|Two-thirds of the 540 inmates at Bunia have not been tried [Claude Mahoudeau]
For 540 people held in Bunia jail in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the ongoing conflict and disaster in the region is both distant and immediate.
While the fighting that has precipitated a humanitarian crisis remains outside its dominating concrete walls, it has also prevented food from reaching those inside the prison, causing starvation.
At least 17 prisoners of Bunia jail in the Ituri district died in the two months before the intervention of aid organisations in early December.
"[Their] arrival got us out of serious problems," Adrien Mamoudi, the assistant director of the prison, said.
Medicins San Frontiers (MSF) and the International Commission of the Red Cross (ICRC) have provided emergency medical care and food supplies, but sanitary and medical conditions remain dreadful in the dilapidated jail.
The prison was closed while the DRC suffered one of the world's deadliest conflicts since the second world war as the remnants of Rwanda's civil war spilled over into the country - then called Zaire - in the mid-1990s.
|There were no medical supplies at the jail before aid groups arrived [Claude Mahoudeau]
Bunia jail reopened in 2004, a year after peace accords were signed. Yet, fighting has continued in the east where Hutu forces loyal to Laurent Nkunda gained control of gold and tin mining regions and routed government forces in 2008.
The inmates - including about 30 women and 20 adolescents - have only recently been able to get access to clean water provided by the ICRC.
"It's hard work," Jean-Pierre Tika, a nurse who has been working at the prison for more than a year, said.
"There are many patients with many different kinds of infections. We lack the resources, we don't have a lot of medicines and I can't refer those with urgent needs to the main hospital. There are too many escapes."
Conditions fail to discriminate between those convicted of crimes and, according to Mamoudi, the approximate two thirds of inmates who have been charged but not yet received a trial.
'Life is constrained'
"We are a post-conflict country ... Life is constrained. I don't think that prisons or penitentiary systems come way outside of all these restrictions," Lambert Mende, the communications minister, said.
"We are working very slowly due to lack of public income ... It is a priority among other priorities."
Mande said embezzlement of funds, rather than inadequate resources, had led to food not reaching inmates. Culprits had been arrested, he said, while acknowledging two or three cases of deaths.
Security takes only a small portion of the country's total budget of about $6bn and prison and judicial facilities have been looted and destroyed during the conflict.
Sarah Bailey, a research officer for the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute who has DRC expertise, said that "woefully inadequate" government services at large mean that it is "sadly unsurprising that prisoners are often left to fend for themselves for many basic needs".
MSF initially supplied therapeutic food to ease the suffering. Now their two tents are providing medical, nutritional and logistical activities scheduled for the next three months, with the ICRC supporting daily meal provisions.
Little more can be expected in such a fragmented land. Here the UN's largest peacekeeping force of 18,000 soldiers is trying to support the military in a conflict in which 500,000 people have been displaced, with claims of murders and rape by opposition forces and the military over the past two years.
Claude Wakungo, an MSF nurse, works from one tent where patients come to be registered, have their weight and temperature taken and undergo simple consultations. If prisoners are suffering seriously or require testing, they visit a doctor and nurse in the second tent.
|Aid organisations brought clean water
and food to the jail [Claude Mahoudeau]
Since the aid groups' intervention there have been no additional deaths.
However, prisoners continue to live in extremely cramped conditions, with the jail holding five times more than its 100 inmate capacity.
People crowd in tiny rooms while motionless men line the edge of the prison's courtyard, backed up against latrines that have an overwhelming smell of excrement.
"We gave out gloves and safety equipment to prisoners so they could empty the pits [latrines]," Geoffrey Santini, an MSF logistician, said.
"Before, they had to do it with their bare hands."
In one windowless cell 108 men lay packed side-by-side on threadbare mats on the ground, dozing in the dank surroundings. Plastic bags hanging above their heads carrying each person's belongings are the only spots of colour. The odour of sweat and other bodily fluids is inescapable.
One man lies separately, shivering with a fever. Another complains of acute diarrhoea.
Some of those who have been sentenced have committed rape and violent crimes. Here they are mixed with petty criminals and adolescents.
About 140 inmates are soldiers who are still receiving a wage. They can therefore afford food, but before food supplies arrived those who survived did so on the kindness of relatives living close enough to help.
Mamoudi hopes that more government assistance will be forthcoming with aid organisations bringing to light the prison conditions.
Once dependable food, medicine and water supplies, and functioning latrines are in place, reconstruction of the prison is needed and a separation of adolescents from adults.
Bailey calls the combination of rebels and soldiers held among other inmates, and the "alarmingly high" levels of sexual violence in the DRC, a "very volatile situation".
She cites a mutiny in Goma prison, in the east, in 2009, where rioting prisoners got a hold of weapons, easily smuggled into penitentiaries, killed a guard and raped female prisoners.
In the long-term, however, the country's judiciary must be able to cope with the volume of cases, while petty criminals and those accused of more serious crimes need to be separated.
Mende said the government was making progress in establishing a judicial system. It has located magistrates and, although he acknowledged that overcrowding remains, he said 36 people from Bunia jail have been tried.
Mende added that the new judicial system is under review in parliament and will be in place "before March".
"After two or three months we will deal with all these people who are awaiting their trials."
Belgium, the EU and the UK have provided assistance recently, and Bailey says prison conditions have received increased non-governmental and government attention of late.
"But achieving real results will require substantially improving the justice system as a whole so that people receive fair and timely trials, rather than only focusing on the prisons," she said.
"It is widely acknowledged that the government has a long road ahead to bring some measure of peace and governance to the country, and the most crucial element is reforming its security sector."
Meanwhile, policemen enter the prison intermittently to keep some order, leaving their guns outside lest they be stolen.
Source: Al Jazeera