Wednesday, February 21, 2007
As they dug a grave for one of their fellow inmates, detainees in Bunia Central Prison decided to use the occasion to protest against appalling conditions in the jail, where many have died of disease, and riots and escapes are common.
"We have decided to bury the body here; we are no longer afraid of an epidemic or a corpse. Why are we suffering? He [the dead one] is not the only one who is dead. All of us here are dead," the detainees chanted.
The prisoner was killed in January when police were called in to quell yet another of the frequent riots sparked by worsening conditions, with food shortages one of the main problems.
In the last week of December 2006 alone, three detainees died from illness caused by severe malnutrition. "At least 10 percent of the inmates are showing signs of malnutrition," said Clement Assani, the prison doctor and the head of urban health in Bunia.
"It is a serious public health problem. The rate of malnutrition should normally be lower than 10 percent. We registered 13 cases of severe malnutrition, three moderate cases and 12 cases of mild malnutrition. Generally, there are cases with digestive problems, including diarrhoea," said Assani.
These cases are referred to the main hospital in Bunia. The severely malnourished are taken to the Therapeutic Nutritional Centre run by the Italian NGO, COOPI (Cooperazione Internazionale) for therapeutic feeding and general medical treatment.
"Of all these cases, prisoners who had mild forms of malnutrition were more at risk [of death] as their state could quickly deteriorate to moderate and eventually severe malnutrition," said Assani.
Prisoners have to share the little food available, meaning that each inmate has one daily meal of maize and beans.
"Whereas each prisoner should receive 2,000 calories per day to meet his nutritional needs, the inmates here get less than 300 calories per day," Assani said.
The prison was built to accommodate 102 inmates, but holds 437. "With this overpopulation, there is a likelihood of a lot of diseases affecting the prisoners," Assani said. The rise in the number of prisoners has been attributed to rampant crime in the northeastern district of Ituri.
Local authorities say that in 2006, scores of prisoners were affected by a skin disease characterised by festering sores due to their filthy living conditions. Fifty suffered from bacillary dysentery.
"There is no prison in the district so the detainees are brought to Bunia from all over Ituri," Chris Aberi, public prosecutor of the Magistrate's Court in Bunia said. The inadequate number of judges to handle trials quickly had also led to a proliferation of remand prisoners in the jail, according to Aberi.
The European Union stopped contributing funds on 31 December to an inmates' feeding project that used to provide food for 102 prisoners, which has exacerbated the food crisis. "It is regrettable that it [the EU aid] has been withdrawn but there is nothing we can do about it," DieuDonné Rwabona, assistant Ituri district administrator in charge of economy and finance, said.
Without EU help, the full responsibility for running the prison now rests with the government, which supplies the jail with two bags of beans, a bag of maize, and 40 litres of cooking oil every week. "It [the food] is not enough," Rwabona said.
To deal with the financial problems at the prison, various smaller administrative units making up Ituri district have been asked to contribute to the prison kitty by March, even if this is not provided for under the law.
"The gesture is not legal but we are obliged to do something," Rwabona said, noting that food stocks that had been provided by the district administration and other well-wishers would soon run out.
According to Lt Aladin Lukusa, a nurse at the General Military Referral Hospital in Bunia, military detainees had not received any medicines since July 2006. The prison holds both military and civilian inmates.
"Normally, there should be separate military and civilian prisons, but our country has no military prison. It is dangerous," Aberi said.
"When there is an escape or an attempted escape, generally it is the convicted soldiers who take the lead," the presiding judge of the military tribunal in Ituri, Innocent Mayembe, said.
Since September 2006, there have been at least 14 prison escapes involving death-row convicts and war-crime suspects such as Ricky Mutakama, a former major in the Force Armée du Peuple Congolais, and a former warlord, Jérôme Kakwavu, who were active in the northern Aru Territory, 260km from Bunia.
Mutakama, who escaped during his integration into the national army in Mushake, had been sentenced to seven years in prison by the military tribunal in Bunia for violating military orders.
Mutakama was trying to join Col. Mathieu Ngujolo, head of the Mouvement Révolutionnaire des Congolais rebel movement, which is active in Ituri. However, Ngujolo refused because he had already agreed to the government's disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration process.
Mutakama was later arrested in the province of South Kivu and transferred to Kinshasa, according to Maj. Mayembe.
Another war-crimes convict, Capt. Blaise Bongi, who was condemned for killing five students on Mount Awi in Walendu Bindi, south of Bunia, also escaped in mid-January.
Mayembe said Bongi escaped alongside five other convicts due to reduced security at the prison. The Congolese police on guard were asleep during the escape, Maj. Mayembe said. Investigators discovered a hole under the toilet wall, through which Bongi escaped.
The same night, Ufoyuru Agenong’a, convicted for killing two United Nations observers in Mongwalu, a mine 80km north of Bunia, also escaped. So did Warrant Officer Saolona, who had been sentenced to 15 years for armed robbery. Saolona was rearrested on 29 December 2006 when one of his accomplices shot him in the leg in a foiled robbery attempt in Bunia.
"The situation is similar at Makala prison in Kinshasa where military detainees are mixed with civilian ones," Maj. Mayembe, added.
In a bid to improve the legal system, the Belgian agency Reseau de Citoyens (Citizens’ Justice and Democratic Network), with the support of the EU, is building a military tribunal and a separate building for military hearings with a cell capacity of 15 inmates.
"Currently, however, there are nearly 40 detainees in a cell,” according to Mayembe.
The conflict in Ituri, which has been going on since 1999, has led to the deaths of at least 60,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.