The night I spent in a Congolese Jail…

Africa, General comment

So last Thursday night I slept in a Congolese jail. It wasn’t part of my photographic schedule or anything, and this isn’t a photographic post. Nope, it was because I was arrested.

Last week I was in Lisala, a beautiful town on the Congo river, photographing the leprosy in the area. I’d expressed interest in photographing some younger leprosy patients and Boske, one of the staff at the TB/Lepre offices there had suggested a village a couple of hours drive outside of Lisala. A combination of events led to me leaving my passport behind in Lisala.

Firstly, I was expecting to be picked up at 8am, but was picked up at 7.30am and had to throw thing in my bag very quickly. It was later, just as we were leaving that I realised I’d left my passport and documents behind. However I didn’t mention this as we were on motorbikes, my driver didn’t speak English, and I thought it wouldn’t matter because we were going into the bush and I often leave my passport at my hotel if I’m just heading out to see a couple of patients. Generally I’m not a naïve traveller, in the last three years across Africa, I’ve never had a problem like this.

After four hours of driving we stopped and my interpreter informed me that we would stay the night near where the village is. I pointed out that as no one had told me about this, I hadn’t packed any overnight clothes and was hoping to do some work this evening in my hotel. It was a drawback, but it is the sort of poor communication I’ve come to expect at times in Africa.

Anyway, the day went quite well, I photographed the patients and then we went to the town for a drink and some food. The town is Bumba, the next major port down from Lisala on the Congo and over 150km away. Naturally, the moment I got off the motorbike security came up to ask to see my passport. “It’s at my hotel in Lisala”.

That didn’t go down very well. They demanded to see the passport so the ALM staff I was with took me into the bar away from the security. So they went and got the ‘chief’, the ‘big man’, who in this story is a very corrupt and selfish man with the single aim of pocketing large amounts of money from anybody that looks like they might own a wallet (white man = money of course). He was tall, wore expensive black shades, a glitzy gold watch, white pointy shoes, white trouser and a tight white shirt that accentuated his arms and his proud little pot belly, just to show that he was important enough to get other people to his hard work.

I was taken to the station, but reassured by those with me that everything would be fine. As a foreigner, not carrying my passport and documents (which are immensely unnecessarily complicated) is “an infringement”.

Negotiations didn’t go well. I’m not entirely sure what happened as my interpreter tended to wander off every now and then and was pretty useless at translating anyway, preferring to respond to my enquiries about the heated conversations with reassurances rather than telling me what was being said. Anyway suddenly the chief had had enough and ordered his men to drag me off. Noone had said it, but there was only one place they would be dragging me off to.

The ALM staff protested and tried to drag me in the other direction, which I don’t think was the most sensible action. The police here enjoy any chance to exercise their power over others and clearly a tug of war contest was another opportunity.  Me trying to explain had done no good… I’m pretty sure my interpreter never got my calm words across, and I don’t think the ‘chief’ really cared anyway. He had a chance to exercise a bit of power. I walked with the guards surrounding me through the town to the prison, the chief riding past slowly on his motorbike, careful to remind me of what an arse he was.

I was still being reassured that I wouldn’t go to prison by my interpreter, but my faith in his word was waning somewhat. It was waned after a total of about two hours from the initial arrest when in the dark I was told to step into the prison, to ‘have seat’ for ‘my protection’.

It was a small, old brick complex, with two sets of iron gates leading to a courtyard where a few armed police in loose uniform sat smoking around a fire. I was led past to a slightly ramshackle door and shown my cell. I was quite complacent initially, it was large, there was no one else in it, it had gently sloping sides with a sleeping mat on one side. The guard flashed his torch at it and I went and laid down. I thought; this isn’t so bad. I’m not hungry or thirsty, my camera (main priority of course) is safe, and I have a phone with me that even has a light on it.

That latter comforting thought was dashed when the guard came in 5 minutes later demanding my phone. Obviously I couldn’t have expected to keep it and told him in French to give it my friends outside, who I could still here arguing. Ah well. I lay back down again. I hear the arguments stop outside and it seemed like the staff had gone away for the moment – I was confident they would be doing everything they could to help me out, so I wasn’t worried. A few minutes after they’d left the guards opened my cell and called me over once again. I approached cautiously. They started pointing making demanding noises in French.

It was at this point that real worry started to crawl all over my body. A young man not in a uniform was trying to help me and explain what they wanted, there were a lot of people, most in plain clothes laughing and demanding, but the guard had a malicious look that was instantly obvious even from behind his torchlight.

