Nepal: Kathmandu prison, "A filthy, chaotic ghetto" (II)
In 2015, Renaud Meysonnier set off on a trip from France to Asia. A few months later, at the border between India and Nepal, he was arrested for using counterfeit currency, and sentenced to a year in prison. Renaud spent one month in the small Nepalese prison of Bhairahawa, and was subsequently transferred to the prison in Kathmandu, the capital. This is his story.
I was not as afraid as I should have been; entering a prison was becoming a habit for me.
I was led across the broadest part of a No Man’s Land to end up in front of what seemed to be the entrance to the prison. Once there, my handcuffs were removed, a security barrier was lifted and a gate opened.
I came into a secure entry-way of some 15 square metres (160 square feet), leading to the Kathmandu Prison. Some inmates doubling as guards were milling around.
I was not as afraid as I should have been; entering a prison was becoming a habit for me. Arriving at night was my specialty – it was my third place of detention in two months. My penchant for travel was turning into one for penitentiaries! Still annoyed at being transferred from one to the other against my will, I made no effort to be sociable. Whereas at Bhairahawa my arrival was an event, here it seemed as though no one could care.
“Where are you coming from?” someone finally asked me.“France”, I answered mechanically.
“No, I mean, where were you transferred from?”“Oh, Bhairahawa.”Rupandehi1. “I see. There are 1600 people here; arriving and leaving every day. We get a lot of foreigners, even French ones!”
Rupandehi is one of the 75 districts of Nepal. Bhairahawa, also called Siddharthanagar, is its administrative headquarters. ↩
The detainees sleep under a flimsy tin roof on mattresses placed on the floor – no insulation anywhere.
Outside, meanwhile, the officers went through my things and confiscated my MP3 player, wallet and credit cards. They were somewhat more professional than those in Bhairahawa, leaving me with nothing with which to escape. I was kicking myself for not having been to the lavatory before leaving this morning and concealing my credit cards under the insoles of my shoes – they never look in there. Maybe if I didn’t think of it, it’s because somehow I didn’t want to take the risk. It’s probably better this way.
Once that search was over, the daï (inmates who double as guards) had their turn at my stuff: the second phase, like in Bhairahawa. I got everything back the next day, except for the written copy of the court decision, which they kept in their archives.
Then an inmate/guard led me to a cellblock where I had the pleasant surprise of finding that it had single rooms with individual beds, and the rooms were heated, which was a relief from the extreme cold!
There was even an office-type room with computers, printers and photocopiers. But I was quickly disillusioned: this place, Cellblock 8, was reserved for the naike, or the local daï 1– the cream of the crop. Naike means “leader” in Nepali. I was actually passing through this cellblock merely to register my arrival. In what appeared to be an office, I found myself before the “secretary naike”.
At this point, I exit with the naike who had brought me in. We walk over a patio lit up with multi-colored neons. There are a few trees; I recognize a gingko and a eucalyptus. It’s a kind of garden, with a fountain, and a bunch of detainees grouped around a cathode ray tube. We go up some rickety stairs and come to Cellblock 7, where the newcomers are gathered together. The naike leaves me in the expert hands of a saha naike, an assistant inmate/guard from another cellblock. There are nine cellblocks altogether; one naike for 25 detainees and one saha naike for ten detainees. Here it’s not at all the same atmosphere as in Cellblock 8: the detainees sleep under a flimsy tin roof on mattresses placed on the floor – no insulation anywhere.
If it were not for the warmth of human bodies, it would be the same temperature inside as out. The roof is so low that one has to bend down to move in this dark and dirty garret.
The saha naike for Cellblock 7 orders a detainee to temporarily share his mattress with me.
The saha naike takes me on an introductory tour. At first the place seems immense compared to the confined space I had been in for the past two months. The saka naike shows me what they call the compound, the alleys that go around the complex. Along the north wall are about 15 urinals out in the open. Then we go through the prison at its widest point to reach the south compound where there are some 20 or so Turkish toilets called crappers.
“You can go to the urinals and the crappers any time. Other than those two places, it is prohibited to walk around the compound at night, but it’s open during the day. Got it?”
I agree. That’s it. The rules are easy compared to Bhairahawa – they seem to be limited to the toilets.
