Category Archives: reportage

northern killers

In the summer of 2010 two major shootings occurred in small communities in northern England. I visited these areas in the aftermath of the killing sprees of Derrick Bird and Raoul Moat and made a film examining the media’s handling of the stories. The following article was based on interviews made at the time and a version of it was published in the February 2011 issue of Media Magazine. My film was shown in April at the National Union of Journalists conference in Southport, UK.

Like many spots on the English coast, Seascale changes its aspect dramatically with the weather. When the sky is clear and the tide retreats to reveal its pristine white beach, arriving here feels like uncovering a hidden treasure. But on a grey day when the choppy waters of the Irish Sea reflect the dark skies, this Victorian era resort town can feel terribly bleak.

It was like that a Sunday this June. A damp squall had set in by the time the mourners had met on the strip of grass overlooking the pier. Banks of cloud were indistinguishable from the smoke of the cooling towers at the nearby Sellafield Reprocessing Plant.

Clutching orders of service headed “Gathering Together”, over 500 sang hymns and observed a minute’s silence for the victims of the Cumbria shootings. This was the first time they had met as a community since Derrick Bird’s murderous rampage a few days earlier.

They were not alone of course. At the centre of the sea of umbrellas cameras panned the crowd, and skirting its edges photographers circled, looking for private expressions of grief that might translate the pain of a community to a shocked nation.

Among the mourners was Dave Moore, a retained firefighter and local councillor. On the day of the killings Moore had helped a publican from the car where he had been shot at point blank range and draped covers over the dead. Born and raised here, the horror of the experience had left him dazed. But as he watched the news media this numbness gave way to anger.

“I felt our day had been hijacked. They’d hoodwinked people into believing they had a moral right to tell this story, that their concerns came first,” Moore said.

To get the best shots TV crews had set up their cameras between the clergy and the congregation. To observe the service, this meant locals closest to the front were looking past camera lenses frequently pointed straight back at them.

“We felt too intimidated to challenge them,” he said.

The media had arrived en masse on the Wednesday of the shootings. Many – including a Sky News helicopter – were already in the region for the funeral of a teenager killed in a school bus crash the week before.

By Thursday the car park by Seascale’s sea front, like Duke Street in nearby Whitehaven, was filled with satellite vans and news crews. Moore said their presence kept villagers indoors though “they wanted to come out and talk about what had happened.”

If much of the local populace was evasive faced with the glare of the cameras, they also remained tight-lipped on the subject of the killer. As one tabloid reporter put it: “You couldn’t find anyone to say a bad word about Bird.”

“Cumbrians aren’t insular but there’s a certain amount of tribalism,” said Jamie Reed, the MP for the Borough of Copeland. “They resent people coming in and intruding on their territory, especially when they so obviously have an agenda.”

Chequebook journalism was the most damaging aspect of this intrusion, according to Reed. A Seascale villager is still the object of scorn among locals after he is believed to have sold CCTV footage to The Sun that showed Bird’s car pass along the sea front. The daughter of Michael Pike, killed riding his bike through Seascale, complained to the Press Complaints Commission that the footage contained audio of her father’s shooting. The Sun insisted the gunshots were edited out but removed the film from its website “as a gesture of goodwill.”

“Those practices have repercussions long after the media leave,” said Reed, who has outlined his concerns about the “dysfunctional and broken” values of sections of the media in a speech in the Commons. “Everyone knows who made money and no-one is in a hurry to forget. It’s very divisive.”

A month later another northern rural community found itself the unlikely focus of the nation’s attention when a second lone gunman ran amok.

In some ways the villagers of Rothbury in Northumberland were disinterested observers to the last days of Raoul Moat. Unlike in West Cumbria, Moat was an outsider and so were the people he harmed. All the same, the macabre soap opera that ended when the ex-prisoner shot himself on a riverbank in the centre of the village left a lasting impression.

Rothbury butcher Morris Adamson found himself recruited for vox pops by the 24-news crews who exhausted his stock of bacon with their demand for sandwiches each morning.

By his own admission he grew to like the attention, his mate’s teased him as a “media whore,” and after a week he was on close enough terms with ITN’s northern correspondent Emma Murphy that she dropped in a bunch of flowers for his wife on her way out of town.

