ask armed guards to enter with us, but she opens the door and ushers us inside so quickly, I don’t even have time to remember that I wanted guards.  Inside, the entry way that I thought was the one section the prisoners hadn’t infiltrated, was simply another little room.  We aren’t separated from anyone and men are already peeking from one infiltrated office into the entryway to look at me.  I turn around to find the food, and see The Vesuvian eagerly helping two other prisoners carry the heavy sacks up the hill.
          The Vesuvian’s skin still looks sickly, but in the sunlight he looks less frightening and he's laughing with the other men as they carry the food towards the door.  His laughter is genuine and full.
    -The prisoners are outside the prison, I say pointing to them in astonishment and ignorance.
          Eliza is holding the door open for them, and she nods in the direction of an AK-47 trained on the men.
          The Vesuvian and his friends move past me into the prison without a second glance.  Urbain and I follow them into the office to the left.  The men I was afraid to even shake hands with are now all around me and the door to the outside is closed.  The room is dark and one of the larger and louder prisoners moves towards us.  His face is round, with full lips, and his skin is particularly pasty.  He’s wearing a grey shirt that says Love written repeatedly in a circle.  The o’s of the word are hearts.
    -You promised me cigarettes, he says with a voice that sounds like he’s been screaming for a century.
    -I know, I know, I say.
          I reach into my pocket and hand him a cigarette.
    -Only one?  Come on I’ll smoke this in five minutes, give me more.
    -Later, I say.
          The man takes my hand and starts leading me forward.  The office opens into the open air living space.  It’s only about ten by twenty meters and is filled with human forms.  In the center of the rectangle there are several groups of people huddling around little fires, and someone, somewhere is pounding on a bucket like a drum.  We walk along the outside of the rectangle, squeezing through people.  Some of the prisoners look normal, though most have the nightmarish look of illness that terrified me before.  We pass two young men who are gripping each other’s necks, with their foreheads pressed together as if they’re lovers who are parting.  But there is an obvious violence in their gazes and the grasp and I skip forward a few paces to get away from them. 
          Most people are just standing around, observing the fray.  On the outside of the rectangle is an outer rectangle of large rooms.  Each room is filled with little wooden cots and idle humans.  Gabriel, the man wearing “Love” and leading me forward by the hand, stops at a smaller room.
    -This is the office where the President of the prison lives, he says.
          He urges me forward into the dark room and then he disappears. 
    -I’m the secretary of the prison, says a little man in a pressed suit.  This is the president.
          He motions towards a low bed, where there is a large man with bulbous features and sickly skin snoring loudly.
    -You’re prisoners or you work here?  I ask quietly, wanting desperately for the snoring man to remain asleep.
    -Prisoners, but you need to have a hierarchy in the prison, he says.  Here take a seat.
          He motions to a small bench against the back wall, that’s directly next to the sleeping giant.  I walk forward nervously and sit down.  I’m only about two feet away from the man’s face.  He looks a lot like Shrek.  From my new vantage point, I can see behind the curtain that’s hanging next to the bed, covering most of Shrek’s body.  There’s a woman lying next to Shrek in the bed.   The room is small and cluttered.  The Secretary sits on another bed on our right.  There’s a television across from the bench where Urbain and I are sitting.
    -Wow, you have a television, does it work?  I ask.
    -Yes, when there’s gas in the generator.
          Three men immediately file into the dark room and stand in front of us. 
    -There are 351 prisoners in here, 8 women and 343 men, says the Secretary.  Around 80 percent of the prisoners are here for rape.
    -What are the women here for?
    -Mostly murder, he says.
          The sound of a makeshift drum is still pounding from the courtyard, but I’m paying close attention to the rise and fall of snores next to me.  I do not want the most powerful prisoner to wake suddenly to the sight of a random muzungu sitting in his room.
    -Here, these men are here for rape, says the Secretary.
          Either Urbain already explained our reason for visiting, or word gets around fast.  I look up at the three men.  The tallest and skinniest immediately leans forward and begins speaking.  He speaks French so Urbain doesn’t need to translate.
    -I’m a nurse, he says in a pleading voice.  I’m a gynecological nurse and there was a girl who heard through HEAL Africa that if a man touches you in your openings that it is rape.  She was pregnant and I needed to check the baby.  I touched her in her orifice with my fingers.  I gave her medicine and explained how to take it and she left.  But then she heard this from HEAL Africa and she said that I raped her.
    -Doesn’t a doctor normally do that type of thing?  I ask.
    -The doctor wasn’t there and she needed to be checked.
          I shrug my shoulders and thank the man for telling me his story.  I realize suddenly, how ridiculous this is.  These men aren’t going to tell me truths.  I’m not a judge or lawyer, so aside from bringing the education and sensitization materials I’ve arranged, there’s really no reason for me to hear these one-sided histories.  They do seem eager to tell, though.
