Extract from Chapter I


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In the annex to Butare prison, known as Rwandex, there are prisoners who sleep on top of the septic tanks located under the main path in two of the blocks, in the open air.  Once or twice a month, the path has to be dug up, using metal handles, and the septic tanks emptied into the drainage channels which run through the prison and out.  The job of emptying the septic tanks takes 24 hours.  The team of prisoners responsible for hygiene works through the night.  When the tanks are being emptied, the prisoners who live there have to move and find somewhere else to sleep.  We met a prisoner who had been sleeping on the ground over the septic tanks for one year and four months:  “Since arriving in Rwandex, until today, I’ve been sleeping over the septic tanks.  The smell is very bad.  They empty the tanks regularly and it stinks terribly.  On the nights when they empty it, we just walk around all night.  We call it abari ku izamu [nightwatchmen].”

Every aspect of prison life in Rwanda is defined by the overcrowding.  The first hint is the noise.  At Nsinda, the approach to the prison is down a quiet path dotted with small houses, one or two shops, and fruit and vegetable crops.  As you draw closer to the prison, you become aware of a sound like the humming of thousands of bees coming from behind the prison walls a few yards ahead.  It is the sound of prisoners talking, working, getting on with their daily lives.  In other prisons, the sound is not audible from the outside, but as soon as the guards open the interior gate to let anyone in or out, the sound rises and wraps itself around you.  Once you are inside, after a few seconds, you no longer even notice it.  

Many of the blocks we walked through were so dark that it took some time for our eyes to adjust.  We were afraid of tripping over or bumping into people as we wended our way down the narrow passageways.  Some prisons have electricity, but the supply is erratic at best, and there was no lighting in the blocks we visited during the daytime.  Nsinda prison has tents instead of blocks, and a larger space outside the tents in which prisoners can walk around, but inside each tent, there is the same three-tier bunk-bed structure as in the other prisons, in the same oppressive darkness, overflowing with hundreds of prisoners.  In some prisons, efforts were still being made to carve out new living areas within the limited space available:  in Cyangugu prison, prisoners had constructed a new place in the yard which they called gariyamoshi (train, in Swahili) because it is made of metal.  Prisoners who live there say they live in the train.  The train was covered with sacking, but within a short time, the sacking was already torn.

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Cyangugu Central Prison, Rwanda 2004 © Carina Tertsakian
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