“It was quite exciting,” he said. “There were 20-foot camera cranes pointing down the village, helicopters hovering overhead, police cars whizzing up and down. It was like waking up and finding yourself on the set of a Hollywood action movie.”

The sense of drama implied by a manhunt was added to by the large-scale police response. At one point one in 10 of all UK firearms officers were in the area and a two-mile ground exclusion zone forced the village into lockdown. The army even scrambled an RAF fighter jet to help out.

Villager Bill Kirkup said that when Moat was discovered by the riverbank after four days the critical mass of police and media led to calamitous scenes.

Kirkup, who has a toy shop a few doors down from the butchers, watched the tableau unfold from his window: “I heard a crash and saw two police cars had collided at the bottom of the village in their rush to get to him. The media got wind of what was going on and I saw a surge of cameras and journalists sweep past the shop.”

With the media kept at bay by police, reporters began contacting residents with views of the standoff, offering money to go on rooftops or for digital pictures of Moat.

Sue Ballantyne, who lives by the riverbank, was fielding phone calls from six a.m. the morning after the standoff:  “I was doing interviews one after the other. Looking back it seemed sort of farcical, but I was running on adrenaline at the time so I kept answering the phone.”

There were reports of journalists trespassing through back gardens. A message posted on Twitter by Channel Four reporter Alex Thomson on the Friday seemed to confirm this: “Sorry lots of Bberry tweets in dark running thru peoples, gardens evading cops – some spelling may have gone astray.”

Adamson said he kicked out a radio crew when, without asking permission, they began investigating the back of his shop to see if there was a storm drain similar to one Moat was hiding in.

A broadsheet reporter said it was hard to avoid getting caught up in the mania: “After a few days the story had been done to death but the beast of the internet always needs feeding. In your desperation to find a new angle it’s easy to forget the gravity of the situation.”

After a report of a possible sighting in a farmhouse the reporter parked in country lane and rushing on foot round the corner was confronted with a posse of armed police clutching machine guns and screaming at him to get down.

In West Cumbria, where the media were dealing with the aftermath rather than a live news event, their behaviour was less boisterous. Even so, tabloids stationed paparazzi outside the homes of victims’ families for days on end, including the relatives of Bird and his murdered twin David.

Reverend Jim Marshall, the vicar in David Bird’s village of Lamplugh, faced the media a number of times on behalf of the family. He said his concern was to “give the family’s side, and point out distortions or untruths where they were being repeated.”

It was widely misreported, for example, that Bird’s elderly mother had terminal cancer. A teacher of 30 years, Rev. Marshall equated the experience to addressing a class of unruly third formers.

In spite of the excesses the Press Complaints Commission received 79 complaints in relation to the two stories, about average for cases of this magnitude.

Aside from the video footage in The Sun, half the complaints in West Cumbria related to an opinion piece by Carole Malone in The News of the World which diagnosed the Cumbrians reluctance to talk in part as a symptom of their own sense of guilt at not recognising the killer in their midst.

Mike Jempson, from the charity Mediawise, which helps victims of media abuse, said the low number of complaints reflected general ignorance of the PCC and its remit, more than it did public sentiment about the shootings.

A spokesman for Copeland Borough Council said a number of its councillors reported constituents unhappy with the media’s behaviour though neither Northumbria nor Cumbria Police knew of any criminal complaints against individual members of the media.  The spokesman said that a second round of memorials organised a week after the first was meant to draw a line under the tragedy and that there was a tacit agreement with broadcasters that they would pack up and leave after they were finished.

In Seascale Dave Moore had shifted the position of this second memorial to the other side of the car park. When a TV reporter approached him beforehand and asked him to move it back to its original location to accommodate the camera setup, Moore was incredulous but steadfast: “I refused. As far as I was concerned that was a day for the people here, and the media had nothing to do with it.”

“The public need to be more assertive sometimes,” said Mike Jempson. “It’s not the job of the media to always be sensitive to people’s feelings. But faced with the pack in full flow, a community has a perfect right to dig its heels in and say no.”


america in lockdown

For Nelson Mandela it was the most forbidding aspect of prison life. When he looked back on the 27 years he spent as a political prisoner in his memoir, The Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela remembered solitary confinement as the experience that came nearest to breaking him.

