The Colombian Prison Crisis: corruption and injustice

A quick shot of women's Prison

A quick shot of women’s Prison “El Buen Pastor”, before a guard inhibited me (Colombia, Bogota).

 

Halfway through the allotted time in the Colombian women’s prison El Buen Pastor, I packed my gear and flounced off. The female warden, who had the demeanor of one of Hitler’s furies, looked surprised. “Estoy harto! I am fed up,” I raged at the battle-axe; “This is one big lie, sheer propaganda!” “But this is a prison,” she rebuffed. I: “Exactly! And you are trying to make it look as if it consists of workshops and education centers only.”

That was a bit unfair of me, since in this and two previous prisons, Colombia’s penal administration INPEC’s PR ladies had also offered me to photograph sports fields, and a garden. That is what Colombian prisons are made of – or that is what I am supposed to make you believe.

The overcrowded, filthy patios, the bullet holes in the guards’ cabin, things that I saw but was not allowed (and unable) to photograph… All delusions, I guess. Not to mention what some of the prisoners told me about the circumstances. Unless they pay the patio’s bully, an inmate who shares his pay with the INPEC guards, they don’t get a bunk in a half-way safe cell and must sleep on the floor in a congested corridor. They have to pay not to be beaten up or robbed of their few belongings. They have to pay to be allowed to buy some extra food or toiletries. On the other hand, if they have money, they can bribe the guards and smuggle drugs, weapons and mobile phones (a.o. used for extortion) into the prison. In April 2015, a man convicted for killing four children escaped with the help of guards.

You, my friends, will not get to see any of that. It is one thing to let Colombian media make visual reports – but foreigners: that is another matter. So no cells, no corridors in my photographs. And few inmates; we were just passing by a patio that looked like a cattle shed, when I was told that to photograph inmates would undermine their human rights. Had it been cattle in there, animal rights activists would surely have protested. And by the way, locking up animal abusers is being seriously discussed, these days.

Clearly, Colombia cares about its citizens’ human rights. A street crook who stole a mobile phone was convicted to five years; the phone belonged to an official. A perilous peddler who falsified the labels of a few bottles of shampoo and shaving cream was put away for 17 years: brand falsification, a serious crime! On the other hand, there are the former members of the FARC guerilla or the paramilitary, who have committed horrific massacres; if they surrender and confess, they get a maximum of eight years.

After months of bureaucratic dawdle, I had finally received permission to photograph in four Colombian prisons. Yes, there would be “some limitations.” But once I had arrived, INPEC tried to turn me into an unpaid propagandist…After the first prison visit, I complained to a trusted high-ranking official at the Ministry of Justice. He discussed my case with the vice-minister, only to come back and tell me that, although INPEC – which he casually described as a corrupt institute – is theoretically under this ministry, it is quite autonomous. There was nothing he or even the vice-minister of this failed state could do.

Corrupt? The last four INPEC directors were relieved because of corruption. All INPEC directors are retired military top brass. The job provides them with a nice extra buck. There are many ways to earn that, since there are many companies involved in construction, armament, food supplies and the like. And the extremely strong position of the military after 50 years of civil war makes the ministry’s authority a joke.

So here I am: in the other “Law&Order” countries – France, Uganda and the USA – I was able to produce a fair and balanced photo series. But what about Colombia in my upcoming book? I am hardly prepared to reward INPEC for its censorship, so I will have to do some hard thinking to decide on how to solve this.Meanwhile, to get an idea of what INPEC tries to hide from foreigners, just enter “carcel Colombia” in your internet browser, to see photos that Colombian photographers were allowed to make. Or the revealing Spanish tv program made possible by the unexpected collaboration of some prison employees, to the great annoyance of INPEC authorities.

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The Banjo Man (Dickson, Malawi)

Malawi, Dickson village, a hamlet with 55 households and some 300 inhabitants.  “Banjo Man” (previously “Banjo Boy”) Mahamudi Charles (25) in the house of his parents.

Malawi, Dickson village, a hamlet with 55 households and some 300 inhabitants. “Banjo Man” (previously “Banjo Boy”) Mahamudi Charles (25) in the house of his parents.

Banjo Boy

In May-June 20105, writer Dick Wittenberg and I visited the Malawian village of Dickson for the first time. One of the people we met there was Charles Mahamudi (then aged 15). Dick noted down his story.