Clearly he wanted ‘a gift’, l’argent was mention a few times, but I showed them that I had nothing on me. Now in my back pocket I had my memory card wallet which I could not afford to lose at any cost. They started demanding a gift, pointing at my shorts. At one point I feared the worst and did my best to express my shock and horror at what they might be implying. Luckily their reaction of equal shock and surprise confirmed they were just looking for something they could take home with them. He indicated my belt and my boots. Now my belt I didn’t mind losing, but my walking I really didn’t want to, they were extremely useful and had lasted very well for about 7 years. I thought that if I argued for both the items I could get away with just giving up the belt. I argued quite hard, trying to explain in my broken French that I was a missionaire and trying to help their country without pay. I hate referring to myself as a missionary – I don’t consider myself one at all, but since I was working at the moment for free for American Leprosy Missions, I hoped I could get off lightly. Anyway, it didn’t work. I understood that the guard was saying it was his ‘right’ to have my belt and shoes.

Clearly the small crowd was starting to get irritated at my stubbornness and suddenly became very threatening. One picked up a rock and made gestures to indicate quite how serious he was. Equally one of the boys hit me on the head with a water bottle and they suddenly dragged my by the shirt and shorts outside the cell. I was getting a bit panicky and thought it was probably ok to lose my cool a bit. I slowly took off the belt and the guard grabbed it and yanked it out of my shorts. He then pointed his gun at my shoes, but I didn’t want to give them up still and pleaded not to, trying to inch back towards my cell. At that point one of the guards that had stayed back a bit had lost it with this arrogant white man and smashed his rifle against the war inches from head and started kicking my with his boots holding my shirt and punching me in the side, deafening me in the ear. Adrenaline surged through my body and I shakily tried to undo my laces as he kicked my hand shouting God knows what down onto my head. He tore them away from me and then both guard were demanding that give them my socks as well. I pulled them off and, backed into my cell, by now pretty terrified

The door slammed darkness upon me and I stood shaking for a moment, before remembering my memory cards and tucking them behind the elastic of my boxer shorts.

I lay down on the straw mat on my side, half trying to fathom how it had got to this, and half trying to think of something positive, doing neither successfully in the process. My heart sunk as the door was opened once again and the guards gestured me over. I walked slowly, showing them I was clearly scared and feared them and that they had won. They said nothing and gestured me into a door next door.

It was a cell maybe 15 by 10 feet, a small blue bucket in the corner and 7 other prisoners lying tightly next to each other on two small mats. They looked at me with quiet surprise and I sensed no danger there. The door padlocked behind me. I sat on the concrete floor as they slowly sat up, illuminated by a dim candle in the corner. I told them I was English and only spoke a little French. They were all young, maybe my age, except for an older man who then said: “You speak English? I speak English”. I still can’t quite believe my luck – his English wasn’t excellent, but I could communicate with them at least. I told them why I was there and their was a soft, confused surprise to their reaction. I wasn’t sure if they believed me or that they sympathised with my situation. I think it was the latter, and they had a little makemba (cassava bread) and peanuts that they offered me a share of. I was grateful for the gesture, but the whole experience with the guards had left me without an appetite. I tried to start up a bit of conversation and introduce some lightness to the evening. I asked Jean-Peter, the man who spoke English) why he was here. He laughed in an easy but unthreatening way and confessed ‘very bad things’. I smiled back and pushed him a little more, saying I was just interested. “I beat a woman for doing bad things” he said. What the bad things were I don’t know, but I didn’t enquire to the details, or what he meant when he said beat. It sounded like he probably deserved to be there. While trying to keep the atmosphere light I told him that wasn’t a good thing he did, and ended up sounding a bit like Borat when he told the village rapist “naughty, naughty” while waggling a finger.

I explained the guards had taken everything I had, including my boots and belt, but looking around these boys and men mostly had just thin, worn trousers. Some had a shirt, but I doubt any of them had ever worn boots in their lives. I felt guilty for trying to get a bit of sympathy. I’d enquired as to why others were here, a couple of the boys said something about owing debts, but others didn’t bother answering. Some of them probably shouldn’t be there, some of them probably should. I felt safe with them though. They even shifted aside to give me half a mat and one laid his shirt down on the floor so I didn’t have to take mine off and get bitten by mosquitoes.

The door opened once more and this time a familiar voice; Emmanuel, my translator. He invited me out and I immediately pushed my memory cards into his hands and told him to keep those on him. I gushed out what the guards had done and that they had my shoes, socks and belt. He reacted in disgust and the guards were looking away. He said he would get them back and would I like anything to eat. I wasn’t hungry, but thought it would be good to share some food with the other prisoners and asked unashamedly for lots of food and water

He said he would be back and I retreated into the cell, hoping he could negotiate my shoes back. He came back an hour of so later and I was taken outside by the fire to sit by him and one of the ALM nurses. He told me the guards hadn’t realised I was a missionary, and asked forgiveness for how they had treated me. I looked over at them and they looked guilty, but I think more for the fact they had or might get in trouble rather than regret. Nevertheless I asked him to tell them they were forgiven and that they should never treat anyone that way. It was received silently and one of them mumbled something about really regretting it.

Emmanuel handed my shoes, socks and belt over along with some bread, a tin of sardines and a bottle of water. I pushed the shoes etc back into his hands and said firmly that I wanted him to take them because I still didn’t trust the guards not to try and take tem for themselves. He didn’t quite understand my anxiety, but recognised my tone. The guards then said they wanted me to sleep somewhere better, away from the other people. I insisted I stayed with the others in the cell, as well as feeling safer from the guards, I still intended to give them my food, which I had no desire to eat.