“There is no end and no beginning; there is only one’s mind, which can begin to play tricks,” he wrote. “Was that a dream or did it really happen? One begins to question everything.”

The harmful effects of locking someone up in isolation have long been known about. As far back as the mid-19th century medical reports observed the impact. Between 1854 and 1909 there were nearly 40 reports in Germany alone, all of which identified solitary confinement as the major factor in the development of psychotic illness among prisoners.

In 1850, doctors in England were noting the high proportion of inmates that had to be removed from cells in Pentonville prison on the grounds of insanity – 32 out of every 1,000.

It was this body of evidence that played a key role in the gradual unravelling of the system of large-scale solitary confinement in the late nineteenth century. In America too, where the system had its roots among the Quaker communities of Pennsylvania, who believed that silent reflection in separate cells was the best way for criminals to do penance (hence, the penitentiary), it came to be recognised that isolating prisoners for long periods was both inhumane and ineffective. In 1890, the United States Supreme Court came close to declaring the punishment to be unconstitutional.

A century on and the lessons from history have either been forgotten or they are being wilfully ignored. In America, its use in a burgeoning prison system has increased dramatically in the last 20 years.

This increase has coincided with the growth of the so-called supermax prisons, a new generation of high security jails designed to keep social contact between inmates to a minimum.

The US now holds more people in solitary than anywhere else in the world. An accurate figure is almost impossible to come by, since the population within the punishment blocks of general prisons, known as Special Housing Units (SHUs), is too transient to monitor. Even so, observers estimate the numbers somewhere between 25,000 and 80,000.

At the Federally-run supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, inmates considered to be the greatest security risk are kept in conditions of extreme isolation that would leave even the Pennsylvania Quakers in awe.

High profile prisoners like Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and Arab terrorists convicted of arranging the 1993 World Trade Center bombing are kept in rooms constructed of poured concrete and steel for 23 hours a day. The windowless cells are illuminated day and night and are heavily insulated so that the inmates are denied either the sight or sound of other human life.

One inmate held in Florence is Tommy Silverstein. He has been kept in solitary for 27 years now, longer than anyone else in the Federal prison system. Silverstein was made the subject of a “no-human-contact” order by a judge after he murdered a prison guard in 1983. For much of his isolation he was held in a specially built unit — known as the Silverstein Suite — at a prison in Kansas where he had his own exercise yard. This meant his only human contact was with the guards or via the occasional visit, where a thick layer of plexiglass maintained his isolation. He has referred to his existence as “a slow, constant peeling of the skin.”

Laura Rovner, a law professor at Denver University, represents Silverstein, 58, in his case to have his isolation ended. Rovner wants the courts to recognise his treatment as “cruel and unusual punishment,” and therefore unlawful under the eighth amendment of the US constitution.

It is the same argument put forward by activists in Louisiana on behalf of the Angola three, a trio who between them have spent over a century in solitary. Two of the men, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox have been nearly 38 years in isolation. A third man, Robert King was kept there 29 years before he was released in 2001 after a series of appeals.

Much of Rovner’s case is concerned with laying bare the harmful psychological effects of Silverstein’s condition. There are a number of contemporary studies of inmates in isolation and, just like their 19th century predecessors, most express grave concern.

“What you see when reading these studies is the same constellation of symptoms coming up in different cases, and they’re simply too common not to be a pathology arising from the isolation,” said Rovner.

That constellation of symptoms includes agitated and self-destructive behaviour, anxiety and hypersensitivity, auditory and visual hallucinations and, in some cases, a permanent intolerance to being around others.

Rovner said the impact of his lone existence was evident during legal visits with Silverstein. “At the start of our meetings with him just an hour spent with us would send him into a tailspin for a couple of days, needing to sleep for 15 or 16 hours at a time.”

Professor Craig Haney, a psychologist at the University of California who evaluated over a hundred supermax prisoners and who has compiled a report for Rovner on Silverstein, wrote that “many of those subjected to it (solitary confinement) are at risk of long term emotional and even physical damage.”

The only one of the ‘Angola three’ at liberty, Robert King, said his ability to see distance was permanently altered by his years alone in a cell. “I had no concept of how you actually looked further, as a result of living in such a small space,” he said.