          The tall, skinny, nurse thanks me and walks back into the main area.  The next man is also skinny, with a short beard and mustache.  He speaks very calmly.  He’s in for rape.  He had a conversation with the woman, she was 16 years old.  He’s 25 years old.  He was accused because of the age difference.
         -Do you think 16 is too young for a girl to consent to sex?  I ask.
    -No, it’s not too young.  She was in agreement but we weren’t married.  That’s why the Maman was angry.
          I nod my head and the young man smiles and then leaves the room.  The next man is much older than most of the men and he looks extremely tattered.  His teeth are stained and many are missing.  The short mustache and beard circling his mouth looks unruly and wiry.
    -How old are you?  I ask, and he only speaks Kinande so Urbain picks up the translation.
    -He’s 62, he’s been in prison for 4 years and two months.
    -Wow, that’s a long time.  What was occasion that put him in prison?
    -The girl was eight years old when he slept with her.
          I stop writing and look up at the man.  An image of him anywhere near a child flits into my mind and I have to carefully restrain any reaction.  I don’t want the man to think I am judging him, but he can definitely tell that I’m paying much closer attention to his story than I did the others.  I want to pick his brain but I can barely formulate a question that makes sense.  What do you ask in this kind of a situation?  How do you get insight into this kind of a man and mentality?
    -Did he realize that the girl did not want to have relations with him?
          I wonder if he’ll try to tell me an 8 year old consented to sexual relations with a then 58 year old man.
    -He says there was a conflict of land, Urbain translates as the man begins to rattle of a fast-paced story.  The man had a conflict with another family and so the Maman said he raped the daughter.  There was a boy who came to separate them when he was fighting with the Maman.  He never knew the girl, he didn’t even know her name.  He never heard the complaint against him, so he doesn’t know if it was the field or because of the girl that he is here.
    -Wait, now he’s saying he didn’t do it?  I ask.  But he already said that he did.
          Urbain nods at me and shrugs his shoulders.
    -Now he’s changing the story, he responds.
    -You’re not going to find men who will admit that they did the crime, says the Secretary from the bed.
    -Yes, I figured that much, I respond.
         The sleeping Shrek stops snoring and reaches up to scratch his face.  My heart stops with the cessation of snoring.  I glance at the sleeping man, getting ready to grab Urbain and run.  Suddenly a tiny little head pops up on the other side of Shrek.  A little three year old girl, with bright eyes, stands up next to Shrek.
    -Papa! Muzungu!  She chirps and points at me.
          I smile at her and wave enthusiastically, hoping to mesmerize her enough to stop her from trying to wake up her father.
    -Do children live here?  I ask the Secretary.
    -Only one, he’s three years old.
   -What about this little girl?  I ask as the girl climbs over her father and patters over to the Secretary to inspect me more closely. 
    -She’s visiting with her Mother, he says.
          The hanging curtain moves again and a slender woman leans out.  I greet her but she immediately busies herself with slipping a tattered old Disney Princesses nightgown over the naked little girl.  Through all of this, Shrek continues sleeping.  Another man walks into the dark room and squats in front of me, and I realize the older man has already left.  The new guy looks very young, and Urbain immediately goes back to questioning.
    -He’s 20 years old and he’s been here for two years, Urbain translates.  He had a woman, he didn’t know her age.  They said he raped her because he gave a gift to the girl.  Her father saw this and said, ‘you raped my daughter.’  When the father found out he tried to kill this monsieur with a machete.
          The boy is wearing acid wash jeans and a red-white-blue track jacket.  He pulls the right sleeve of the jacket up to his elbow, revealing a thick, dark scar.
    -He protected his head from the machete blow with his arm.
          The boy and Urbain both lift their arms to reenact deflecting the swing of a machete.
    -Did the girl accuse him of raping her?  Or only her father?  I ask.
    -She agreed to have relations with him, but they forced her to say that she was raped.  She agreed before they had sex but then when the papa came, she changed and said he raped her.
    -Did you know her before this?  Were you friends?
    -Yes, they would walk through the market together, often.
    -That’s not a very nice thing for your friend to have done, I say.
          I can’t keep the sarcasm out of my voice.  It’s definitely possible that the girl was embarrassed or cruel and she lied about it, but there are a lot of weak points in his scenario. 
    -If I bring a film that gives information against sexual violence, do you think the men will be interested in watching it?  I ask the Secretary.
          The boy stands up and wanders out with a wave.
    -Yes, definitely.  And if you can bring medicine sometimes, that can help.  People die in here.
   -I’ll see what I can do.  But you said there is electricity sometimes, so I can plug in the projector?
    -Yes, you need to bring gas for the generator and then we can have electricity.
          I stand up and hand the pack of cigarettes to the Secretary.
