Today, for the first time, I went to the prison itself (with three other mzungus). It was an eye-opening and heart-breaking experience; I don’t know how anyone could go there and not be a different person when they left. I am (of course) not permitted to take photographs, though I might ask N. to take some for me with the camera when I’m there next week. She is only allowed to visit once a week.
Walking around the prison, or “rehabilitation center,” is something like what I imagine walking around a small but functioning concentration camp would be like. There are five decrepit buildings making a horseshoe around a hall that the children still avoid because of rat nests. Situated at the front is an imposing and haunted-house-like structure that is mostly empty except for morbid posters about justice for children and it immediately calls to mind the disturbing but iconic image of the Auschwitz entrance. The buildings are crumbling concrete, and all the windows have bars. The paint is coming off and every building is in a state of total disrepair. Walking through any building is encountering a nauseating symphony of squeaking rats and an immediate odor of excrement, sweat, and staleness. Children run around without pants, and those who have recently arrived don’t wear shirts until they’ve been at the prison for 6 weeks, which they spend living in the “black room,” a dirty, empty room. The “black room” has no beds or blankets, and they curl up on the floor. When it rains, they crowd to the center because the whole area floods.
The children are covered in festering, open wounds that are constantly crawling with flies. Two of the women who came along were nurses that cleaned and bound these wounds; though there is a clinic a stone’s throw from the main “administrative building,” the children are not allowed to go there. The nurses that come are not allowed to test for HIV or thoroughly investigate most of the serious conditions. Many of the children have malaria. There is one Karamojong boy with cancer who is not allowed to get treatment. At least one child has chicken pox. Typhoid and TB is rampant. Most children just have to let the diseases run their course. The children have stick-like legs and bellies swollen from malnutrition. They eat a soupy porridge for most meals, a mix of hot water and crushed maiz. Sometimes they are given beans. The general attitude of the “social workers” and “guards” is that a death means one less mouth to feed. The children are not infrequently beaten by these adults, and imitate the behavior among each other.
In one building there is a single room, no bigger than a broom closet, known as ‘the cell.’ It has a solid metal door until about 6.5 feet up, where it becomes thin bars. This confinement is where children spend time if they run away and are caught, or if they’ve been caught stealing (usually food). Children who come here for some kind of “real” offense – murder or drug charges, a total of maybe 10 children out of hundreds – are kept here for their first days. They are not allowed out until their ‘sentence’ is up – sometimes for weeks. It is impossible to see in the room without climbing up the door, as it is locked and the bars are too high, but come anywhere near it and the cacophony of rat squeaks grows to disturbing levels and the stench of human excrement becomes overwhelming. Across a barren yard from the cell is a open concrete slab with a tin roof and some rotting mattresses. This is where the sick children sleep; they are not allowed to sleep inside the main cells.
Inside the main cells there are rows of bunks. The blankets were brought by N., and next week they will get new ones from her. Three children sleep to a bed. They are allowed out of the cells at 7am, and locked back inside at 6pm. Inside the cells there is nothing. No toys, no pictures, no books, no trunks. The children own nothing and have nothing to engage with except other children and the jagged cement wall. If they are lucky, they have a pair of pants and a shirt. Some of the boys are wearing skirts. Their clothes are filthy and full of holes. The Karamojong children are usually wearing a hugely oversized t-shirt and nothing else.
The children cook the porridge for themselves outside in huge metal cans. N. has given them hundreds of plates, because before they had nothing with which to eat. The smoke that comes from the burning wood to heat the water is suffocating. Most of the children sit nearby the smoldering fires on the ground and slurp their food, carefully watching so that no one will take some of their portion.
Today I met a child who told me his parents sent him here because he didn’t want to study. He is now the top of his class, at a school he can only attend because of a sponsor, coordinated by N. One boy was sent by his parents for hanging out with the wrong people. Many of the children are sent here by their parents because they are ‘stubborn’ or some other equally ridiculous reason. Another boy has arrived with a deformed hand, probably a result of it being dipped in burning oil. One child was dumped here by an orphanage that didn’t want to bother with him. Some children suffer from mental disabilities due to being almost drowned as babies. There is a large group of young Karamojong children that were rounded up from the streets and brought here. Several of these children are missing teeth, as they are dug out and harvested by or for witches as they grow in.
According to N., five years ago, when she started coming to this prison regularly, conditions were exponentially worse. Excrement lined the floors and the walls where now only the echo of this putrid history remains. Animals took over the buildings and the children slept outside. Their food was thrown on the piles of dirt and feces and they ate like animals. The children were naked, including the 17 and 18 year old boys and girls, who were often sleeping in the same cells; she has provided the majority of the clothing they now wear. She brings a piece of soap for each child, which they otherwise wouldn’t have. She provides them with batteries, water containers so that they can fetch this scarcity, and other basic supplies they ask for – when she is allowed. She must work on the whims of the guards and social workers.
The situation is horrifying. I have never seen nor heard of such a nightmarish place, much less spent a day walking around one. The children were a study to see. Some clung to me and the other mzungus, and some watched quietly from a distance. It is clear that many are broken. I saw one boy carrying around a fork and making a fist at anyone who looked at him. There was one boy whose eyes looked like they were going blank, like he was giving up. When I picked up one of the Karamojong children to spin around, I choked back a sob as he grabbed around my neck so that I couldn’t put him down. I think I understand the children at the ‘home’ somewhat better now. I don’t know how I could walk away from them, and I don’t know how to prepare myself to go back to the prison next week.
I am furious and I am crushed and I am completely unable to do anything.