King now campaigns for the release of Woodfox and Wallace. The men’s isolation stems from their conviction for the killing of a prison guard, found stabbed to death in the early seventies in Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola.

Wallace, 68, and Woodfox, 63, have always denied the killing and insist their convictions and continued isolation are punishment for their political views. At the time they had started a chapter of the Black Panthers at the prison.

The men’s case gained international recognition in recent years thanks in part to the efforts of Anita Roddick, the late Bodyshop founder. Roddick’s involvement inspired her friend, British filmmaker Vadim Jean to make a documentary about the case called In the Land of the Free, and released earlier this year.

Rovner said the publicity surrounding the Angola three was part of a growing clamour for the US to change its approach. The legislature in Maine recently considered an amendment aimed at abolishing the use of solitary in the state. Meanwhile, a ruling in July in the European Court of Human Rights upheld a complaint by four British nationals facing extradition to the US on terrorism charges that they faced having their human rights violated if, as was likely, they were transferred to solitary at the supermax unit in Florence.

Yet in spite of this, there is no end in sight for Silverstein, as well as Woodfox and Wallace. All of whom had their recent appeals turned down.

“Sadly, the overwhelming public sentiment here is that they are getting what they deserve,” said Rovner. “The irony, however, is that if you asked anyone in long-term lockdown they would freely tell you they’d prefer the death penalty to what they’ve endured.”

This story was first published on the website openDemocracy on September 6, 2010

robert king

I first entered Louisiana State Penitentiary in the early 60s, at the age of 18. I was in and out of that place for the rest of the decade. Back then, if you were young, black and had a record, police in New Orleans would come looking for you when they had a backlog of unsolved cases: it was called cleaning the books.

In 1969, I was locked up for a robbery I didn’t do and, while inside, I joined the Black Panthers. Three years later, an inmate was stabbed to death on my prison block and, because of my politics, the authorities saw a chance to pin it on me. In 2001, I was cleared of this killing but, by then, I had spent 29 years alone in a cell.

It was a dimly lit box, 9ft by 6ft, with bars at the front facing on to the bare cement walls of a long corridor. Inside was a narrow bed, a toilet, a fixed table and chair, and an air vent set into the back wall.

Some days I would pace up and down and from left to right for hours, counting to myself. I learned to know every inch of the cell. Maybe I looked crazy walking back and forth like some trapped animal, but I had no choice – I needed to feel in control of my space.

At times I felt an anguish that is hard to put into words. To live 24/7 in a box, year after year, without the possibility of parole, probation or the suspension of sentence is a terrible thing to endure.

I was kept in the closed cell restricted (CCR) wing of the penitentiary, which is also known as Angola, after the slave plantation that was on the site prior to the prison. Three times a week I was let out for an hour to go to the exercise yard, where I was kept separate from other prisoners by razor wire.

The wardens tried to discourage us from talking, but we defied them. We were beaten up and prisoners were found hanging in their cells. Whenever I was disciplined, it was for talking. I didn’t care, I refused to let them dehumanise me.

The worst punishment was the “cold box”, our name for the cell within Camp J. It was down a long hallway through three sets of secure doors, and when they pushed me inside, the isolation was total. They would keep me there for a month, in blocks of 10 days, shoving food through a slot in the door. I went for days without speaking to anyone. That kind of sensory deprivation was torture for me – to survive I knew I had to keep my mind active.

One pastime I had was smuggling out praline candies that I made on my cell floor. I traded tobacco to get the ingredients of sugar, peanuts and powdered milk. I made them using a cold drink can for a pot and burning toilet paper to melt sugar.

Another thing I did was to fold up toilet paper into squares and stick them to the floor with toothpaste to make a chessboard. I would call out moves to other inmates. When we were in nearby cells I played with Herman Wallace or Albert Woodfox. Like me, they were Black Panthers kept in solitary because they were seen as a threat. They had started a chapter of the Panthers, which had helped mobilise inmates to curb some of the abuse going on inside Angola at the time.

They are still in solitary after nearly 38 years – more than any other inmate in the American prison system. They were convicted of killing a prison guard in 1972, but there’s a lot of evidence that they’re innocent.