Charles is from the kind of family that already runs out of corn during the harvest time itself. He roams the fields, looking for leftover corn ears. He often missed school.

Three years earlier, he had done field work for three days and earned 100 kwatcha (60 dollar cent): enough to buy an old banjo. He practiced almost every day. His banjo was his only comfort. He wrote his own songs. When it got dark, he played them, softly singing with a very thin and almost childlike voice. About a woman who gives the men what they want because she is starving. About a brother who succumbed to aids. Chunks of everyday life in Dickson. Songs that are ‘true.’

“I went to buy corn
It cost 300 kwatcha a bucket
But I had only 200
So I couldn’t buy any
Back home, we have nothing to eat
How to find food now?”

We called him ‘Banjo Boy.’ But even his banjo couldn’t rescue him from despair about his mother, who had been exchanged for another woman by his father. His mother had left him and his sister and moved to another village, far away. She took his little brother with her. But Charles knew that over there, they had no fertilizer. They were eating only corn chaff. And it was still a long time to the next harvest. Would she survive? Charles knew the fate of divorced women.

Ten years later: April 2015

When we returned to Dickson, ten years later, Charles had married and moved away to another village. But one evening, he unexpectedly showed up. He had received a phone call informing him that we were back and he wanted to visit us. It took him a bike ride of 5 hours – or that is how long he thought it took him: neither he nor any of Dickson’s inhabitants has a clock.

His parents were back together again. He had not brought his banjo. He hadn’t played it for several years, but recently, he had taken it up again. He had also written some new songs. One, his favourite, was called, “Love of my Father”.

The next morning, when I came to portray him in his parents’ house, he had borrowed a banjo. Here, you can hear that song and two others, including “Remembrance”, a song about us – Dick, translator Chifumbi and me, “Johnny.”
He asked us to call him the ‘Banjo Man’ now.

(Based on book texts by Dick Wittenberg).



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Famine threat in Malawi

Malawi, Dickson village, a hamlet with 55 households and some 300 inhabitants.

Malawi, Dickson village, a hamlet with 55 households and some 300 inhabitants.

Hunger has now (July 2015) been announced ‘officially’ for Malawi. It is expected to “start biting hard in October.” According to The Nation (Malawi), “around 2.8 million Malawians—roughly 20 percent of the 16 million strong population—face starvation” after “this season’s crop output has dropped by around 30 percent” on the back of floods and consecutive drought.
http://mwnation.com/food-crisis-despair-as-hunger-expected…/

Keep in mind that Malawi is the world’s poorest country in 2015 –
(World Bank: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD…)

Let’s see if media take an interest before hell brakes loose – while it makes sense to mobilize international donors – or if they will only jump onto it once the first (vast numbers) start dying.

By the way: in September, when the UN evaluates its Millennium Goals, an updated version of our Dick Wittenberg‘s and my) book about the hamlet of Dickson, Malawi, will come out (in Dutch!), with financial support (but made completely independently from) Stichting Dioraphte.

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Vietnamese Hoa “beats” Agent Orange

Photo Jan Banning, march 2000. Between 1961 and 1971, US troops sprayed 72 million litres of herbicides over ± 10% of the surface of South Vietnam - 51 million of this was Agent Orange, containing a total of 170 kilos of 2,3,7,8-T4CDD (dioxin). Laboratory tests led to the conclusion that dioxin can lead to birth defects and genetic damage in animals. Vietnamese and other researchers found higher rates of congenitally malformed babies among people who have been sprayed with this defoliant. Cam Lo district (Quang Tri province) just south of the former North-South border is one of the heavily sprayed areas. Le Thi Hoa (left, 14) and her sister Le Thi Nhon (27) are possible victims. Their father Le Huu Dong (57): "Nhon and Hoa have the same problem. People call them monsters, but their brains are normal, they can understand, speak, walk. Hoa is studying at home, she is very intelligent." Dong was a soldier in the South-Vietnamese army (1963-75) and was in close contact with Agent Orange. They had a third child with the same syndrome, who died.