    -Please hand those out to people, don’t keep them for yourself, I say.
    -I have already told people I will share the cigarettes with them, he responds with a smile.
         Urbain and I walk back through the courtyard.  One of the fires is now the size of a large trashcan, but people only seem to be using it to cook.  When we get back to the front door we bang on the metal and Eliza immediately opens the door.  The sunlight is refreshing and I feel like by walking through the entrance door, I’ve shed a heavy jacket and I’m glad to be rid of it.
    -Do prisoners ever escape?  I ask Eliza.
    -Yes, they climb the walls and try to run but usually we catch them.
    -Do the guards shoot them?
    -Yes, they shot someone last Thursday, just down there.
          She points to the general direction of where our motorcycles are waiting.
    -Muzungu!  Gabriel croaks through the bars. 
          I walk over to him, but now that there are bars between us, I stay out of arm’s reach. 
    -Please help me pay the fees to get out of the prison, he pleads.  I’m from Ituri region and so my family is too far to help me.
    -I can’t Gabriel, that’s not the type of aid I provide.
    -Why are you in prison?  I ask.
    -I’m a chauffeur and I had a very bad accident.  Four dead.
    -Were you drunk? 
    -No it was a technical problem with the car. 
          I stay far away from his outstretched arms and start moving back towards Urbain.
    -Why are you staying so far away?  You’re afraid of me now?  He asks.
    -No, I’m just having another conversation, I say.  I’m sorry I can’t help you.
          But it’s not true; Gabriel’s right.  This man, who was just holding my hand, has somehow turned back into frightening uncertainty.  The prison was as I’d figured it would be, as almost everything is in Congo; not that scary once you get through the door.  When something is heard but not seen, or seen but not touched, it’s easy to forget the complexities of humanity.  A killer becomes simply evil in the mind of society, and society forgets that a killer has fears and weaknesses, hopes, regrets, and kindness.  It’s weird how a cage can turn a man into an animal.  People are good or bad based on their actions, but I wonder if an evil action on the tablet of a man’s life is something that can’t be erased?
          I guess it doesn’t really matter, since I’m not the one with the power to judge.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

An Eye for An Eye

          Urbain and I bring 25kg-grain, 25 kg-beans, and 70 kg-potatoes to the prison.  It’s not just a nice gesture to get permission; every Congolese person I’ve spoken to about the prisons says it’s a sentence to death by starvation.  I wanted to bring the food originally, but originally it was mostly for the gesture.  It was mostly for the gesture until I saw the girl who was sentenced to 5 years for an alleged and unverifiable abortion.  And I guess somewhere on the fringes of my caring, I want to find compassion for the men who perpetrate the horrible crimes I hear about every day.  I want to believe in their humanity, because without that, there’s no hope.    
          I carry the beans and powder on my motorcycle and Urbain picks the worst road in Butembo.  It’s like driving across a solidified brain, covered in slick mud and the moving obstacles of exhilarated children.  The prison is perched somewhat ominously on one of the highest hills in Butembo.  When we arrive, a small elderly man in an African print button-up introduces himself as Leo, the man in charge for the day.  Leo greets us at the bottom of a set of wide stone stairs that lead up to the brick prison.  At the top of the stairs is a shelter with several soldiers and police officers lounging around smoking cigarettes.  Their shelter is next to a large metal door that gives the only passage into or out of the prison.  The metal door leads into a small barred chamber, so the outer door can be locked before an individual actually enters the jail. 
          I visited the prison briefly once before. The building is set up in two parallel lines of blocks, with the front line of rooms allotted for guards and offices.  The back section, separated by floor to ceiling metal bars, is an open air compound for men and women alike.   
    -There was a lot of fighting today, says Leo as Urbain and I untie the heavy sacks of food.  It would be too risky for you to enter today.
          I look up the steep incline to the prison.  The front offices, that I walked through previously, are now filled with prisoners and speckled with arms reaching through the bars.
    -They infiltrated, Leo adds nonchalantly. 
         Urbain begins yelling greetings to one of the men who is reaching through the bars. 
    -My friend is there, Urbain says walking towards the stone steps.
    -Your friend?  I ask incredulously.
          As I follow him up the uneven steps, Urbain explains that his “friend” and he lived in the same neighborhood as children.  At the top of the stairs the prison guards greet us and beg for cigarettes and sodas.  We respond respectfully but ignore their requests and move to the barred office-turned-prison window to the left of the metal entry door.  It’s the same room I sat in when I first visited the prison.  At that time there was a desk, several chairs, and several police officers.   Now the desk and chairs are gone, and there is a tirade of messages etched all over the concrete walls like wallpaper.  There was never glass in the windows so the prisoners are able to reach their arms through to gesture or take cigarettes from a diligent wife.  Wives are sparse; only two or three women are outside with Urbain and me.  I impulsively start to reach forward to shake hands with Urbain’s friend but stop myself. 