Since my conviction was overturned in 2001, I have travelled constantly, educating people about the widespread use of solitary confinement in America. The words of the US Constitution prohibit what is called “cruel and unusual punishment”, and yet that phrase could have been written to describe solitary confinement.

When I walked out of Angola, I didn’t realise how permanently the experience of solitary would mark me. Even now my sight is impaired. I find it very difficult to judge long distances – a result of living in such a small space. Emotionally, too, I’ve found it hard to move on. I talk about my 29 years in solitary as if it was the past, but the truth is it never leaves you. In some ways I am still there. I made a statement when I was released that although I was free of Angola, it would never be free of me. Until Herman and Albert can join me on the outside, I have to make good on that promise.

As told to Paul Willis

To learn more about the Angola Three go to this Website.

This story first appeared in London’s The Guardian newspaper on 28 August, 2010

africa’s sham democracies

(KAMPALA, Uganda) In the closing week of campaigning in Uganda’s presidential elections last month, incumbent Yoweri Museveni held his final public rally at an airstrip on the outskirts of this capital city. The 62-year-old Ugandan ruler stood imperiously in his trademark broad-brimmed hat above a crowd of supporters chanting: “No change, no change!” The event seemed more like a victory celebration than an appeal for votes.

The suspicion that Museveni’s victory was a foregone conclusion has grown since he was comfortably elected to a third term despite widespread accusations of fraud, intimidation and misuse of state funds. International election observers said Uganda lacked a level playing field for its first multiparty elections in more than two decades, while a spokesman for the main opposition, the Forum for Democratic Change, went further: “This election was as free and fair as it would have been under Saddam or Hitler.”

The same story is being repeated across Africa as nations — often in response to pressures from the West — introduce democratic reforms that their leaders are then accused of manipulating to stay in power.

Christopher Albin-Lackey, an Africa specialist with Human Rights Watch, said, “These governments have become increasingly adept at using the trappings of Western democracy for repressive ends.”

One exception to the continental strongmen may be Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was in Washington on Tuesday and met with President Bush in the Oval Office. He called Sirleaf a “pioneer.”

“You’re the first woman elected president to any country on the continent of Africa, and that requires courage and vision and the desire to improve the lives of your people,” Bush said.

It’s still too soon to know whether Sirleaf, who won election late last year, will be able to effect changes in the desperately poor country — 206th in per capita income out of 208 countries on a 2004 World Bank list — that would make democracy work. If she does, it will be a rare African success.

Political reformers and human rights groups said that across the continent, leaders are exploiting democratic processes to give their governments a veneer of respectability.

In Ethiopia, for example, May’s elections were marred by accusations of vote-rigging by the ruling party of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. In the months that followed, more than 100 people died in clashes between police and anti-government demonstrators.

Zenawi, who like Museveni fought his way to power in a coup, has since used the state apparatus to quell dissent, putting on trial more than 80 alleged ringleaders — including opposition leaders, journalists and human rights activists — on charges ranging from treason to genocide.

In North Africa, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak allowed opposition candidates for the first time in September, rather than give voters only a yes-or-no ballot choice. But opposition leader Ayman Nour was arrested and sentenced to prison on charges that Egyptian democracy advocates contend were trumped up.

Albin-Lackey said rather than replacing state violence, in most cases so-called reforms were being used to complement and conceal brutality that was continuing unchecked.

Though abuses have not gone unnoticed in the West, they have largely gone unpunished in Uganda and elsewhere.

The arrest of Uganda opposition candidate Kizza Besigye after he returned from self-imposed exile at the end of last year led to two days of rioting in Kampala and a storm of criticism from foreign donors. Britain, one of Uganda’s biggest donors, withdrew $27 million of aid in protest.

Museveni’s government remained uncowed, and Besigye was charged with rape and treason, severely limiting his opportunities to campaign. After the election results were announced, a judge cleared Besigye of rape, dismissing the prosecution case as “crude and amateurish.” But Besigye still faces treason charges in the high court, and the army is pursuing terrorism and weapons charges.

In Egypt last year, an international furor followed Nour’s first arrest on charges of forging signatures on election documents, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delayed an official visit in protest. The government released him but did not dismiss the charges.

