An hour in the life of a Sierra Leonean war crimes convict now in the international section of Mpanga prison
By all standards Issa Hassan Sesay, a convicted international war criminal and former leader of Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel group, is a remarkable man. “Imagine I am convicted for rape, torture and killing and sentenced to 52 years in jail,” he tells a young journalism student from Uganda somewhat wistfully. “Yet the UN Tribunal knows, or should know, that that is the stuff war is made of.” Convicting him for such crimes, Sesay believes, is like convicting Leon Messy for scoring a goal in the European Champions League or the Spanish La Liga. He adds that the allies committed worse war crimes during World War II and were not punished for it.
I had brought a group of 21 students from Makerere University and Uganda Christian University, most of them studying journalism, to Mpanga Prison as part of a tour of Rwanda. The students belong to a discussion group I manage where we debate national, regional and global political economy. Since Rwanda features a lot in our discussion, we agreed to visit the country in order to have a firsthand experience of its realities.
The students had heard numerous stories of suffering in Rwandan prisons – congestion, dirt, torture, disease—but after hearing about decent conditions at the prison in Butare, where the inmates even played a game of volley ball with us, I brought them to the international section of Mpanga for another impression.
Protected by the UN, these convicted war criminals are more likely to feel free to express their unhappiness with their conditions than perhaps the local convicts. And Sesay, the man who took over command of the RUF after the arrest and later death of its founding leader Fodey Sankoh, is now the leader of the prisoners here. And true to form, he was ready to dissuade the students of the “rosy” picture painted of Rwandan prisons by its government agents and its propagandists.
He first complained bitterly against me. He said I had visited him last year, listened to his story, taken pictures and wrote nothing about his predicament. His fellow prisoners agreed. Yet to my recollection, Sesay did not have many complaints then. He had told me the Rwandan prison warders were treating him well. His complaint was against the UN for convicting him of war crimes, even though whatever he had done had been political. I promised to publish a story about his complaints if he told me about them.
“We are going through untold suffering here,” he told the students, eager, like all good journalists, for a sad tale. “We are being mistreated by these Rwandan prison warders. I am telling you all this in their face because I really no longer care. They are bad people,” he said as the Rwandan prison guards looked at him in silent wonderment. I kept looking at the facial expressions of the chief of security at the prison. He seemed uncomfortable at Sesay’s open hostility, perhaps regretting why he allowed us into the premises. The students seemed all too happy to hear it all. And Sesay was ready to give it.
First, Sesay says, the prison cooks do not always follow the menu. For example, on Apr. 9, he was served tea with sugar, powder milk, sausages, baked beans and bread for his breakfast. But the menu also said he was supposed to be served yoghurt as desert, which was not availed. Besides, he added with the confidence of a man that knows his rights, the menu was substandard because it should have included scrambled eggs as well. “I tell you these people don’t follow the menu,” he told our group as students stretched their necks to look at the paper he was holding in his hand, “On Apr. 12, I was supposed to be served mineral water for lunch but instead these cooks gave me a soft drink – a coke. How can they?”
And on another day, Sesay told the amused students, who initially thought he was joking, he was supposed to be served a fruit salad after his dinner, which the cooks omitted. He brought out the book where he signs every time he is served food to show the proof. True to his claim, the menu stated that there would be fruits served after dinner but the cooks gave a cheese cake for desert. “Believe me when I tell you that these people don’t follow the menu... you see?” He also complained that he is tired of chicken, fish, beef and ground nuts on his menu daily. “I have not eaten the whole of this week,” he went on, “the menu is monotonous.”
Moving around the international section of Mpanga prison, led by a visibly angry Sesay, is an experience to remember. Behind us was a group of baffled and clearly embarrassed Rwandan prison officials and guards – quiet, calm and thoughtful. Sesay, on the other hand, is boisterous and walks with a swagger. He was wearing a designer jacket on top of an expensive T-shirt with sports-truck trousers complete with brand new white sneakers. Although in his mid-50s, Sesay looks to be in his mid-30s and has the air of a man who would have become president of Sierra Leone had the UN, ECOWAS, Tony Blair and other such enemies of revolution not intervened to block him.
Sesay complained that the prisoners are “only” allowed to call their families six days a week (Monday to Saturday), but not on Sundays. That, he said, amounts to torture. Why not allow him to talk to his wife and children on Sunday, a day of worship? And to make matters worse, the prison provides him newspapers like The East African, Daily Nation, Daily Monitor, New Vision and New Times. But they don’t provide him and his group newspapers from West Africa, which is the place he comes from. Or they could provide him the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal that have global significance. This, he told us, has made his life in Rwanda difficult. I was saddened to hear that the Rwandese don’t give him The Independent. Perhaps with that he would complain less.
In the television room, Sesay and his colleagues have a 32 inch plasma flat-screen complete with DSTV. Upon entering the room we found a live English Premier League match playing. “That is not enough for Sesay,” Isaac Musimenta, one of the journalism students complained sarcastically on Sesay’s behalf. “He needs a 50 inch plasma screen in 4HD so that he can watch his games better.”
When we visited his gym and saw a shower next to it, another journalism student, Nicolas Bwana said – again sarcastically – that Sesay should have been provided a bathtub instead. Sesay turned to accept the recommendation with the assurance of a man realising that his listeners now got his point: “You see?” he said with confidence. “That is what I am talking about.”
In his self-contained room, Sesay has a radio, newspapers, block buster movies and books on a reading table. He also has a wardrobe full of clothes, a shower and flush toilet. He has a long line of shoes stretching from one corner of the room to another. What does he use them for? In the bathroom he has toilet soap, vim and harpic. He complains that those are the only disinfectants provided by Rwanda’s mean prison guards – ignoring other vital items such as air freshener. A female student, Sandra Akello, complained on Sesay’s behalf that he does not have a Jacuzzi to which Sesay nodded consent.
When we visited his computer lab where he and fellow prisoners take lessons in computer science, business management, economics, political economy etc, Sesay was not amused at the excitement our group expressed at the flat screen HP desktops provided to him and his fellow prisoners. “We are not allowed access to the internet,” he complained somewhat mildly, perhaps feeling that he may be asking too much from the prison administration. I chipped in that he should have been provided Mac Pros instead of HPs, to which he turned and looked at me with assuring eyes to endorse my suggestion. I also added that he should be provided with a fully loaded iPad, a suggestion he embraced with open arms although it seemed to me he does not know what a Mac Pro or iPad really is.
Finally it was time to visit his tormentors in the kitchen and look into his food store. There it was: his freezer, with frozen fish, goat meat and chicken, ice cream and butter. “They just brought most of this stuff when they heard that you are coming to visit,” he said in a low voice. Realising that one cook was overhearing him, he changed the tone and claimed that his problem was not the absence of food but the prison cooks not adhering to the menu as written out.
Inside his dry food store was packed-juice, tinned-beef, UHT milk, macrons, eggs, instant coffee (Nescafe), tomato ketchup, fresh pineapples, baked beans, powder milk (Nido), packed tea leaves etc. Some students joked to prison guards that they would like to take Sesay’s place in prison. Even I envied Sesay since my freezer at home does not have such packed goodies. It all looked like a 5-Star hotel, not a prison.
But Sesay did not see any of that. At least I would also agree that his room, although much better than any students’ room in the best hostel at Makerere University, was certainly not to a 5-star hotel standard. And for a man who would have become president of Sierra Leone if the evil Blair had not intervened, who can question his wisdom when he complains of mistreatment in Rwanda’s Mpanga Prison?