          Despite the caged energy crackling through the bars, each of the men looks deathly ill.  Their skin looks as if someone began to erase the color but gave up the pursuit midway, making them look like real life manifestations of “the undead.”  I shiver at the thought that if I rubbed their skin it would come off in my hand.  Most of the men have healed scars on their faces and their lips look as if each prisoner has been eating blueberries for days.  Their appearance is unsettling, but only the smell truly makes me want to walk away.  It’s a smell as thick and heavy as butter; it smells of illness, compacted and curdling in the air.  My throat tightens and I have to resist the urge to step away. 
    -I have something to explain to you, one of the men says reaching his arm over other prisoners through the bars in my direction.  Come closer, why are you standing so far?
          I take a step forward but remain just out of arms reach.  I scan the arms to make sure nobody is holding anything that could act as an extension. 
    -Come on closer, he says.
          I shake my head and smile at the absurdness of the request.  Another man walks up to my beckoner and begins arguing with him in Kinande.  The men’s voices sound equally as ill; they’re deflated and the bass has taken on a strange timbre. 
          Urbain asks his friend if he wants to explain what happened and the man eagerly nods and moves to the corner of the window.  The tallest, most zombie-like and vesuvian man on the other side of the bars shoos other prisoners away.  The Vesuvian has several dark scars on his face and his lips are such a deep violet that if he lay down any passerby would think him dead.  He seems like a creature from a vivid nightmare.  Urbain’s friend, Samuel, is particularly pale; though it’s clear his skin was lighter than most Congolese skin before it took on the diminished pallor of the prison. 
     -What are you here for?  Urbain asks.
    -Rape, Samuel responds as if he’s listing his favorite food.
    -What was the situation?  I ask.
    -I’m 23 years old, he says.  I spoke to the girl and at night her family asked the girl, ‘where are you coming from at this hour?’  She said she was with me. 
    -Did you force her?  Urbain asks.
          Despite the periodic “shooings” of The Vesuvian, the other men quickly return to the window and many listen.  Several of the prisoners are wearing over-sized military uniforms.  I don’t feel comfortable with the lack of privacy, but Samuel is spilling out his story; or at least, some version of it.  Clearly he’s not worried about the other listeners, so I let him continue.
    -No, it was not by force, Samuel says adamantly.  She was 15 and her parents found out what my age is and so they arrested me.
    -Did she get pregnant?  I ask.
          There must be more to the story.  I’ve heard many cases of middle-aged men marrying girls as young as 14.
    -No, says Samuel waving his hands back and forth emphatically.
          I can’t really delve into the boy’s history or cognitions in this setting so I switch to a more general topic.
    -What is life like in the prison?
          I can see past the men into the main living area, though I can only see a small frame of what's going on.  The frame is filled with pots and hanging cloth and people moving around as if they are stacked on top of each other.  I can’t see ground or sky or any open air.  The thought of being caged in that claustrophobic, fetid enclosure makes me shudder again. 
    -It’s painful, we’re starving, Samuel says.  There are problems with stealing and rape in the jail.  There are gangs that formed.  The group of rapists, the thieves, and then the different armed groups.
          As Samuel speaks, I notice The Vesuvian nod his head and purse his lips.  He jumps out of my nightmare and into real life, as a flicker of sadness and intelligence scintilates briefly in his face.  Suddenly the metal entrance to the prison clangs open and a man stumbles out.  I feel an electric shock of adrenaline shoot through me as I imagine all of the prisoners flowing out of the prison.  The prisoners still inside all begin shouting.  Urbain grabs my arm, and we both stumble backwards a few steps, ready to duck or run. 
          But little, elderly, Leo is standing there in his red, yellow, and orange button up.  Somehow, Leo wrestles the prisoner back inside and manages to close the metal door.  He secures the lock before any of the prison guards seem to register what happened.  The attempted escaper flies to our window and begins shouting through the bars.  His skin is just as reminiscent of death as the rest of them but what I first take to be long scars across his face catch the sunlight and glisten red.  Streaks of blood flower down from a large open wound on his forehead.   Urbain translates as the man yells.
    -He says, I am a big bandit in Butembo, even the chiefs of different offices know of me and are scared of me.  How is it that my wife brings me food and it’s stolen? 
    -Did he get wounded just now trying to escape?  I ask not quite able to wrap my mind around the possibility that little Leo could have inflicted it.
    -No, other prisoners hit him to steal the food and so he’s furious. 
          Leo walks over to us.  He’s almost a foot shorter than I am and he’s trembling.
    -You have a very big job to do, I say shaking my head.
    -Yes, you can see this now.
    -Well, we’ll go and come back tomorrow.
