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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