From Professor to Prisoner

Scholars at Risk: Literature Professor Felix Kaputu escaped death in a Congolese prison cell thanks to the efforts of human rights activists.

Two years ago, Pro­fes­sor Felix Ulom­be Kap­u­tu’s only com­pany was the rats in his cell, fat from feas­ting on rot­ting corp­ses.

Impri­so­ned in Kins­ha­sa, the capi­tal of the Democra­tic Repub­lic of the Con­go, his skin had taken on a green hue from star­va­tion and his blood pres­sure was dan­gerous­ly low. Blis­ters that had for­med in the back of his throat from dehy­dra­tion made it dif­fi­cult to swallow. Dis­traught, hung­ry and panic-strick­en, but most impor­tant­ly innocent, this accom­plis­hed and admi­red pro­fes­sor was accu­sed of endan­ge­ring natio­nal security and con­se­quent­ly impri­so­ned under aby­s­mal con­ditions.

Felix Ulombe Kaputu (photo: Emmanuelle Françoy)
LASTING LOVE: Even though the­re is a loom­ing death sent­en­ce for Pro­fes­sor Felix Ulom­be Kaputu’s life, he still longs for the green hills of his home­land. “I can think of not­hing else but going back to the Con­go,” he said. (Photo: Emma­nu­el­le Françoy)

Today, Pro­fes­sor Kap­u­tu is a visi­ting assi­stant pro­fes­sor of lite­ra­tu­re at Purchase, Sta­te Uni­ver­sity of New York, after spen­ding last year as a resi­dent rese­arch scho­lar at the Du Bois Insti­tute for Afri­can and Afri­can Ame­ri­can Stu­dies at Har­vard.

His lips are cur­led up in a care­ful, almost shy smi­le, but his eyes speak of suf­fe­ring and loss. Whi­le he is safe in the US thanks to aca­de­mic and finan­ci­al assi­stan­ce from the New York Insti­tute of Inter­na­tio­nal Edu­ca­tion and the guidan­ce of the Scholars at Risk (SAR) network, he is still wor­king on coming to terms with what hap­pe­ned in Lubum­bashi on a beaut­i­ful spring day in April 2005.

A treache­rous meeting
Born in the south of the Con­go, Kap­u­tu was raised in a coun­try that, not unlike many countries in Africa, still suf­fers from the back­lash from colo­nia­lism. More than ten mil­lion peop­le are esti­mated to have died during the bru­tally exploi­ta­ti­ve reign of King Leo­pold II of Bel­gi­um, part of a cen­tury of Bel­gi­an rule. The Con­go was never able to estab­lish a stab­le govern­ment after the Bel­gi­ans abrupt­ly wit­hd­rew in 1960. The elected Pri­me Minis­ter Pat­rice Lumum­ba was overthrown that same year with US and Euro­pean sup­port for a cold war ally, Mobutu Sese Seko. Sin­ce then the­re have been many bloody inter­nal con­flicts in the Con­go, which even­tual­ly cul­mi­nated in a civil war that las­ted four years and took more than four mil­lion lives.

The gene­ral insis­ted Kap­u­tu was acting as the mas­ter­mind of a 20.000-man rebel army

Child sol­di­ers make up ten per­cent of the army. Vio­len­ce against women, inclu­ding rape and for­ced sexu­al slave­ry, con­ti­nues to soar and more than one thou­sand peop­le die eve­ry day from star­va­tion and law­lessness. As Kap­u­tu learned first hand, mem­bers of the security for­ces are often poor­ly tra­i­ned and paid, and com­mit serious human rights abu­ses.

Whi­le at Lubum­bashi Uni­ver­sity, Kap­u­tu was wor­king as an associa­te pro­fes­sor of lite­ra­tu­re when the Direc­tor of Pro­vin­ci­al Security reque­sted a meeting one April mor­ning in 2005.

“This was not unusu­al and I sus­pec­ted no dan­ger,” Kap­u­tu said. He was often cal­led in to coope­ra­te and assist in mat­ters of sta­te in con­junc­tion with his rese­arch. “I was actual­ly excited that the direc­tor was inte­re­sted in my work,” Kap­u­tu added.

But the meeting was any­thing but cor­di­al. Kap­u­tu was inter­ro­gated by a gene­ral and accu­sed of having bought and smugg­led weapons whi­le atten­ding a con­fe­ren­ce on reli­gion and gen­der dif­fe­ren­ces in Japan. The gene­ral furt­her insis­ted Kap­u­tu was acting as the mas­ter­mind of a 20.000-man rebel army that inten­ded to decla­re inde­pen­den­ce for the pro­vin­ce of Katan­ga.

Kap­u­tu had bought not­hing more than a kara­te suit and a coup­le of books in Japan and was baffled by what he was hea­ring. “The claim was so absurd, I did not know how to react,” he recal­led.

