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Antoine: A Journey from hell

A Congolese theatre student and revolutionary spent years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Last updated: 29 Jun 2014 08:34
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In 2002, Antoine Vumilia, a political officer in the regime of Laurent Kabila, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, was sentenced to life imprisonment for supposed involvement in Kabila's assassination.

Detained in Makala Prison, Kinshasa - considered to be the worst prison in Africa - Antoine endured nine years of dehumanising brutality before managing to escape.

Witness joins Antoine in Brazzaville as he waits for his claim for political asylum in Europe to be accepted and fills in the time by returning to his first love, theatre directing.

Including footage shot secretly inside Makala Prison, this is a disturbing and moving portrait of what it means when your rights are stripped away and you lose everything, including your country.

Filmmaker's view 

By Arnaud Zajtman

Believe it or not, this film was born in a maternity ward in Brussels. I was waiting with my film partner Marlène Rabaud, the co-maker of the film, for the imminent birth of our first child when I received the most extraordinary text message from DR Congo. It read: "Today is exit day. I am out." The sender was Antoine Vumilia. After more than eight years in detention, he had escaped from prison.

I had known Antoine for about four years at this point. Once he had escaped, it was clear that we should make the film that told his story.

I was a Kinshasa-based correspondent for a major news organisation for many years, and Antoine was my source in Makala Prison in Kinshasa - held to be the worst in Africa - where he had been locked up since January 2001. Whether it was to inform me of the transfer of suspected war criminals to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, or to alert me to an extra-judicial execution or a mutiny within Makala's walls, Antoine would always call me, and would always prove reliable.

Pressure to reverse gross miscarriages of justice can only come from abroad - and so far in this case, this pressure has failed to build.

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Antoine was in Makala because he was one of 85 men falsely accused of being implicated in the assassination of president Laurent Désiré Kabila. Our previous film Murder in Kinshasa looked into the assassination, and demonstrated that the men tried and found guilty had nothing to do with the death of the president. But Antoine was the only man, of the 51 who remained in prison, to record his testimony for the film.

I hoped, after the release of Murder in Kinshasa, that public opinion and the voices of diplomats and human rights organisations would exert sufficient pressure to provide the release of the men still behind bars.

After all, miscarriages of justice have sometimes been reversed thanks to the work of journalists and opinion leaders. In 1894, French army captain Alfred Dreyfus, wrongly condemned for treason because he was Jewish, was set free after a major campaign in the French press.

Much more recently in 1991, a handful of prisoners, close to death, were released from the Moroccan secret detention facility in Tazmamart after a book by French writer Gilles Perrault sparked an international outcry.

In DR Congo, however, outspoken journalists and human rights activists are killed. Pressure to reverse gross miscarriages of justice can only come from abroad - and so far in this case, this pressure has failed to build. So far, also, Antoine is the only detainee from the Kabila case to have managed to escape: 50 men remain in a living hell behind bars.

We believe Antoine's story is important because it shows the capacity of a single individual to take his destiny into his own hands and to fight against a system ruled by force.

Antoine's message - expressed through his writing and his theatre work - is simple: what is important and what should be first and foremost respected, by families or by governments, is the individual. All individuals.

He believes that this principle is a condition for the rule of law to become entrenched across Africa. And this is what this film, Antoine: A Journey from Hell, is about.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

 


 

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