Photo Jan Banning, march 2000.
Between 1961 and 1971, US troops sprayed 72 million litres of herbicides over ± 10% of the surface of South Vietnam – 51 million of this was Agent Orange, containing a total of 170 kilos of 2,3,7,8-T4CDD (dioxin).
Laboratory tests led to the conclusion that dioxin can lead to birth defects and genetic damage in animals. Vietnamese and other researchers found higher rates of congenitally malformed babies among people who have been sprayed with this defoliant.
Cam Lo district (Quang Tri province) just south of the former North-South border is one of the heavily sprayed areas.
Le Thi Hoa (left, 14) and her sister Le Thi Nhon (27) are possible victims. Their father Le Huu Dong (57): “Nhon and Hoa have the same problem. People call them monsters, but their brains are normal, they can understand, speak, walk. Hoa is studying at home, she is very intelligent.” Dong was a soldier in the South-Vietnamese army (1963-75) and was in close contact with Agent Orange. They had a third child with the same syndrome, who died.

 

In 2000, I photographed Le Thi Hoa (left, 14) and her sister Le Thi Nhon (27) – both victims of the use of chemical warfare (Agent Orange) during the Vietnam War. Nowadays, Hoa runs the “Tiny Flower’s Shop & Café.” See this very moving short documentary, assigned by Dutch NGO MCNV (Medisch Comité Nederland-Vietnam).

Their father Le Huu Dong (57) was a soldier in the South-Vietnamese army (1963-75) and was in close contact with Agent Orange. A third child, with the same symptoms, died. In 2000, Dong told me: “Nhon and Hoa have the same problem. People call them monsters, but their brains are normal, they can understand, speak, walk. Hoa is studying at home, she is very intelligent.”

Between 1961 and 1971, US troops sprayed 72 million litres of herbicides over ± 10% of the surface of South Vietnam – 51 million of this was Agent Orange, containing a total of 170 kilos of 2,3,7,8-T4CDD (dioxin).
Laboratory tests led to the conclusion that dioxin can lead to birth defects and genetic damage in animals. Vietnamese and other researchers found higher rates of congenitally malformed babies among people who have been sprayed with this defoliant.

For more of my photos on the consequences of the use of Agent Orange, click here.

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Back to Dickson , Malawi, after 10 years – 2

Malawi E 26 597-2

More and more often, she is thinking of the dead she buried. Her husband, who died during the 2002 famine. Eleven of her fifteen children. Nothing can give her joy. Not even dancing with the other women. She only does that to make the children happy. Children shouldn’t notice that you have worries. Marigerita Rafael (65 – in 2005).
I’m going back to the village of Dickson, Malawi, Africa, on thursday, April 23. Will I see Marigerita back? Is she still alive? How about the others I photographed? See One World and De Correspondent later this year.
Our translator’s son, Royd Chifumbi, just wrote me that Marigerita is still alive.

Here, you can see Dickson ten years ago, a typical village of fifty households in the African country of Malawi. Photographed and described, five short years after the United Nations in September 2000 embraced their Millennium Development Goals, of which halving poverty and hunger by the end of 2015 is by far the most important one.

I portrayed them in their largest – usually also the only – room of their mud house. Surrounded by their meagre possessions. Exceptionally poor yet dignified. Journalist Dick Wittenberg described their daily lives. Their plans, their concerns, their shame. Their heroic attempts to lead an ordinary life.

There was a famine in the village at that time. The corn harvest, which was to provide eighty percent of the annual food, had failed due to lack of rain. Daily life showed the essence of everyday poverty: lack of choice, no control over your own existence. Villagers did not have the option to cultivate their own land, so that the following year they would, in any case, have something to eat. Hunger forced them to hunt for food. Villagers with a sick baby could not go to the doctor for lack of money for medicines. A woman did not have the freedom to say ‘no’ to a man. His food supply, however small, would be her salvation.

Publication of text and photographs in the weekend magazine of the leading Dutch newspaper “NRC Handelsblad” garnered a record number (for that newspaper) of 600 letters to the editor. The cover story under the headline “The face of poverty ‘ had touched its readers deeply. A spontaneous fundraiser among those readers raised nearly 80,000 euro. This money was used over a period of five years to support the village; in the form of corn, fertilizer and water pumps. During that period, Dick Wittenberg returned to the village eight times in total. A committee of readers was set up to make sure the money was spent in a meaningful manner.

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