After Mubarak easily won the election, Nour, who got 7.6 percent of the vote, was rearrested on charges that included insulting the president. On Dec. 24, he was convicted and sentenced to five years hard labor.

Professor Aaron Mukwaya, a lecturer in international relations and security studies at Mekere University in Kampala, said Western governments are caught between a desire to promote democracy and maintain security in notoriously unstable regions.

“The main preoccupation of the West when dealing with Africa is stability,” he said. “They don’t want the whole continent descending into civil war, so they tolerate leaders who are not democratic but who offer peace.”

While this pragmatic approach may have restored relative stability to countries once torn apart by infighting, he said, the abuse of the institutions of power would inevitably lead to disaster.

“Almost all state institutions in these countries are under the direct control of the ruling party. So, for example, during the last elections in Uganda, everything from state TV to the military was mobilized to ensure a Museveni win,” Mukwaya said. “The problem comes when you have a change of regime. Then these institutions are left in tatters because they were never given the chance to develop independently. And then you are back to square one.”

He said even institutions that had managed to maintain a degree of autonomy, such as the media and the judiciary, were punished if they stepped too far out of line.

After demonstrations in October, the Ethiopian government shut down all independent media in the country for more than two months.

In Kenya this month, heavily armed and masked police smashed into the offices of the country’s second-largest media company after its criticism of the government over multimillion-dollar corruption scandals. About 3,000 Kenyans protested the raid in the capital.

“They will allow just enough freedoms to give everything the appearance of normality,” Mukwaya said. “But if you overstep the mark, then you are in trouble.”

Or as Kenya’s Internal Security Minister John Michuki put it at a news conference after the police raids: “If you want to rattle a snake, you must be prepared to be bitten by it.”

This was first published in the San Francisco Chronicle on 22 March, 2006

spectre of mobutu haunts congo poll

(KISANGANI, Democratic Republic of Congo) In a drab, single-storey building in Kisangani, candidates for one of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s many political parties are discussing the man who inspires them.

Mobutu Sese Seko led this vast central African state for 32 years, renaming it Zaire and ruling it savagely for his personal gain.

He would reward his friends, and himself, with proceeds siphoned off from the country’s enormous mineral wealth. He would have his enemies publicly hanged, if they were lucky. Otherwise they would be slowly mutilated, one body part severed after another, until they died.

Yet, nine years after the dictator was deposed, to the jubilation of many of his countrymen, and eight and a half years since he died of prostate cancer in exile in Rabat, Morocco, his memory is more than just alive – it is the driving force behind the Union des Democrates Mobutistes (Udemo).

One of his sons, Nzanga, 36, once his official spokesman, is its leader and hopes himself to become president in the country’s first free elections in July. “We would not pretend that Mobutu was perfect. He was a human being so he made mistakes,” said Udemo’s candidate for Kisangani, Christophe Enjimo-Ngado, immaculately dressed in a navy suit and tie despite the equatorial heat.

“But democracy means something different to Africans. What we crave here are strong leaders. Look at what happened to our country after we lost Mobutu – we have seen anarchy.”

Events since the elder Mobutu was forced from power have helped to obscure the memory of his crimes. In the power struggle that followed, the country was plunged into a civil war that lasted six years and led to the deaths of an estimated 3.2 million people.

The resurgence of the Mobutu clan is another bizarre twist in the country’s faltering progress towards its first democratic elections since winning independence from Belgium in 1960. The elections may yet be derailed by continuing instability in the east and an infrastructure almost non-existent in places, after years of war.

With campaigning officially under way last week, voters also face being overwhelmed by an excess of candidates.

In the rush to embrace democracy, 33 hopefuls have thrown their hats in to the ring for the presidential vote, including Nzanga Mobutu and the current president, Joseph Kabila, the son of Laurent-Désiré Kabila – whose rebel army drove Mobutu from power in May 1997.

In Kisangani, the capital of the mineral-rich Province Orientale, where much of the recent fighting has occurred, the five parliamentary seats are being contested by no fewer than 157 candidates.

Located on the Congo river amid dense tropical rainforest, the city is also the centre of operations in the country for the United Nations, which is overseeing the elections and has been trying to raise voter awareness.

