Kim Osborn graduated from Pacific Union College in 2004. After graduation, she applied to go overseas with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA). From January to November 2005, Kim served with ADRA in Conakry, Guinea, West Africa, helping to provide advocacy to untried prisoners detained in Guinea’s largest prison, the Maison Centrale. Below is her story.—Editors.
ENTERED GUINEA CONAKRY IN 2005 AS AN intern with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA). My first few months in Guinea were spent being oriented to the acronym-rich world of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). We spent weeks driving through the country’s different regions, assessing from the tinted windows of the ADRA Suburban which villages appeared most malnourished; meetings in the capital with other NGOs to discuss vulnerable populations not being reached in the country; and countless hours of research looking for new initiatives and proposals that would address the issues of human trafficking and spread of HIV and AIDS in West Africa.
I assumed my work would narrow down and I would spend the latter half of my internship working with public health initiatives. The idea of prison advocacy never crossed my mind; but in June any preconceived notions I had of how my time in Guinea would be spent vanished in a single afternoon.
The Face of Misery
As part of a grant with ADRA/Switzerland, ADRA/Guinea had been providing fortified milk powder to several orphanages and nutritional centers in the capital, as well as to the juvenile detainees in Guinea’s largest prison, the Maison Centrale. The project was near the end of its cycle, and a woman with another NGO in the Maison Centrale wanted the ADRA staff to see the boys who had been helped by the project. Late one afternoon an ADRA health coordinator, Ioana Rusu, and I rode across town to visit the prison.We were first shown the juvenile section, a dirt courtyard connected to a single concrete room where approximately 60 boys were crowded in at night to sleep on the bare floor. It was not good; but at least the other NGO had received funding to start renovating the juvenile section.
After our brief tour of the boys’ section, we were taken to the calle malade, where the sickest of the sick from the men’s quarters were kept. Guards ordered the men out of the small building to stand against its wall. They were nothing but skin draped over bones, their flesh eaten away by hunger. Dutifully they stood there for us to gaze at in shock. All but one. He was too weak to stand, and two men were ordered to carry him outside where he crumpled against the wall. I distinctly remember the whimpering sounds he made when they placed him on the ground. It is a sound as clear to me today as it was that afternoon in June 2005.
I had been in Africa before, first as the daughter of missionaries in Zimbabwe and later as a student volunteer in Ethiopia. I had been exposed to Africa’s poverty, I knew firsthand that its children suffered; and having struggled with this reality before, I had built up barriers separating my emotions from my environment when I was in Guinea.
But Ioana was shocked by the conditions we saw. In the Land Cruiser, driving back to the office, she began to cry. I had been afraid of reacting with my emotions, afraid that empathy would swallow me whole and I would lose myself in a cause that I could never win. Like Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his book The Prophets: “Our eyes are witness to the callousness and cruelty of man, but our heart tries to obliterate the memories, to calm the nerves, and to silence our consciences.”
I not only allowed myself to become desensitized to the things I saw each day—I had willed it. But Ioana did not react by filtering the situation with cognitive reasoning and distancing. She reacted as one ought to: with empathy, with tears, with shock and pain at witnessing another human being’s immense suffering. Her response helped me to see that my attempts to maintain sanity by emotionally distancing myself from the reality I was in would eventually kill my own humanity. That evening I allowed the plight of the men in the Maison Centrale to overwhelm me.
The whimpering of a man in pain and the tears of an intern penetrated the wall I had built between Africa and myself; and I allowed myself to care, not just in part, but wholly.
The director from the other NGO at the prison told us that conditions inside the men’s quarters were even worse than what we saw in the juvenile section and calle malade. It had been too late that afternoon to visit the men, but she said if we returned the following week, she would take us inside. That evening Ioana and I discussed the situation at Maison Centrale. We agreed that we could not walk away from what we saw; we had to go back and see the complete picture.
The following week we took a taxi across town to the Maison Centrale, where we were escorted into the men’s quarters.
