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.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Amy - Thanks so much for the vivid descriptions of the prison. I have a strong sense of the environment these prisoners are living in because of your willingness to share your observations AND your personal emotions (a vital part of your blog). Sounds like a very complex set of circumstances, which speaks very much to the lack of concrete systems of governance in Congo(especially in terms of a sound judicial system).

    I am wondering if you feel these folks have a sense of national politics/ conflicts, etc., or if their awareness is limited to their particular town or region. One gentleman described a local conflict of land, but often these conflicts are subsidiaries of larger conflicts. Do they get this? I am certainly not excusing any crimes committed, but I very much get the sense of people whose lives are manipulated by larger forces.

    I have couple of comments that you should feel free to totally disregard because I am not in any way qualified to advise you on your work, but here goes... :)

    You are struggling with the idea of not being in a position to judge these prisoners, which makes total sense. But, I think there is value in listening to their stories (even if they are lying about their guilt or circumstances). Often, the more people talk, the more they start to let the truth slip. There is a case study of Rwandan Genocidaires called "Machete Season" that illustrates this point.

    When you show your anti SV films, try to temper it by maybe starting with some more escapist fare if available. Basically, show them something entertaining first, if you can. They might be in a better, more trusting, position to pay attention to the anti SV stuff then. It might also be good if they could see something with strong (non sexualized) women characters, which is actually pretty rare in American Cinema.

    I think your question of whether redemption is a possibility for these men (and women) is indeed important. Not because you have the power to judge, but because wrestling with this question will inform the work you do with sensitization, anti SV training, etc.

    You are a bad-ass Amy! Much gratitude for the work you are doing, which seems to be exploring new boundaries with each new blog you post. Your (and your colleagues) courage is empowering, even from thousands of miles away.