“daï” means “big brother”. The daï are inmates who double as guards, responsible for keeping order and dealing with the detainees. ↩
I emerge at 10:30 a.m., having slept around the clock. It’s the first time in the past two months; the last time was the day I was arrested. I gain some sleep in quantity and in quality. Even though I have to share a mattress with someone, I have room to lie on my back, whereas in Bhairahawa I had to be scrunched up on my side. Near my head, a loudspeaker crackles. It’s on the outside wall of Cellblock 7, but I was so sound asleep that it didn’t wake me this morning. And though the sun is high, it’s dark inside. In this garret, there are far too few windows, and when one of the long and recurring power outages in Kathmandu occurs, the few light bulbs go out and the dormitory is plunged into obscurity.
I can see the central prison under a huge blue sky. From the top of the stairs it is a filthy, disorderly ghetto, a busy beehive, swarming with life and activity.
There is a small hospital, a generator, a billiard room, a little Hindu temple with a satellite dish on the roof, small stores, lopsided restaurants, bars, kitchens, and several floors of cellblocks.
Weavers are working on looms, tailors in workshops. There is a barber shop and there are mattress-makers. I come out onto a recreation yard larger than the courtyard in Bhairahawa, between two sets of bleachers and cellblocks containing a grocery store and a Buddhist monastery. Multicolored prayer banners are drawn between the monastery and the various buildings lining the yard.
On one of the balconies, behind the anti-suicide bars, I can see a bamboo chair workshop. The Nepalese flag too. The possibilities of the place seem exponential compared to what I had seen the past two months.
Despite my underlying dissatisfaction, I can tell that my daily life is improving. My incarceration is taking on a new dimension; this transfer is undeniably a path to freedom.
On this winter morning, a crowd gathers in the courtyard to warm up in the sun. Some are looking for lice or scratching others’ backs. An old illiterate inmate is having his will read to him, out loud for all to hear.
Just as in Bhairahawa, there are some animals and even a dog. A pleasant surprise: some white guys in this haunted city: a tall blond fellow, a heavy-set bearded one with a shaved head, a young one with a ponytail and a goatee. Until now, I have been the only vidēśī1 among the Indo-Nepalese. This was a good thing as it helped me to cope with the foreign culture I found myself in. Here, there are alternatives. But what I really appreciate above all else is the relative anonymity.
Nobody yet knows me and I can move around without someone calling out, “Where did you come from? What are you in for?” I am ignored and left alone. In Bhairahawa, there was no such tranquility, most likely because it was so much smaller. But having no other option, I got used to it. It is only after arriving here, in this city within a city, that I feel I can breathe again.
Nonetheless, this state of relative euphoria is to be fleeting. This prison is larger for sure, but also more populated.
Sixteen hundred people in an 80 x 65 metre rectangle (87 X 70 yards), or 5200 square metres (about 55,000 square feet): the area of a small soccer field.
It’s like a concentration camp; the density is such that laundry is hung three or four metres (about 10 feet) from the ground, between the branches of trees. I see the sky, the surroundings. I traded the rural environment of Bhairahawa for an urban one. The tops of the trees I could see over the high walls in Bhairahawa gave place to buildings here. The cracked dome of a Hindu temple to the east, a building under construction to the north, next to a vertical shopping center.
I continue my walk through the underworld. The earth under my feet becomes rougher, dirtier. From this point of view, I miss Bhairahawa, where it may not have been clean enough to eat off the floor (although we did it), but weekly washings kept the yard cleaner and neater than the outside.
Here, the ground is dirty, covered in spit. The detainees clear their throats, gargle, blow their noses… There are buckets to catch rainwater; what comes out of the taps is brown.
I come to the trash area. A putrid odor emanates from everywhere, a stench of garbage and stagnant water which can’t make it to the sewer and slowly rots. A combination of dead rats, mold, soap, piles of refuse…
In the harsh light, I see the urinals again. They don’t flush, because there’s no running water.
The tiles are stained yellow with urine. People spit in the urinals; the men who wear the lungi1 hike it up or just squat to pee. On the right, at the foot of the north wall, is the shower area, a long putrid ditch out in the air.
Under a ‘No Smoking’ sign, dozens of detainees are puffing on cigarettes. Smoking is prohibited in the cellblocks, whereas that was not the case in Bhairahawa.
