Extract from Chapter I


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In Butare prison, until 2003, people were still sleeping in the showers, in the toilets and on makeshift platforms higher up above the toilets.  They also used to sleep on the roof, in the open air.  In 2004, the roof area – which we accessed by climbing up a long steep ladder – is still crowded but no one sleeps there anymore.  It is used for classes.  Groups of 15 or 20 prisoners sit clustered in front of blackboards, in the blazing sun.  There is no shelter.  All around them, on the rooftops, blankets have been laid out to dry on the corrugated iron roofs, placed there with long wooden poles.  When you stand on the roof and look out over the prison walls, you get a clear view of the green hills all around; you can see fields and people in the distance, lots of open space, the world outside.  

In Gitarama prison, the first interior courtyard, after going through the gate, is crammed full of people.  It is as if they have gathered there for a purpose, awaiting a meeting or an important announcement.  In fact, they are just standing there because that is where they live.  It is the same thing in one of the big rooms inside, formerly used as a chapel.  It is a huge room, full of people, some sitting, some standing, some lying down, again looking as if they are waiting for something.  The chapel is home to 320 prisoners and, as in Butare, they sleep on benches.  Further inside the prison, unpleasant smells waft in from the kitchen and swirls of acrid smoke and ashes blow into our eyes as we walk past.  Prisoners are living and sleeping right next to the kitchen, with the smoke blowing straight at them.  A few prisoners walk past, screwing up their eyes against the smoke, but most are just sitting there; that is where they spend their days and their nights.  Inside the blocks, it is dark and extremely crowded.  Many prisoners are just lying or sitting in their châteaux.  Some peer out from behind improvised curtains.  They don’t seem surprised by our visit.  Some smile and greet us.  Most stare in silence.  The expression in their eyes is not blank; it is a direct and piercing look, yet it is difficult to decipher its meaning.  I remember, when I visited the prisons in earlier years, being met by a sea of intense stares, distrustful, defiant, even fierce, and all of them expectant.  Several years on, there is no longer any ferocity, and no longer any expectation, just a tired resignation.

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Cyangugu Central Prison, Rwanda 2004 © Carina Tertsakian
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