Anxiety started creeping up as the prison guard told us to remove everything in our pockets. We where about to enter Bunia prison (the only prison in Ituri), built back when Belgium ran the Congo.
Constructed only to hold 200 prisoners – now home to around 1200 Congolese men, women and children – most prisoners don’t expect to get out alive.
Having worked part time as a prison guard in Norway, I was very curious how the prison system in a country like Congo would be like.
As I took out my wallet from my pocket, a picture emerged in my head of what was waiting inside. 1200 people, cramped together like sardines in a barrel. This was not going to be pretty.
We started walking through the jam-packed courtyard, flavored with an intense odour of sweet smelling sweat (often associated with type 1 diabetes), eyes starred from all directions as we walking through the crowd of inmates.
In Hague, this place would make any mass murder prison cell feel like a six star hotels.
Convicted thefts, punished because they tried to support their families, are put together with convicted rapists, killers and rebels.
But the most serious real killer in here is disease. Inmates fall victims to typhoid, cholera due to the lack sanitation facilities and clean water. The prisoners are (sometimes) given food once a day, but malnutrition still killers and people die every week. Only the once lucky enough to have family members visit them has slightly better odds.
Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders have visited and promoted sanitation and took care of the most severe cases of malnutrition. But in a country already suffering with recourses being exploited, stolen, its children, men and women forgotten and soap is very hard to come by. Especially here in a prison where the population of inmates continues to grow, it doesn’t take long before, disease and malnutrition continues to claim new lives.
I was feeling both afraid and ashamed – because we here, merely as spectators, offering nothing more than our curiosity, I suddenly heard a laughter. I put down my camera. Bright eyes where looking at me, smiling faces. A couple of young men wanted me to take a picture of them.
They had been thrown in this place, a deep dark well, to be forgotten, but our visit might have been small glimpse of the world outside. Maybe that was something.
In Bunia prison it doesn’t take much to make a difference between life and death – a small bar of soap often enough. Still that doesn’t help against Malnutrition and the unworthy conditions for any human being.
After our visit GAD has delivered clothes and soap. We are looking to micro finance a project in Congo, that could make soap, where some is donated regularly to the prison.
Text and pictures by