The first cell we saw belonged to men who had contracted tuberculosis. Among them was Mamadou Barry,* a 15-year-old who had stolen a bottle of lotion when he was 10. He had been in the prison for five and a half years without seeing a judge to sentence him. Initially, I assumed his case must be an extraordinary example of injustice, but in reality 87 percent of the men being detained in the Maison Centrale at that time were untried. Almost half had been arrested for petty theft and were waiting to be sentenced, some for periods stretching past 10 years.
Because of the high percentage of untried detainees, the Maison Centrale was grossly overcrowded. Built during the French Colonial Period to house 300 detainees, the prison population fluctuated between 1,000 and 1,200 during the latter half of 2005. We were shown cells in which the men were crammed so tight there was literally no room to move. For days—sometimes weeks—they were left in their cells sitting on the ground with their knees bent to their chests. As a result, many suffered from muscle atrophy, like the man in the calle malade who could not stand on his own.
Together Ioana and I began to outline a project that would provide advocacy for the untried prisoners in the Maison Centrale
. An ADRA worker suggested we contact a Guinean attorney interested in human rights advocacy. We met Frédéric Foromo a few days later.
A Man for the Moment
Frédéric was an exception in more ways than one for Guinea. In a country with fewer than 200 attorneys, he was a part of an elite community of professionals. And while he had been taught in law school to accept nothing less than a certain fee for his legal services, Frédéric wanted to represent those who could not afford legal help. The concept of providing free advocacy to the poor with no monetary profit did not exist in Guinea’s legal community; yet it was a vision that Frédéric saw. Without Frédéric, the vision Ioana and I had could not have become a reality.
The first step toward providing legal advocacy was to interview the detainees. The first day Frédéric, Ioana, and I went into the Maison Centrale, Frédéric stood in the entryway of a crowded cell and told the men what we were doing; that we were going to interview them and based on their individual cases, work to get them released. The men stood to their feet and began to clap for Frédéric. It was a moment of both triumph and overwhelming humility. Triumph because we were finally in—finally getting to fight for these men whom society had forgotten; and humility because the task was daunting, incredibly overwhelming.
Rather than push toward the front of the line, as I had assumed would happen, the detainees in the prison block pulled a young man out from among their group. They insisted that he be interviewed first. “He’s a good person,” they told us. “He doesn’t deserve to be here. You need to help him.”
The young man had been arrested for threatening his uncle when he was 18 years old. Now 24, six years had passed without him seeing a judge. While I worked in the office writing a proposal to fund an untried prisoners’ advocacy center, Ioana and Frédéric visited the court in which the man’s case had been filed. At the courthouse the clerk’s room was a disarray of record books stacked and piled everywhere. The clerk shuffled through his papers for a while before declaring he could not find the man’s file. Frédéric and Ioana went to a second court, but received the same response. For several days they bounced between the three main courts of Conakry before someone finally asked what year the man had been arrested. They told them: 1999. The response: “Why didn’t you say so? We don’t have any files for prisoners arrested before 2000.”
Even if the man had been sentenced, his record would have been lost, and without an advocate pressing for his case in the court, he would not have been released. In addition to the need to address those who had gone untried, there was now the realization that men who had received sentences were being held beyond their release dates due to careless record keeping. Thus the work of the proposed advocacy center grew to include addressing the plight of men being held beyond their sentence.
Ioana left at the end of the summer; Frédéric and I continued interviewing detainees in the prison. In November, just before I completed my internship with ADRA, we received $1,500 to open the advocacy center. It was not a large amount of money, but it was enough to staff the single office we were given in the ADRA complex. While the center operated under ADRA, Frédéric was able to obtain the release of 36 men and one woman. In the spring of 2006 when ADRA closed most of their projects in Guinea, the center was forced to close as well.
Same Plan, Different Sponsors
For several months I followed the plight of the advocacy center from my home in Washington, D.C., where I was working with the Center for Law and Public Policy. I could not forget the men in the Maison Centrale simply because I was on the other side of the world. I began writing, calling, visiting any organization, church, or individual who might show an interest—who might care enough to act. During this time I met a reporter from the international organization Human Rights Watch (HRW). He was interested in writing a report on the conditions related to the penal system in Guinea. I told him about my experiences in the Maison Centrale and the work Frédéric continued to do. In August 2006 HRW released a 34-page report titled The Perverse Side of Things: Torture, Inadequate Detention Conditions, and Excessive Use of Force by Guinean Security Forces. The report addressed with extensive detail the problem of pretrial detention. In addition to the inhumane overcrowding, the report also exposed the fact that the prisoners were receiving only a few meager handfuls of rice a day, causing an alarming amount of malnutrition.