Tens of thousands of polling stations have been set up across this vast country – almost the size of Western Europe – with local people recruited to publicise the poll because large areas are cut off from radio and television. Some observers have accused the international community of forcing elections that have little chance of being truly democratic on a country beset by huge logistical and security problems. In last December’s referendum on a new constitution only 15 million, less than a quarter of the population, voted.

One UN election official, Ludovic Le Moing, said, however: “No one is pretending these elections will be totally democratic, but what they represent – a chance for this country to move forward, to create stability – is more important. There is a huge collective will here to see that happen.”

Although some rebel leaders have laid down their arms to contest the elections, 17,000 UN soldiers – the largest peacekeeping force in the world – remain ready for the possibility of post-election violence.

One senior UN commander said: “In the end there will be only one winner. What the losers decide to do is an unknown, so we are bracing ourselves for trouble.”

In the blazing afternoon heat, 64-year-old Lola Assani-Andre sat on the steps of his rundown hotel in central Kisangani. It provided refuge for families fleeing the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, and was used as quarters for officers of the Congolese army, who stayed a year and left without paying their bill.

A parliamentary candidate in the forthcoming vote, he said: “We are sick of war here. If this election means a safe future then I want to be part of it.”

This was first published in London’s The Telegraph newspaper on 30 April, 2006

driving out the devil is a ratings winner in congo

(KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo) The young Congolese woman lay screaming on the dusty ground, arms thrashing wildly as a white-gowned preacher gripped her head and prayed.

As she fainted, thousands of spectators in Kinshasa’s Tata Raphael stadium roared with excitement – yet another public exorcism was reaching its climax.

In the run-down arena that once hosted the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman, today it is the battle to save souls that draws in the crowds.

Editing footage of the spectacle in a television studio, the Rev Augustin Betu, an impresario of some of Congo’s top devil-hounding talent, watched his colleague’s performance approvingly

. “The preacher is driving out the demons,” he said. “They have taken possession of her and only the power of Jesus can send them away.”

Although the Democratic Republic of Congo will next month hold its first democratic elections since its independence from Belgium in 1960, televised exorcisms rather than political debates are dominating the airwaves in a country where the majority of the population still believes in black magic, the broadcast networks are saturated with a dozen religious channels competing for converts, most of them owned by Christian cults led by charismatic preachers.

Mixing the razzmatazz and showmanship of American-style televangelism with traditional animist beliefs, the exorcisms are the centrepiece of most of the stations’ output.

At his television studio on a hillside overlooking the capital, Mr Betu – the manager of Radio Télévision De L’Armée Eternelle – was sifting through footage of various “miracles”, including a blind woman apparently being returned to sight and a disabled man, who seemed to regain the use of his legs.

“If someone is possessed by a demon, it is often because another person has put a curse on them,” he said. “Only prayer can drive out the evil spirit.”

All across the sprawling city of Kinshasa, shops offering protective fetishes against evil curses compete alongside churches run by the Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Congregations gather daily in their thousands to witness exorcisms. Many are performed by self-appointed pastors, who are keen to distance themselves from traditional African beliefs and talk up their Christian credentials.

“The only tradition we are a part of is the Christian one,” said Prophet Naama Sikatenda, the head of the Church of the Living God, which claims to have 65,000 members at more than 200 churches across this central African state. “We are not interested in fetishes and witchcraft. We use only the power of prayer,” he said.

But not everyone is convinced. Willy Kabwe, the editor of the Congolese daily newspaper Le Potential, said many exorcists had switched to Christianity because it offered more potent powers of casting out.

“The irony is that many of these pastors were witch doctors who have embraced Christianity because the tribal beliefs are now seen as primitive,” he said. “Many of their congregations come to the church because it is seen as a more powerful ally if someone tries to curse you.

“They retain the same beliefs, but do it under the guise of Christianity.”

He pointed out that while most of their followers remain impoverished, in a country ravaged by decades of war, many television preachers had become wealthy celebrities.

The high profile of the television shows has finally prompted Congolese authorities to begin taking a close interest in preaching practices – after years of pressure from human rights groups.

One channel was shut down after its leader was accused of inciting his followers to attack members of another cult. And Prophet Sikatenda has drawn criticism for claiming to have cured Aids victims.

