Inside one of Africa’s most secret prisons

Former inmate describes Bossembele in the Central African Republic as ousted President Bozize’s “personal prison”.

We travel out of the Central African capital, Bangui, at first light. Even at six in the morning it feels like we are sitting in a sauna. A UN car was carjacked a day earlier, so we are not taking any chances. We ask the rebel group Seleka to provide us with a military escort, which consists of two colonels travelling in one of our vehicles. We also have an official-looking letter from the ministry of defence, which will hopefully get us through any checkpoints and into the military base of Bossembele.

Also making the journey with us is Amadou Tidjiani, a young man who was imprisoned at Bossembele for 19 months.

The trip is remarkably quick. The 175km stretch of road is tarmacked all the way to Bossembele. Although our car has a flat tyre at one point, we are able to fix it quickly and get back on the road.

I had first heard of Bossembele prison when I reported from the January peace talks in Libreville. Opposition groups mentioned the secretive jail known locally as Guantanamo in their communiqué, and called upon the then President Francois Bozize to release all political prisoners. On March 22, two days before the fall of the Bangui, rebels swept into Bossembele, and according to local reports, they captured the garrison town relatively easily.

Prison liberated

We reach the gates of Bossembele military base at around midday, and wait in the car as our fixer and security adviser negotiate with the Seleka colonel now in charge of the base. We finally get the green light to enter, but are informed that we only have 35 minutes on the ground. We are also told to be extremely careful where we walk, as there are land mines, which Bozize’s soldiers left behind.

I ask Amadou to take me straight to the cell where he was imprisoned. It looks more like a small warehouse than an actual prison cell, with high ceilings and a metal-grill door. It is suffocating and very dark. We have to bring a light panel with us, and we can hear rats scratching near the wall. I ask Amadou how it feels being back.

“I am grateful you have brought me here. I suffered a lot but I suppose it is over and done with now,” he says.

He recounts the moment he heard rockets land close by, and then rounds of machine gunfire go off. Amadou along with the other cellmates laid flat on the ground, absolutely terrified. After a few hours he says the felt safe enough to stand up and look through the metal bars. He saw Toyota pickups arriving carrying fighters with scarves wrapped around their heads, and he knew that they were from the Seleka.

Amadou and the other inmates shook the metal cell doors, and managed to get their attention. When they were finally released, they just walked around the compound, dazed and confused. They witnessed the rebels seize what was probably one of the biggest caches of weaponry in the country. There were rocket-propelled grenades, various-sized mortars, and a raft of luxury Land Cruisers.

Amadou says what upsets him the most is that he had never faced trial he never had a chance to tell his side of the story, and that he was simply arrested and accused of selling satellite phone credit to rebels.

He spent most of his 17 months in jail sleeping either on the ground or on a bit of cardboard.

“I didn’t wash for seven months. We were given five or sometimes four litres of water to share a day, we only had a cup of water a day.”

I ask him whom he blamed for what happened.

“This was Francois Bozize’s personal prison.” Amadou says. “This is where his military did whatever they wanted. Beating people, torturing them, and we also saw people killed from our cell. We don’t know what happened to them.”

Political prisoners

Less than a kilometre away from the military camp is the main prison, known as Guantanamo. It is square-shaped, with two watchtowers and I count seven main cells, which lead out onto a large yard. On one side of the compound there are two smaller rooms, much darker than the others. Amadou says this is where he was kept when he was first captured.

The former government built the prison in 2003. There were hundreds of people jailed here, some for as long as five years. There were criminals among the general prison population, but many were also political opponents of the former president.

The family of Charles Massi, a prominent minister who went missing in 2009, believes that he was brought to Bossembele. His son, Eric, was at one point a spokesman for Seleka. He has returned, he says, to be a political adviser to self-appointed President Michel Djotodia. He is also here to confirm what happened to his father.

“My father was tortured by President Bozize himself and by some other people at Bossembele. Really, I have this information,” Eric says. “For me the better way to be compensated for what happened is to develop the country. That is what my father would have wanted, and my mother who you know died three months after my father disappeared.”

There is very little information out there about Bossembele. Human rights groups will need to come to CAR and interview former prisoners, to get a better picture of the abuses that occurred there. It represents yet another dark chapter of the history of this country.

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