          Leo nods gratefully and walks away.  Urbain brought a pack of cigarettes to give to prisoners and I suggest he hand out the entire pack.  As soon as the green paper packet of menthols leaves Urbain’s pocket, The Vesuvian reaches forward and says something in Swahili.  I have to avoid looking at the man; I feel like he'll infiltrate my dreams if we make eye contact for too long.
    -He says he is the chief of this office so we need to give the cigarettes to him.
          I don’t question the man and I take the cigarettes from Urbain and give the entire pack to The Vesuvian.  We promise the other prisoners to bring more cigarettes the next time and walk back to the motorcycles.
    -She’s not even wearing any pockets for me to reach into or ask her for money, yells a police officer as we walk down the stairs.  Wear pockets next time!
          Urbain laughs and I make a mental note to wear yoga pants and a t-shirt for every prison visit. 
    -That’s a horrifying life, I say to Urbain when we get back to the office.
           He nods and then shakes his head quickly as if to erase the images from his mind.
    -And the smell was like…
          I pause, not knowing how to describe it.
    -Like a butcher shop, he finishes for me.
          The connection makes me gag; Urbain chuckles and pats me on the back.  The deathly faces of the prisoners and the odor stay with me for the rest of the day.  Even though I didn’t touch anything, I can smell sickness on my body for hours and I shiver every time I think of the jail.  I stay with the COPERMA team for a few hours, chatting and trying to pull myself from what feels increasingly like it was a nightmare.  Impunity is a devastating aspect of society and helps fuel all violence in Congo.  But suddenly I can’t get the Gandhi quote out of my mind:  “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Thursday, October 6, 2011


          Urbain and I go to the procureur’s office at the allotted time.  The procurer is sort of like the head, and only, prosecutor (and in many ways judge), in Butembo.  He’s in charge of the civilian prisons and his is the permission we need to obtain.  Luckily, he and I have chatted several times at a hotel where I often use internet.  Unluckily, I often cross the line with him by criticizing the impunity in Congo in over generalized ways.  We seem to have still retained a sort of friendship though. 
          When Urbain and I arrive, the procureur is not there, so we take a seat on a wooden bench outside of the thatched mud police station next to the procureur’s office.  Only a few minutes later, an elderly man with all the markings of a fou—mentally ill person, walks up.  Fou technically means crazy, which I originally thought was disrespectful and ignorant.  But I’ve come to realize it’s more of a term of excuse and kindness.  It’s a way of saying, without knowing details, that a person may act a little strange.  And society reacts with forgiveness and patience, rather than ridicule as I’d first expected.
          The man points to me and says something in Swahili.  I look to Urbain but he bursts out laughing and it takes a moment before he can translate.
    -He says you were well birthed, Urbain translates still laughing.
    -Asante, I say to the man and bow my head a little.
         The man then launches into a happy litany in Swahili.  His face is perfectly crinkled with age and although his smile is missing a few pieces, the crow's feet around his eyes fill in the blanks.
    -He’s explaining to you that in Congo people farm.  He thinks that where white people come from there is no farming.
          I smile at the common misconception and the man nods at me and wanders off.
    -Do you have pigs in the States?  Urbain asks.
    -Yes, of course we have pigs.
          I love shocking Urbain and I get an idea.
    -We actually have some pigs, I say, that were bred so they got smaller and smaller and smaller until they’re only the size of a cat.  They cost about 10,000 dollars.
          Urbain looks at me in disbelief then laughs.
    -Why?  He asks.
    -Because really rich people want them as pets.  To be kept like cats.  Animal friends.
          Urbain doubles over with laughter.
    -What phenomenon is this?  He exclaims.  Pigs should be kept for meat to eat or to sell to make money for food and living.  They pay thousands of dollars for a pig to keep like a cat?
          I nod at him through my laughter.
    -What could one possibly gain from that?  He asks.
          A blue clad police officer wakes up from a nap inside the office behind us.  He moves as if he received orders in his dreams, and goes to a locked holding cell next to our bench.  He opens it and two young boys walk out, both barefoot.  Neither are in handcuffs.  A heavy, middle-aged woman walks to our bench and sits down.   The old fou notices that both Urbain and I are watching the two boys; he ambles back over to us.
    -He wants to know, Urbain says, what the punishment is in your country for a woman who kills her own baby.  This woman is here for that.
          Urbain points into the open mud room behind us at a timid looking young girl.
    -Do you mean after the baby is born she killed it?
    -The woman was pregnant and then she wasn’t anymore.  The community accused her and said she had killed the baby.  She says she was never pregnant at all.
    -If she were pregnant, how could they know it wasn’t a miscarriage?
    -They can tell at the hospital,Urbain continues.  There’s a pill women can take here that immediately ends the pregnancy.  Even if the baby has been eight months in the womb.
