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Congo Diaries

My arriving in Kasai - Democratic Republic of Congo was conditioned, like most of the current instability happening in the country, by Kabila's non willingness to give up the presidency. By always postponing the elections, tensions were rising and it was especially the case in the Kasai province, bordering Angola and also an oppositon stronghold. Long story short, Kabila ordered the death of the 6th Kamunia Nsapu, who became increasingly critical towards the government. It led to the uprising of the movement "Kamunia Nsapu" who rebelled against the state, all its symbols and killed all affiliated to it. The Government responded by sending the army. The FARDC's (Forces amées de la république démocratique du Congo) response was brutal and killed all the rest. To keep control over that province, the government funded a local milita from another ethnicity, thus creating an ethnical conflict and that's about when I arrived.

Overlooking the Kasai Province

Diary note 17 - December 2017

Mario (Psychologist), Ramiro (Nurse), Audry (IEC), Florette (Logistician) and I went to the Tshikapa prison where MSF was having activities inside since October of that same year. Mario went there to see the two only women of the prison, Ramiro went there to renew the dressings of the prisoners, Audry went there to give plumpy nut to the extremely malnourished prisoners, Florette went there to do a soap distribution and I came along to have a better understanding of our activities.

- Bravo for Lima 1

- Lima 1, Bravo is receiving you. Send your message.

- Bravo is leaving your location towards hotel Papa, on board 5 Papas and Charlie.

- Well copied lima 1, out.

In front of the prison

As we arrived and I saw the prison, I noticed that I had passed it several times, but I had never paid attention. It was an old brick building with tarnished white paint on its facade. Located in front of the Kasai river and surrounded by trees, the place looked more like an Angkor Wat relic. We stepped in through an old and rusty metallic door guarded by two militaries who appeared like they were just looking for a reason to shoot you in the face. I tried not give them any. Once inside the buidling, Audry went to introduce us to the Director, since Mario and I had never come before. The prison director was sitting in a chair, way to overweight, his stomach creating tension on his blue shirt, clean shaven and with a huge gold ring resting on his little finger. I introduced ourselves and he nodded in appreciation telling the guard to let us in.

I entered amongst the crowd of prisoners. The building was infact built around a big open space protected by a roofnet and I could see them all. Hundreds of prisoners. I could directly tell some were well fed and others were starving. Audry was telling me that the food they received came from their family, not from the prison. So if you had no longer a family, you starved to death. I wondered what they had done. Were there Kamunia Nsapu ? Were there murderers ? or did they simply rob a bike and were punished with a slow death by starvation ? Thinking of this gave me chisel and I tried to follow Audry.

Ramiro renewing the dressings of a prisoner

Audry entered a small dark room at the edge of the prison and told me that it was the nursery but frankly speaking, it could have been any room at all. It was empty except for the few mices I could see running in the corner of the room. Mario set up his counseling place in one corner, Ramiro his dressing room in the other while Audry was selecting the people that were severly malnourished to come join the program. I headed towards Mario and we setup a few cardboards for privacy purposes. Our fist patient came in, one of the two women inside the prison and Mario led the conversation. It was the first time we had asked to speak to the women of the prison and they didn't talk to us really. Whether they didn't trust us or whether no abuse got to them, we will never know since both were released short after.

Our third patient, whom we saw for the first time, was under eighteen and since none of the women had talked, Mario thought it safe to let me handle the talk this time. Except that the kid started to talk. He started to talk of mental abuse, of waking up at night while people peed on him, of physical abuse. I had no training as a psychologist. I looked over at Mario and I made him a weird face which was supposed to mean "jump in, handle it, I don't know how to respond to this crazy shit". He responded with a smile, which to me meant "I don't know how to respond either, do you think we have this crazy shit in Spain, you're handling it fine".

After a couple of minutes, when I imagined the most horrible thing happening in this prison, Mario took over me and brought an end to the conversation. I was shaken, I wanted to cry, I was not prepared for this. The kid had been starving, mistreated and humiliated for nine months in this prison and the only thing he did was to rob a bike.

When the kid left, Mario and I started to pack things when we saw this man entering the nursery. He looked bad, real bad. We asked him a couple questions but he didn't answer and one of the prisoner told us he was crazy. We made him seat and asked his name slowly to which he responded slowly and in the softest of voices like it was draining his energy to remember. We then asked him a few other things without response. His eyes were closed and I put my hand on his forehead to check if he had fever. He was asleep. He fell asleep while we were talking to him. One of the prisoners then told us they were not letting him sleep, they were torturing him, the others, the guys that were controlling the prison from the inside. He was so sleep deprived, his brain was not functioning properly anymore. We laid him on the floor and we let him sleep for the time we would occupy the nursery. But after, what would happen ?

A sleep deprived prisoner

When we left the prison, we headed to the director's office and asked him if the child could be put in a separate cell. He told us this child was a Kamunia Nsapu, we could do nothing for him. I told him that regardless of what he'd done, as it was not my place to judge, it would be better to put him in a separate cell for under age children, especially that this cell existed (although the child told us he was in for theft). He sent us to the commander saying that we'd have to convince him.

We entered another office, more imposing this time, darker with a man in military uniform sitting in the chair and two AK-47 resting on the wall. I explained the case and he asked his people for some paperwork. They came back 15 minutes later and after reading it all, the commander told us that the kid was in for bike theft, that he should have been released a while ago and that he would see it done within the week. We thanked him and left the prison with a cocktail of emotions filling us from the inside. Dissapointed in the system, proud of us, outraged at all this, happy we could better a few lives but mostly horrified this is still happening.

A woman carrying water for 10 kms in order to bring water to her children

#médecinssansfrontières #doctorswithoutborders #MSF #Medicossinfronteras #DwB #Kasai #Tshikapa #Congo #DRC #Democraticrepublicofthecongo #prison #prisoner #abuse #physical #mental #kamuniansapu

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