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.”