          This information is all too difficult for me to break down.  I can’t imagine such a pill, and even if the girl had aborted the baby, medicine and obstetrics in Congo are so basic I can’t imagine they’d be able to separate miscarriage from abortion.  There's definitely a reasonable doubt in her case; several, in fact.  It’s a horrifying thought, if a village can call a miscarriage an abortion and put a woman in prison.
          The old man starts rambling again.  Three or four police officers move in and out of the mud office, mostly taking turns napping or chatting with the old man.  Although he talks constantly, most of what he's rambling about seems to be making sense.  AK-47s swing in the air like metal monkeys; the men pay no attention to where the barrels point.  Someone sneezes from the mud office and I say my nonsensical translation of “bless you.”  Urbain looks at me, as if waiting for me to continue.  I remember that there is no blessing or wish of health given after a sneeze in Congo.
    -In the U.S. it’s very important to wish someone good health after they sneeze, I say.  If you don’t, it opens up an opportunity in the world for evil spirits to get through.
    -Oh, Urbain says nodding his head.
    -The evil spirits are little men, this big.
          I lean over and hold my palm about 4 inches off the ground.
    -Sorcerer children, he responds knowingly.
    -No, full grown men but tiny men with evil faces and smiles. 
    -Is that real?  He asks and pushes me in the arm.
    -Yes, in English they’re called Leprechauns.  At the end of a rainbow there is a large pot of gold and the leprechauns guard it.  But if someone sneezes they leave their posts and come to kill the person in their sleep.
    -Is that really real?  Urbain asks.  He laughs but he sounds nervous.
    -No, I say and burst into laughter.  It’s a story for children.
         He punches me in the arm and we both crack up for several minutes.  I forgot how fun it is working with Urbain.  The old man has been listening to my story and he picks up where I left off. 
    -The man says that at the end of the rainbow there is a right side and a left side.  On both sides, where the colored light reaches the ground there is a field of sheep.  He says he’s seen it before.
   -Wow, that’s much better than evil leprechauns, I tell the man. 
          The heavy set woman who sat down next to us begins speaking rapidly to Urbain.  By the immediacy of how she began speaking, I know she’s explaining her situation in the hopes that the immeasurable wealth speciously conveyed by my white skin will be able to help her.  I brace myself to wish I could help her, and then know that I can’t.
    -A man burned down her house while she was out of town, Urbain translates.  She and her husband are both handicapped.  He had both of his legs amputated and she has problems in her knees.  Some people started saying that she’s a sorcerer and with no proof a man burned down her house.
    -I’m so sorry, I say to the woman. 
          She switches into French.
    -The man is here, they arrested him.  But we lost everything.  The clothes I’m wearing were given by a friend and we are staying in the house of a friend.  We have nothing left.
    -What did the man who burnt down the house say?  He should have to pay you back for the damage he caused.
    -He asked for pardon.  He said he drank a lot of liquor and smoked chanvre.
          I consider mentioning again that the perpetrator of the crime should have to pay, but I highly doubt that’s even a possibility in Butembo.  Even if the man miraculously had money, I don’t think there’s a civil court. 
    -If you give peanuts to children to be nice, says the old man now speaking in French, and the child goes home and says, ‘my stomach hurts,’ and then he dies.  You will be the responsible one and you will be accused as a sorcerer.
          The woman accused of sorcery nods her head saddly as the old man speaks.  The two boys who were led out of the holding room return, still barefoot and uncuffed.  Rather than going back to the holding room, which is locked, the enter the little office and sit down.  Urbain turns around and starts talking to them.  Both of them have baby faces and can’t be older than 17.
    -Are they not wearing handcuffs because of the guns?  I ask.
    -Yes, Urbian says nodding.  The police here kill very easily.  If they think you are going to run they will shoot you on the spot without any problem.
    -Do you know why those boys are here?  I ask, since everyone is conversing on and off but the Kinande leaves me as the only uninvited party.
    -This boy got really drunk last night, he says pointing to the taller, skinnier, and more tired looking of the two boys.  And this morning his parents brought him to the police to discipline the boy.
     -Oof, that’s unfortunate, I mumble.  Strict parents.
    -This boy is here for the accusation of rape.
          I turn around and look at the boy fully.  He looks nervous and sad.  His skin is smooth and he has the face of a 6 year old on the body of an adolescent.
    -Did he do it?  I ask.
    -He says no, he didn’t do it. 
          The boy launches into an explanation from the bench; neither of the armed police officers seems to notice or care.
    -The girl was 17, he is 16.  He spoke to the girl and they hung out during the evening.  The girl went home later than normal and so when the boy arrived at home his uncle said, ‘you raped her.’
    -Did the girl accuse him of raping her?
    -No, he says she went back to her village immediately in the morning so she can’t even be asked to say if he did or did not rape her.