Kap­u­tu then over­heard the gene­ral tel­ling some of the guards, “You have to real­ly make him suf­fer — and don’t wor­ry if he dies. He’s of no use to the pre­si­dent.”

Aby­s­mal con­ditions
The mor­ning of his cap­tu­re, Kap­u­tu had woken up at home as a dis­tin­guis­hed pro­fes­sor — by day’s end, he was a pri­so­ner in a small, dark, flea-infe­sted hol­ding cell. It would be mon­ths before his wife and three daugh­ters would know of his whe­re­abouts and sud­den­ly panic set in. “I was con­vin­ced that this was it. But the next day I was at peace and ready for whate­ver would hap­pen.”

Kap­u­tu suf­fers from high blood pres­sure and was not only depri­ved of food, water and com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the out­side world, he was also denied medi­cal care. “We were given a plas­tic bott­le to uri­na­te in, but after days wit­hout water that need vanis­hed,” he con­ti­nued.

The Con­go­le­se aut­hori­ties seem intent on silen­cing scholars, intel­lec­tuals and poli­ti­cal oppo­nents

The day he was impri­so­ned more than 60 men, doc­tors, lea­ders of oppo­sition par­ties, mili­ta­ry lea­ders and the son of a pre­vious pri­me minis­ter joined him in jail. They were ille­gal­ly detai­ned incom­mu­ni­ca­do for two weeks in Lubum­bashi. Two weeks later, on 17 May 2005, 15 of the most high pro­fi­le pri­so­ners were trans­ferred to the Maka­la cen­tral pri­son in Kins­ha­sa.

“Here you are no lon­ger a pro­fes­sor,” warned the pri­son war­den when Kap­u­tu arrived. “I am put­ting you in a cell reserved only for the most dan­gerous cri­mi­nals,” he spat and slam­med shut the heavy metal door behind Kap­u­tu.

The con­ditions in the pri­son were aby­s­mal. The stench from rot­ting corp­ses linge­red in the small room with no light and no cei­ling. During a storm the roof had blown off, allowing rain­wa­ter to col­lect in putrid pudd­les on the floor. When fami­ly mem­bers came to visit the pri­so­ners, the guards would advi­se them not to was­te their money.

“Once he is in here he is alre­ady dead,” they told them. Pri­so­ners had been detai­ned, for­got­ten about and left to die in these cells before.

Any­thing but for­got­ten
On the out­side, how­e­ver, Kap­u­tu was any­thing but for­got­ten. On 26 May, Amne­sty Inter­na­tio­nal issued a “Tor­tu­re and ill-treat­men­t/­me­di­cal con­cern” based on the ille­gal impri­son­ment. Human rights groups and colle­agues around the world lob­bi­ed tire­les­sly for Kaputu’s release. But it was one jour­na­list in par­ti­cu­lar, Ghislai­ne Dupont, repor­ting for Radio Fran­ce Inter­na­tio­na­le, who ensu­red that the pres­sure on the govern­ment was con­stant. She was relent­less in her quest for answers. Whe­re were the weapons? The sol­di­ers? The tra­i­ning camps? Dupont’s repor­ting, coup­led with pres­sure from Amne­sty and other human rights advo­ca­tes pres­su­red the Con­go­le­se govern­ment into releas­ing Kap­u­tu.

Felix Ulombe Kaputu (photo: Emmanuelle Françoy)
FREE AT LAST: Thanks to tire­less efforts from Amne­sty Inter­na­tio­nal, a relent­less repor­ter and other human rights acti­vists, Pro­fes­sor Felix Kap­u­tu was freed from impri­son­ment in the Con­go and is today wor­king at Purchase, Sta­te Uni­ver­sity of New York. (Photo: Emma­nu­el­le Françoy)

After more than four mon­ths in pri­son, Kap­u­tu was freed and he retur­ned to work the following day. How­e­ver, his excite­ment at the pro­s­pect of teaching again waned quick­ly when he noticed the­re were sol­di­ers out­side the lectu­re hall guar­ding the door. It beca­me cle­ar that he would never again be free to teach and con­ti­nue his rese­arch under this admi­ni­stra­tion. The northern pro­vin­ce of the Con­go was intent on get­ting rid of intel­lec­tuals from the south and replacing aca­de­mics with their own appoint­ments. Kap­u­tu sus­pec­ted that the rea­son he was incar­ce­rated in the first place was becau­se of his clo­se affi­lia­tion with the for­mer pre­si­dent of Lubum­bashi Uni­ver­sity who was an oppo­sition mem­ber of the rebel orga­niza­tion, Ral­ly for Con­go­le­se Democracy. Kap­u­tu later assis­ted with his escape to Bel­gi­um; an act that resulted in Kaputu’s death war­rant in the Con­go.