In the south compound, I see that the doors of the crappers extend only halfway. And halfway for a Nepalese is well below the belt for me. In Bhairahawa, the stalls could close completely, which is always better for privacy. There, the lavatories were kept clean, but here they are cesspools. The stench is sickening, and the crappers look out onto the back of a cellblock with broken windows covered in newspaper. Farther along, there are piles of rubble and dirt, as if the place were not cluttered enough already.
a kind of long cotton pareo, or sarong, which covers the legs to the ankles ↩
There are no doors, no gates; the entrances to the cellblocks are wide open 24 hours a day. We come and go as if through revolving doors.
When I am on my bunk in the dark cellblock, I am constantly annoyed by the loudspeakers. The prison complex is too big for announcements to be heard everywhere, so they are relayed by microphones and loudspeakers in turn. As many of us are called by name over the loudspeakers, nasal voices consume the already noise-filled air all day long, like those of crazy muezzins calling out a string of words. For instance: “Santosh Tamang Ji! Santosh Tamang Ji! Santosh Tamang Jiiiii!”. “Ji” means “Mr.”; “Ji” for the Nepalese, “Mr.” for foreigners. There are also regular messages given over the public-address system, but as I don’t understand the announcements in Nepali, I am spared any brainwashing by the naike. I’d really rather hear the precipitous animal-like screams of Bhairahawa.
At least they sounded somewhat human and put some life into things. Here the acoustics are deafening, inescapable, with loudspeakers placed all over so they can be heard at an equal volume.
I go back to the yard where a soccer game is in full swing. I sit on a bench and watch. When a call comes through the loudspeakers, the game stops, somebody picks up the ball, all the players stop and then move along together. A detainee motions to me to follow them. Everyone heads to the dormitory as the announcer yells:
“Number! Number! Number!”
Back in Cellblock 7, everyone is assigned a bunk: this is the local Number.
When the call comes out, each detainee must be accounted for so the saha naike can complete the roster. Then the loudspeakers go quiet and give our eardrums a rest.
I tell myself this must be the kōthā kōthā, meaning we are going to be locked down in the dormitories until tomorrow. But after a few minutes the loudspeakers begin again: “Number, pugyo! Number, pugyo! Number, pugyo!” Everybody gets up and goes back outside. I do the same, and deduce that the Number is now concluded.
Once again the shouts resonate: “Oh Number! Oh Number!”
“It’s the 7 o’clock Number”, says Anatoly. “But we already had a Number. How many are there?”
“Four o’clock, 7 o’clock, and 10 o’clock, just before bedtime. Then it’s the curfew, when we can’t gather in groups but we can go out one by one to go to the toilet or to have a smoke. OK, now we have to go to our cellblock.”
So I go back to Cellblock 7, and the cries of “Oh Number! Oh Number!” rain down around me. The loudspeakers are turned off at 6 p.m., so the calls for the final two Numbers of the day are made old-style.
The only real rule is the Numbers. The prison is an open space and seems more like a prison camp. Since there are 1600 of us and the coordination between police and naike is inefficient, the Number takes longer and is harder to organize than in Bhairahawa, where we were a hundred or so.
In Cellblock 7, the 7 o’clock Number can last 40 minutes, during which we can do whatever we want, so long as we stick to our mattresses; we can talk, read or write. This is also the time when the saha naike pass through each cellblock to give guidelines to other detainees, as was the case in Bhairahawa. But here, when the assistant naike come into the dormitory, the detainees stop what they are doing and assume the lotus position, greeting them with something akin to adoration: “Namaskāra! Namaskāra! Namaskāra!”
“Namaskāra” literally means “I salute the god within you”. Simply said, one could translate “Namastē” by “Greetings and “Namaskāra” more formally by “Good day”. The detainees combine the word with the gesture, placing their hands in prayer position under the chin: the namaskāra mudrā. It’s a sign of respect toward the inmate/guards. The Nepalese are extremely docile.
As a foreigner, it would seem that I am exempt from this humiliating ritual. When the saha naike pass through, I must simply sit up on my bunk to show a minimum of respect.
The bleating Namaskāras and other manifestations of respect are all the more pathetic because the assistant naike have to bend down to make it through the low ceilings of Cellblock 7. They go before us in this ridiculous position, occasionally hitting their head on the metal beams, while we are comfortably seated on our mattresses.
For the 10 o’clock Number, everyone must be on his bunk. As our night begins, the saha naike pass through for the count. When they have finished, we can go outside. There are no doors, no gates; the entrances to the cellblocks are wide open 24 hours a day. We come and go as if through revolving doors.