          I’ve always known a primary problem in Congo is impunity.  Criminals are almost never caught or incarcerated.  And although I don’t necessarily believe the boy, I suddenly realize how devastating it can also be if it goes in the other direction.
         One of the unidentifiable police officers walks to the holding room, with a long brown rope in his hands.  He opens the door and one man steps out.  The officer ties the rope around the man’s wrists and then motions into the invisible room for the next person.  After 10 minutes, the man has a circle of 8 men, including the two original boys.  All of them are barefoot.  As they stumble away up a dirt path one of the men yells to me.
    -When I fracture a bone, will you bring pomade and medicine to help me heal?
    -That's a weird question.  Why would he ask that if he’s not fractured yet?  I ask Urbain.
    -He knows he will be injured in the prison, he has been in the prison before.  They were saying he escaped with all the prisoners in one of the smaller prisons here when the guard was drunk.  That man's the only one they've caught so far.
          Another police officer leaves the office with the young girl who has a potentially aborted or naturally halted, but missing fetus.  They don’t tie ropes around her wrist, but the officer clings to his weapon as they follow the men up the path.
    -She’s going to prison for 5 years, Urbain says.
          I watch her disappear up the hill.
    -That’s so sad, is the only thing I can think to say.
          We sit in silence for a while.  Shortly after the new prisoners leave, the procureur arrives.  He is a startlingly handsome man, always dressed in perfectly pressed suits.  He’s impossible to read, always seeming discontent and then recounting a story that makes him laugh at the end.  His voice is low and scratchy, as if he’s been a smoker for years, but he insists he doesn't smoke. 
          In his office he explains that rape in Congo wasn’t a big problem before.  The problem only really escalated because of the wars.  He gives us permission to speak and work with willing prisoners.  I’m excited to start working but can’t even begin dissecting the brief interactions we had while waiting.  This is going to be a much more complicated world of problems than I’d expected.  But what else could ever be the case in Congo?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Home Sweet Home

    -Welcome back! Everyone yells in unison when I walk into the COPERMA office.
          Hangie, Urbain, Maman Helen, and Jean-Marie are all sitting around a pile of papers discussing something.  The excitement in their faces makes me happy to be home.  Dusan is on leave, and I’m exhausted  from so much traveling.  I’m excited to be back with the team and start a new project.
    -You’ve been gone so long, Hangie says accusingly as everyone shakes my hand. 
          I can always see the inkling to lean in for the three head-taps, but I never was able to get used to that.  To me, it feels like we’re leaning in for an eskimo kiss.  It’s interesting that hugging is considered too intimate in Nande culture, but I’m completely uncomfortable pressing my forehead into someone else’s three times.
    -I know, but now I’m staying in Butembo for a while.  I’m tired from traveling and I miss COPERMA.  Is Maman Marie here?
    -She’s in the office, Urbain says still smiling.
          I spin around and knock on the wooden door to her little concrete office.  When I enter, Maman Marie responds with similar enthusiasm, though there’s a wooden desk between us so she doesn’t even try to tap my forehead. 
    -How’s the work going?  I ask and take a seat.
    -It’s good, it’s good.
    -What’s new?
          Then  I remember the message Hangie sent me a few weeks ago.
    -Maman Marie, your father passed away, I add.  I’m so sorry.  Mes condoleances, vraiment.
          Maman  Marie nods perfunctorily but emotion floods her face.
    -Yes, you remember he had one leg already amputated.  Well, the gangrene spread to his other leg.  We took him to the hospital and the Doctors did everything they could for him.  They amputated part of his good leg, but he was truly sick, Amy.  And then he passed.  I guess, everyone has their time to die.
          I met Simone Nzoli once, during a visit to Maman Marie’s house.  He was a skinny man with a wide smile and glasses that made him look like a bug.  He told me about how important it was for him to educate his children, both the boys and the girls.  Simone was a teacher his entire life; education was the most important thing in life, he told me. 
    -I’m very truly sorry, Maman Marie.
    -Thank you.
          We both stare at the desk in silence for a moment before she starts up enthusiastically.
    -Victorine is better!  She exclaims.  You know, the woman who had the badly broken arm.  She underwent the surgery and she recovered in the hospital and at my house.  I even passed the night next to her in the hospital.
          She shook with laughter.
   -I was truly her guardian.
    -Merci, that’s wonderful.  Can she use her hand at all?
    -Yes, she has started using it slowly and she is able to cultivate again. 
    -How much did the surgery cost?
    -500 dollars.  The United Nations was supposed to provide the free transport to the HEAL Africa hospital in Goma where it would have been free.  But they were taking so long after we had all of the paperwork, and her arm was getting much worse.   It hurt her very bad so I decided to pay for the surgery, and get it done immediately so she wouldn’t lose the arm.
    -I’m glad you did that.  That’s really frustrating that the U.N. didn’t follow through. 
