In January 2001, the former president Laurent-Désiré Kabila was assassinated. Shortly afterwards, Mwana1 was convicted of an offence against national security. He was one of 51 individuals convicted in this case by the Congolese justice system. Still in prison nineteen years later, despite being granted amnesty, he speaks out.
Prison is its own strange world. It’s the coexistence of all sorts of conflict. A place where the guilty and the innocent live together, and consequently, either break down or hold on.
Life on the ground
I stand accused of an offence against national security. Nineteen years later, there has been no trial and little investigation. In the meantime, ten of my co-accused have died in prison. Several others are ill. Kinshasa’s Makala Prison, built in 1954, can accommodate 1200 individuals, but there are currently almost 10,000 inmates. There are many buildings where 80 prisoners are packed into 30m² with no water, ventilation, medicine, or food. Tuberculosis, leprosy, ulcers, skin and urinary infections, hepatitis, and strokes are the prisoners’ daily reality.
I live in a standard room, which was empty at first. I was allowed to fix it up. From 2001 to 2003, I spent three years in solitary confinement before being allowed visits from my lawyers. For three years, the soldiers charged with guarding me were from a foreign army, Zimbabwean soldiers. As a military leader, I was believed to have influence over the Congolese army. The assumption was that Congolese soldiers would refuse me nothing on Congolese soil. The foreign guards were then replaced by members of the Congolese army who respect me. I respect them as well, and I follow army regulations.
The prison opens at 07:00 and closes at 17:30. Every morning, prisoners may pray until 10:00. They can move about as they like to exercise. At 15:00, preparations begin for the return to the buildings before they are locked at 17:30.
In terms of the human experience, prison is its own strange world. It’s the coexistence of all sorts of conflict. A place where the guilty and the innocent live together, and consequently, either break down or hold on. Humiliation, hunger, illness, deprivation—all kinds of tortures fill the inmate’s daily routine. They took everything from me: my possessions, my wife, my newborn, my father-in-law, and the family pastor were all thrown in prison and tortured. When my mother passed away, they refused me permission to attend her funeral.
I was hooded for almost two years; my feet were chained; my wrists, handcuffed.
I slept directly on the ground for a year, without a sheet or a bed. We relieved ourselves in plastic bags which we kept with us until morning, when we emptied them in the toilets. I took a bath once a week, without soap, for four minutes and not a second more.The meal consists of “vungure,” a mixture of beans and corn cooked in unclean, cut-down barrels. It is the prisoners’ sole daily fare. Prisoners must pay for their food.
I waited ten or so years into my incarceration before receiving a visit from a member of my family.
The cost of being transferred to a hospital, when a prisoner falls ill, includes a bonus for the guards responsible for the escort. In Congo, prisons are sources of income for magistrates and judges. They keep an eye on their cases. You can spend years without seeing your case make any progress so it is often necessary to pay off the magistrate assigned to it. All administrative procedures are paid for by the prisoner: all visits are billed, as are documents regarding imprisonment.
I cultivated conditions for survival: I strengthened my physical and mental endurance to avoid succumbing to depression and physical weakness.
“Prison teaches looking backwards”
In the beginning, I had trouble accepting my circumstances. I was outraged. Later, I understood that the more you refuse to tolerate this mistreatment, the more it affects you. I decided to be optimistic. I cultivated conditions for survival: I strengthened my physical and mental endurance to avoid succumbing to depression and physical weakness. My primary pastimes are exercise and writing books.My daily life is shared with young gang members called Kulunas. I find joy in the fact that we are all equals despite a difference in social class. Sharing my life with those whose dream is just to survive helps keep me grounded.
Most Congolese prisoners are bystanders, petty thieves, street brawlers, rapists, con men, or political activists who participate in demonstrations without permission. These individuals come into prison, are released without any sort of training and then come back due to a lack of social reintegration policies.
That’s why I signed up to help teach a literacy course for 12 months. I teach other inmates arithmetic, writing, reading, civics, and the Gospel. I am proud of this.
Prison teaches looking backwards, while freedom teaches life looking ahead. Learning to disassemble, piece by piece, the puzzle that you constructed between childhood and imprisonment. That is very difficult to achieve if you don’t accept the ordeal, internally. You must develop patience and endurance, and discover the true value of freedom. To all those who are innocent and have been wrongly imprisoned, I say, “To overcome the lying and malice of men, be willing to suffer, even beyond your limits. You will be heroes!”
I hope that international organizations for the defense of human rights will demand my release. I have already been granted amnesty but have never been liberated. In 2013, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights ruled that the Congolese government must release us and pay us damages for this illegal detention which has lasted so many years.
Interview conducted by Fidèle Goulyzia..
— Translated by Maura Schmitt and edited by Lynn Palermo.