Both Emmanuel and the guards were surprised that I wanted to go back in my cell without my shoes and without eating away from the others, but my stubbornness had jumped back into action and I walked back to the cell, gesturing that it needed to be unlocked. I shared the food out which was hungrily wolfed down by all and lay down to the start of what is one of the longest nights I’ve ever had

I didn’t sleep at all. It was very uncomfortable. The wall smelt exactly how you might expect the wall of a cell with just small bucket in to smell. The smell hung thickly in my nostrils for a while until I no longer noticed it. I tried to think of something positive back home or of anything that might distract me, but I kept on being shocked back into reality as mosquitoes began to dig into my legs, feet and arms or hummed past my ear. A chorus of snores began, changing pitch and rhythm every hour as bodies shifted. This was uncomfortable to me, but for the others, they sleep on mats like this anyway

The minutes crawled by and without any sense of time I kept hoping to see a glimmer of light through the two arrow-thin slits in the wall, breaking the blackness in the room. The occasional cockroach would brush past my hair and I could hear mice scampering along the wall

It seemed like it had been light for ages when they finally opened the dor to let me out, but when I asked, it was only 6 o’clock. Emmanuel came along a couple of hours later, and said Dr Jacques (who is at a leprosy conference in Senegal) had been told and my passport was being sent to Bumba from Lisala.

At around 10 I was taken to the ‘chiefs’ bureau and they said they needed to ask me a few questions and write down my answers. I didn’t point out that they could have done this before they put me in Jail. It also emerged that one of the doctors had insulted the police and the chief while they arrested me and they probably wouldn’t have put me in prison if he hadn’t done that. It didn’t matter, it was all in the past now

The statement took ages, it was handwritten very slowly and carefully, they took all my basic information and asked if I knew why I went to prison etc. I played along and said I hadn’t realised it was an infringement of the law, but I know that now. They pressed me about my ‘real mission’ here, as though I was suddenly going to confess I was trying to restart the slave trade, or was a diamond smuggler. They certainly couldn’t understand why I was working for free, and why I was remotely interested in photographing leprosy. They were genuinely perplexed by it and I think there suspicion soon developed into one of thinking I was mad not to want money for my work.

Anyway, after a few hours he was insistent that he needed something for my infringement, and that it was a serious offence and so would cost me $250-300. The fact he didn’t give me an exact number immediately gave away the fact it wasn’t a government fine, or at least some of it wasn’t

By 2pm my passport still hadn’t shown up and I was getting worried all over again. None of us had that sort of money with us and the dollars I had with my passport had been left in my room by all accounts. (It was the nuns that searched my room for it). The ‘chief’ still insisted that the damage was done and the infringement had been made and whether I could prove my story or not, I still had to pay.

I feared I would be put into the prison again, more afraid that I wouldn’t be able to carry on with the work I was doing – that was what was really important. I think the fact I hadn’t slept or eaten in 36 hours probably didn’t help too. Eventually after a lot of reassurances that I didn’t particularly believe the man arrived with my passport. It turned out Dr Jacques, despite being in Senegal had pulled out all the stops and sent the Security chief of the district to my rescue. He took me into the ‘chiefs’ office, sent out Emmanuel so I wouldn’t understand anything and negotiated my release, which after another hour was eventually granted.

The relief I felt was enormous. The pathetic little ‘big man chief’ who had arrested me in the first place told me I should carry my passport at all times and that if I should ever become well-known in my country I should remember them. I told him that not to worry, I’m never going to forget.

We finally left around 24 hours later. I had got away without loosing anything or being seriously hurt. Just an empty stomach, a great deal of fatigue and a story that would make up an extremely long post on my blog…

I still love the Congo. I’ve just learnt the hard way that it doesn’t like it when you don’t play by its rules. I’m certainly going to keep my passport on me everywhere I go now, no exceptions.

Sorry about the lack of photograph – I felt it wasn’t wise to get my camera out after being released and start snapping away.

Oh, and I found out a couple of days later that the reason I’d been released was because the leprosy doctor in Lisala had wired the chief $200.

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4 thoughts on “The night I spent in a Congolese Jail…

  1. BRO!! That is quite a story. And probably the best jail story that any friend of mine has. It’s about 100 times better on the social CV than mine. Glad you didn’t lose your camera!!

    1. I don’t think that any of my youth hostelling adventures with your mother were ever quite as exciting as this! Glad that you survived to tell the tale.

  2. I love the bit about the chief on his motorbike, reminding everyone what an arse he was. I held my breath all the way through, seen too many movies…I think you have a guardian angel .

  3. A salutary reminder, should you have ever needed one(!) of the potential dangers you face.
    You survived intact thankfully and the positives of the experience in the long term will outweigh the negatives!

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