Human rights groups have long claimed that – away from the gaze of television cameras – exorcisms involve the abuse of orphaned children who have been thrown out of their homes, accused of witchcraft after the untimely death of a parent or other family hardship.

Joel Kabongo, the head of Radio Télé Sango Mala (Good News TV), a religious channel independent of the cults, said: “Whether what they are doing is magic or fabrication I don’t know. But they are exploiting vulnerable, naive people.”

First published in London’s The Telegraph newspaper 4 June, 2006

no lawyers but rwanda’s village courts could pass death sentence

(RUBILIZI, Rwanda) Inside the beaten-up shell of a building wrecked during Rwanda’s genocide, a local man rises nervously to address the village court.

He points at another villager, sitting with a group on wooden benches, and declares that the man had incited soldiers to rape a girl during the 1994 atrocities.

No sooner does he finish speaking than a woman in a headscarf speaks up, saying that she had seen the accuser looting the home of a genocide victim. He snaps back that she could know this only if she had taken part in the looting herself.

In the hamlet of Rubilizi, 20 miles outside the capital, Kigali, the true story of the genocide is in danger of becoming blurred by rumour and recrimination, as it is in so many communities in Rwanda.

Human rights groups claim that the village courts, set up in 2001 to deal with a crippling backlog of genocide cases, are being hijacked by villagers using the pretence of genocide allegations to settle land disputes and family feuds.

In the country’s Gikongoro province, a genocide suspect was brought to trial recently for raping a woman who, it later emerged, had falsely accused him because he owed her family money.

Known as gacaca – the Rwandan word for the grass on which many of these hearings take place outdoors – the courts combine traditional tribal practices with modern legal concepts.

Presided over by elected “wise persons”, no defence lawyers or prosecutors are allowed to take part in the hearings. Instead, the public can interrupt, either for or against the accused. Nevertheless, the judges, often relatives of suspects or victims, can hand down sentences of up to 30 years.

“Given the very basic legal background the judges have, and the enormous pressure they are under to get this process finished, the chances to abuse the system are very high,” said Hugo Jombwe-Moudiki, the head of mission in Rwanda for Lawyers Without Borders, the Belgian human rights group. With fewer than 13,000 people tried, out of an estimated 750,000 suspects, the government is pushing for results from the country’s 10,000 gacaca courts, which have been working only in a limited way but are about to operate fully nationwide.

In an effort to speed up the process, the government announced recently that it was planning to give the gacaca jurisdiction to try “category one” suspects, which include those involved in orchestrating the genocide.

The change in the law would give village judges the power to hand down the death sentence and has led to protests from Belgium – the former colonial power – and other European donor governments. A final decision on the law is expected soon.

“Victims want to see justice done,” said Mr Jombwe-Moudiki. “But if you force unprofessional judges to come up with results no matter what, it’s going to lead to the kind of mayhem we are already starting to see.”

Controversy over the possible use of the death sentence by gacaca judges has also stalled the progress of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The main suspects – those accused of masterminding the killing – are on trial in the neighbouring Tanzanian town of Arusha.

Since it was set up in 1994, the United Nations-mandated court has convicted just 20 people and acquitted three, but requests to transfer some of the trials to Rwanda to speed up the process have met opposition from defence lawyers who want immunity from the death sentence for their clients.

The gacaca courts have also been blamed for helping stir up the kind of ethnic tensions that fuelled the genocide, in which an estimated one million ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in a three-month killing spree presided over by an extremist Hutu government.

There have been widespread reports of survivors being murdered to prevent them giving testimony, while clandestine groups aimed at discouraging Hutus from betraying the “genocidaires” are alleged to be operating in rural areas.

Hutus – the ethnic majority – claim that the courts are heavily influenced by survivors’ groups and are biased because they ignore atrocities committed by the Tutsi rebel army, which took power after the genocide.

With a national period of mourning beginning last week to mark the 12th anniversary of the genocide, many Rwandans are keen to put the past behind them.

But, with the trial process having barely scratched the surface, and the continuing fascination with Rwanda in the West – shown with the release in Britain, a week ago, of the film, Shooting Dogs, starring John Hurt as a missionary caught up in the genocide – it is likely to be a long time before the ghosts of the past are laid to rest.

First published in London’s The Telegraph newspaper on 9 April, 2006