Around the time the report was released, my brother had been in contact with a friend, Eric Guttschuss, a recent graduate from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) law school. Eric had spent time in Africa working with human rights issues and developments in Mozambique, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe. He called me to find out more about the project. That October he traveled to Guinea to help create a new advocacy project under the NGO Frédéric had started, called Memes Droit por Tous (MDT—The Same Rights for All).
At the beginning of February, Eric forwarded me a proposal MDT had written that would fund initiatives to not only continue representing the men being held in the Maison Centrale, but also address the problems of police brutality and gender-based violence in Guinea.
The vision of these two men, the magnitude of what they are trying to do, is breathtaking. Reading their proposal, I cried. I wrote to Eric, asking if I could return to help them. Several days later I bought a ticket to Conakry.
A week after I purchased my airfare, riots broke out across Guinea. More than 120 protestors were killed by police and military; hundreds more were injured. Stores, homes, and government buildings were raided, and Guinea’s president declared martial law and a 14-hour curfew that essentially stopped all activity in the country. To watch from a distance and not be able to do anything has been one of the most emotionally difficult experiences I’ve had. It has been a period when I have not even known how to pray, when the only words I have been able to form are Thy will be done.
In spite of the unrest, I still feel strongly that that’s where I’m supposed to be. If my own brother were in a situation such as the one at the Maison Centrale, I would do whatever it takes to get him out. Ultimately, if I accept Christ’s teachings, I have to see the men in the Maison Centrale as my brothers.I have come to realize that beyond the call for justice, I am called to first and foremost love the individuals I am fighting for. Shane Claiborne, author of The Irresistable Revolution, writes: “Don’t choose issues; choose people.
. . . Fall in love with a group of people who are marginalized and suffering, and then you won’t have to worry about which cause you need to protest. Then the issues will choose you.” Looking back, I realize that ultimately I did not choose the prison; it chose me. People ask, “Are you sure it’s safe?” No, I’m not sure. But this is a walk of faith, and this is where I long to be. It’s not a sacrifice. I’m not being a martyr. I want to be there.
Real Stories, Real Lives
While working to secure the release of sick and severely malnourished men in the Maison Centrale, Frédéric and Eric came across Thierno Kaita,* painfully thin from being detained for more than two years.
The day of the trial, Frédéric called Thierno to take the witness stand and asked him how long he had been detained at the Maison Centrale. The answer: Two years. In Guinean law, if an individual is detained for a petty crime for a period extending beyond four months, the prosecutor must file a request for further detainment.
Frédéric turned to the prosecutor in the courtroom. “Did you file the request for my client to be detained longer than four months?”
When it became clear that Thierno had been illegally detained, Frédéric turned to the court: “This man is a victim,” he declared. “He has been unjustly detained. He deserves justice now.”
What started as the trial of a single young man turned into a trial of the Guinean courts. The judge had no choice but to release Thierno.
After two years of being held in the deplorable conditions of the Maison Centrale, watching the men around him fade and die from disease and malnutrition, wondering when is it my turn to die—after two long years of believing no one cared, Thierno finally had someone willing to stand up for him. In a court filled with people, Frédéric honored his promise to Thierno and defended him before the prosecutors and magistrates.
Free at last, Thierno walked across the courtroom to where Frédéric stood, dropped to his knees before the man who had given him back his life, and sobbed.
“Justice is not simply an idea or a noun, but a divine passion,” philosopher Susannah Heschel writes. It is a divine passion driven by an unearthly love we are called to witness, experience, and ultimately to emulate. It is this same divine passion that is being played out this very moment in Guinea, West Africa, in a prison called the Maison Centrale.
*For safety reasons, some names have been changed.
Kim Osborn returned to Conakry, Guinea, West Africa, in March 2007. To find out more about MDT’s work, contact Kim at email@example.com.