    -It was 500 dollars, Maman Marie adds.  But now she is healing.  When she arrived she even weighed only 30 kg (approx. 66 lbs).  But she ate well when she was staying with me and in six weeks she moved up to 40 kg (approx. 88 lbs).  Now she has become so pretty.
          I add some more positive exclamations before Maman Marie continues.
    -There were 14 new cases of rape just past Isale.
    -By the FaRDC?
    -No, we think it was ADF-NALU.
          The ADF-NALU is a phantom-like rebel group from Uganda.  There are rumors about how well they’re trained, and how dangerous they are, yet they’re extremely hard to pin down.  They reportedly have a fairly high presence in this area, yet I’ve never seen one. 
    -Why do you think it was the ADF?
    -Because the survivors all said that the men were speaking a language that was not one of our own.
          Language is typically the best, though still inefficient, way of attempting to identify perpetrators of rape.  Lingala indicates FaRDC; Kinande- Mayi-Mayi or civilian; Unknown sounds- ADF-NALU.
    -One woman, who came in with Victorine has persistent infections on her body.  We told her to separate from her husband while we discover if she has HIV/AIDS.
    -Did she take an HIV test?  I ask.
   -Yes, she took two we are waiting for the third one.  The first test was positive and the second test was negative.
    -That’s strange, I respond.
    -Yes, very.  That’s why I say it is suspect for HIV/AIDS.
          We sit in silence again for a moment.
    -Maman Marie, I say suddenly.  I have a new personal side-project.  I’m still going to try to work with the Mayi Mayi and maybe the FDLR, but I’ve realized they can’t give me the perspectives I’m looking for, and that I don’t currently have the funding or man-power necessary to institute an effective sensitization program.  Also, HEAL Africa is currently working with the Mayi-Mayi, which is wonderful.  I’m most interested understanding the mechanisms behind perpetration of rape, so I want to get permission from the Mayor to speak to accused rapists in the prisons here. 
    -There is one rapist whom we trapped in Maseni who is in the prison here.  And the rapist from Vutondi whom I saw and trapped myself.
    -Yes, I’d like to hear what they have to say.
    -Okay, you can go to the Mayor’s office tomorrow with some food to bring to the prisoners.  That will help you gain access.  And many people are dying.
    -In the prisons, from starvation.  They are not fed there and if nobody brings them food then they starve quickly, and then become sick, and they are taken to the hospital too late and so they die.
          A non-selective death penalty.
    -Is it okay if Urbain goes with me?  I’m not sure how the Mayor conducts business, and the prisoners probably won’t speak French.
    -Of course, she exclaims laughing.  Oh, and there is a lot of killing between here and Beni.
    -Really?  I say tilting my head in disbelief. 
          I just  drove the Beni-Butembo road and it was all sunshine and prancing goats.
    -You can ask even the driver, she says.  We were driving back from Beni and there were bandits on the road that stopped us.
          At that moment the driver, who I’ve never met before, walks in.  He must have heard her mention him.
    -Tell her, Paluku, she says and nods to him.
    -Because of the elections, I think there are more bandits now, he says nervously.  The bandits who stopped our car stole everything from our passengers.
    -We hid our phones though, Maman Marie chimes in with a smile.
    -Well done, I mutter and then look back to the chubby little driver.
    -I think the bandits were put there by Mbusa Nyamwisi, the driver continues.  He’s running against Kabila for the Presidency.  The bandits said, why did you vote for Kabila in the last election?  You are the reason we are suffering so much because you voted for Kabila.  You are forbidden from voting for Kabila, if you vote for him this is what will happen.  You must vote for Mbusa.  That’s when they made everyone take off even their shoes and the stole everything.
    -Except our phones!  Maman Marie chimes again.
    -When did this happen?  I ask.
          Maman Marie waves the driver out.
   -About two weeks ago, I think on…. September 18th. 
    -Did they hurt anyone?
    -Not in our car, but the car behind us one woman was shot.  She died.  The driver wasn’t going to stop for the barrier so the bandits shot at the car and a woman was hit and killed.
    -And you watched this happen?
    -Yes, it happened just behind us.
    -Oh my God, that’s all horrible.
          We finish going through our update and I hand some more donated funds to Hangie.  It’s raining, so I stand outside for a while, joking with Urbain about his fear of the prisons, and explaining the concept of bungee jumping.  As we all giggle with each other, I realize how much Maman Marie’s experience elucidates about the upcoming elections.  If Mbusa whomever really did station bandits on the road to intimidate people, he clearly isn’t a hopeful option for progress.  I would have expected that type of force and intimidation from Kabila, not from an underdog.  The story is sad because of the woman who needlessly lost her life, and it’s extremely disheartening, because it shows that this country probably won’t be going forward or upward anytime soon.