Crumbling Congo Prison Ready for Presidential Rescue

The Democratic Republic of Congo's central prison in Bukavu is just one example in how far the country must go to rebuild its infrastructure. That job goes to the next president. The election is scheduled for July 30th.

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The Democratic Republic of Congo later this month holds its first presidential election since 1960. The next government in Kinshasa must rebuild a country devastated by decades of corrupt rule and war.

Public infrastructure in the central African nation is either non-existent or crumbling. Roads must be rebuilt. Schools and hospitals have fallen into disrepair. The most visible signs of the collapse of the Congo's government is its prisons. Some have simply been abandoned. Others, such as the Central Prison in Bukavu, limp forward without any government support.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN reporting:

The Bukavu Central Prison is a long, fortress-like brick building, built by the Belgium colonialists in 1929. Ornamental turrets mark each end of the brick fa├žade, and poke up above the arched entryway. The main iron gates have fallen off their hinges and are permanently ajar.

Inside, a dark, dungeon-esque foyer leads to another set of bars, behind which the prisoners live. The entryway is scorched from a recent fire.

I was allowed to visit the Central Prison of Bukavu and talk freely to prisoners. But the head of the provincial government stated emphatically that he didn't want to hear prisoners complaining on the radio, so I wasn't allowed to record interviews with the inmates.

(Soundbite of prisoners)

BEAUBIEN: On the day I visit there are 242 inmates. A few weeks before, there were 338, but almost 100 of them escaped.

The Bukavu prison illustrates the huge challenges facing the Democratic Republic of Congo. The country has been devastated by decades of war and fantastically corrupt rule.

Theofule Bazier(ph) runs the Bukavu Central Prison from a barren room off the main entryway.

Mr. THEORFULE BAZIER: (Foreign spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Bazier says the facility faces numerous problems. The canopy in the central courtyard collapsed and needs to be rebuilt. The bathrooms are waiting to be repaired. There's no electricity.

If there wasn't for the presence of Bazier and an ancient Hermes manual typewriter, you'd assume his office had been abandoned. Dust covers his desk and floor. A broken light bulb hangs by a wire from the ceiling. Bazier gestures around his empty office and says he has nothing to do his job.

Mr. BAZIER: (Foreign spoken)

BEAUBIEN: I have no paper, no furniture, he says, no money for repairs or for medicine. The only food is several bags of grain donated each week by the Catholic Church. But Bazier says this isn't enough.

Mr. BAZIER: (Foreign spoken)

BEAUBIEN: We don't feed them at all on Mondays and Tuesdays, Bazier says. They eat nothing. The rest of the week, the inmates get a single bowl of porridge in the evening.

As in many prisons in Africa, inmates here rely on family members to bring them food. Bazier has been working at the Bukavu Central Prison for 36 years. He gets $20 U.S. dollars a month and says if he could find any other job he'd take it.

Mr. BAZIER: (Foreign spoken)

BEAUBIEN: No one would want to work in public administration in the Congo right now, he says, because of the terrible conditions. The conditions are even worse for the inmates. Dozens of men are packed into warehouse-like rooms. Each man gets a space large enough for a foam mat.

During the day the inmates can come out of the dormitories into an open courtyard. The plumbing is dilapidated, but water appears to be plentiful. It spews from a tangle of pipes above the toilets. The only guards are two Congolese soldiers with AK-47s, who sit outside the front gate.

Life inside is organized by the prisoners themselves. The most common complaint I heard from inmates is that they don't have access to medicine, and they worry that malaria or diarrhea could turn into a death sentence.

Mr. LUCIEN MAZUWO(ph) (Member of Advocacy Group, Justice for All): (Foreign spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Lucien Mazuwo, with an advocacy group called Justice for All in Bukavu, says the justice system in the Congo is for the rich and not the poor. He says people that can't buy their way out of jail and spend months, sometimes even years, behind bars before they see a judge.

One woman in the female unit told me, I keep paying $20, $40, but nothing happens. Mazuwo says the country's prisons show how the justice system in the Congo has collapsed.

Mr. MAZUWO: (Foreign spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Once the state takes the liberty of someone, the state must take responsibility for that person, he says. The problem we have here is that the Congo has no money for justice, nor for its prisons.

There's little sympathy in the harried general public for prisoners. But Mazuwo says revamping the country's justice system, including its prisons, has to be one of the first steps in reestablishing law and order in the vast country.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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