News of pro­fes­sors, acti­vists and jour­na­lists who just “hap­pe­ned to dis­appe­ar” were all too com­mon. Now, more than ever, his life was in dan­ger. He made sure to always be accom­pa­nied by stu­dents when in pub­lic and took to never slee­ping in the same place two nights in row. “Once you are accu­sed, it’s fore­ver,” Kap­u­tu said.

“I am lucky to have learned so much from this suf­fe­ring”

He nee­ded to lea­ve. Through con­tacts at the Ame­ri­can Embas­sy in Kins­ha­sa, Kap­u­tu mana­ged to get a visa before he esca­ped to the US via South Africa. Later he was infor­med that the offi­ci­al who gave him the exit stamp from the Con­go was impri­so­ned for let­ting him lea­ve the coun­try. Once in the US, a colle­ague at the uni­ver­sity referred Kap­u­tu to Scholars at Risk.

Silen­cing scholars
“I am not a poli­ti­ci­an, I am a uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor, that is enough in a human life,” Kap­u­tu said. His hope is that intel­lec­tuals and scholars can one day coope­ra­te with the govern­ment on impro­ving the situa­tion in the Con­go. But cur­rent­ly, the aut­hori­ties seem intent on silen­cing scholars, intel­lec­tuals and poli­ti­cal oppo­nents. Kap­u­tu, rat­her than suc­cum­bing to self-cen­sor­ship like so many of his colle­agues, insis­ted on teaching his stu­dents how to think cri­ti­cal­ly, stri­ve for truth and achie­ve gen­der equa­li­ty.

“I grew up in a poor fami­ly and I have wor­ked very hard to get this far,” Kap­u­tu con­ti­nued, stres­sing the word “very” and pau­sing for a second. He tur­ned around and glanced at the books­helf on the wall in his office, bur­sting with books on myt­ho­lo­gy and the his­tory and peop­le of the Con­go. “I could have left but I deci­ded not to,” Kap­u­tu said, almost inaudi­bly and added, “In fact, my inte­rest in the Con­go can not just be extin­guis­hed, it is a part of my life.”

Kap­u­tu is not only grie­ving the loss of his mot­her­land, he is also fil­led with wor­ry about the safety of his wife and three daugh­ters who are still in the Con­go. Becau­se of him, they are under surveil­lance at all times. Kap­u­tu has not seen them sin­ce the mor­ning of his arrest and he never got to say good­bye to his deceased mot­her who suf­fe­red a stro­ke on the day he was arrested.
It looks like Kap­u­tu is in the US to stay, at least for a whi­le. Purchase Col­le­ge is pre­pared to assist in any way it can. For now Kap­u­tu has to live in the moment and take eve­ry day as it comes. Whi­le he takes great joy in teaching, his wounds from the time spent in pri­son have not yet hea­led. With a death war­rant loom­ing in the Con­go, it would not be safe for him to return.
He still feels threate­ned, even in the US.

“I very much panick­ed,” Kap­u­tu said after atten­ding a con­fe­ren­ce in Man­hat­tan recent­ly. The Con­go­le­se govern­ment dele­ga­tion was in the same city. “I did my best to avoid mem­bers from the dele­ga­tion; I am not ready to face them,” Kap­u­tu explai­ned.

He knows he has no choi­ce but to stay in the US, even though all he can think about is going back to the Con­go.

“It was not easy to accept this,” Kap­u­tu said, and added soft­ly, “But, you know I am lucky to have learned so much from this suf­fe­ring.”

Pro­fes­sor Felix Ulom­be Kap­u­tu

  • Rece­i­ved his Master’s of Arts degree in Uga­ri­tic and Midd­le Eas­tern Myt­ho­lo­gy from the Uni­ver­sity of Lubum­bashi
  • Awar­ded his PhD. in 2000, spec­ia­li­zing in gen­der issues, reli­gion, and uni­ver­sity peda­go­gy
  • Rese­arch con­cen­trated on gen­der issues and the impact of reli­gion, par­ti­cu­lar­ly in Cen­tral Africa
  • Reci­pi­ent of inter­na­tio­nal grants and awards from the Bel­gi­an CIUF-CUD (2001, 2005), the Inter­na­tio­nal Associa­tion of Oral His­tory (2002), Fulbright (2003), the Japa­ne­se Foun­da­tion (2005), and the Inter­na­tio­nal Associa­tion for the Study of Reli­gion (2005)

About the aut­hors:
Mari­an­ne Ons­rud Jawan­da is the Nor­we­gi­an edi­tor-in-chief for the Nor­way Times, based in Pel­ham, New York.
Emma­nu­el­le Françoy is a French pho­to­gra­pher and artist, based in Pel­ham, New York.

This article was ori­gi­nal­ly pub­lis­hed in Glo­bal Know­led­ge no. 2, 2007.



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