One day, when I went to visit him, it was just his father and I. Michl sat between us. It was raining and we had moved under cover to try and stay dry.
“I cannot tell you both what it means to have you here,” he said quietly.
“I have a fear you both will stop coming and I will be forgotten. I will die here with no one to care.”
“Not true, “ I quietly reassured him. “Your friends come often and they deeply care about you.”
“True, so true, but it is you and Dad who keep me going. Keep me wanting to live. You keep me from losing hope and feeling lost. So many of the prisoners have absolutely no one. Some are in this prison for years and no one comes. Rwanda is a poor country, and the money needed to get to the prison is best spent on food,” he explained.
In his dark moments, he feared this happening to him. He feared we would lose interest and forget him. And I quickly reassured him we would not lose interest.
We went week after week to visit, and in between times we spoke to lawyers, started phone campaigns to the local radio talk shows. I even wrote to the President on his Facebook account. I had heard the military had acted independently, and I thought the President might not know what was happening. None of it did any good, and my letter went unanswered.
I was threatened indirectly. A “trusted” friend from the gym, where I used to work out, told me I was making a mistake visiting. He told me I was under surveillance by security.
He told me, “You are endangering Michl by going to see him. They will make it harder on him. They will not let him out easily. Stop seeing him. You will be in danger.”
I was told to be careful of SUVs’ with dark windows and to never, ever get in one. “People tend to disappear, when they do,” my informant said ominously.
Michl’s friends, from the gym, were told to stop visiting or lose their jobs. We were told we were only making it worse for him by visiting. We were told we were making it bad for ourselves by visiting. But visit we did. His friends and I arranged our schedules so we could visit, and keep him out of the prison proper for as long as possible.
The money, I gave him each week, was used to provide necessities for him, and to have someone cook for him, and clean his clothes. Everyone knew Michl had a white woman visit him, and this gave him status.
As I understood it, there was an internal economy inside the prison. Each week when we went, goat skewers were for sale, as was soda. Some prisoners made wooden stools; some cleaned for other prisoners. And, as was said to me, you did what you needed to do to earn money. Otherwise, life would be more hellish than it was currently.
I made friends with the people from the International Commission of the Red Cross, who were tracking the prisoners. They went to visit weekly. They too, were attempting to keep these young men visible. I had to be careful when I met with the ICRC. Fortunately, two of the people had children at the school, and I was able to meet with them casually under the guise of parent conference.
The first prison Michl was in was more visible, and it was reserved for the military. It was on the outskirts of a small village. Most of the visitors arrived by walking. Surprisingly, many were women carrying children on their backs. The children would play while the men talked, and the women usually just sat there. One man, who I met, was serving an extended period of internment for embezzlement. Since, there was no law making them repay the stolen money, it was worth a long prison term to secure the future of his family. He was an officer and once his sentence was complete, he would return to active duty. He actually only served about a year before being released.
Meanwhile, we could not obtain a trial for Michl. Nor could we find out what charges were being brought against him. The country had prisons no one knew about. There was always the fear he would disappear into one of these prisons, never to be seen again. They also had prisons, like we saw in the middle of city, used to house “common” criminals. It was amazing, for what seemed like a quiet country, to have so many, so many prisons. We would see prisoners sometimes on the streets. The prisoners, who were from the Genocide, wore pink uniforms like faded, very faded blood; the common criminals wore orange, and the military wore green. These last were rarely seen, and were rarely allowed out of the prison. All were used in manual labor throughout the country.
When I visited the ICRC, or the Embassies to plead for these soldiers. I had to make sure I was not seen. But, as I found out later I was tracked, and my whereabouts were known. They quietly waited. Rwandans are extremely patient, and none more so than the government. Foreign journalists in the country, made several attempts, to write the story, but all were blocked. People who tried realized they would lose visas, and other privileges.
We visited, every week for one and a half years and then suddenly Michl disappeared. No messages, nothing, just silence. Fortunately, these prisoners were resourceful and Michl had smuggled a cell phone with him. He called and told me he was on an island in Lake Kivu. Lake Kivu is the fifth largest methane lake in the world. If it blew, it would completely destroy all life in approximately a three-mile radius around the lake.
One half of this island housed street children. There were numerous children on the streets begging for money in Kigali. Periodically the government would do a sweep and the children would be placed in re-education camps. These children were placed on this island. When the government was asked about the soldiers on the island, they would only admit to the children being there. They refused to admit there was anyone else. Officials visited the island for graduation ceremonies for the children and never saw the prisoners.
Our weekly visits were replaced by engaging in weekly shopping trips, and then taking everything to the bus station to be sent to him. Amazingly, he received these packages and nothing was ever stolen. The bus station in Kigali held wall-to-wall vehicles with barely any room to turn. Sam would take the package, and arrange for a bus to take it. I would stay in the car to keep shuffling, looking for a parking place. It became a weekly nightmare. We did this for weeks meanwhile receiving many, many promises that Michl, and the others, would be released.
Again and again
Never to be kept
Treated as if never made
Human life insignificant in its meaning