In the extreme conditions of the Congolese prison system, a priest is struggling to protect inmates from hunger and despair. Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) reports from the central prison in Bukavu, in the far east of the country (South Kivu region) on the work of the Church among these otherwise abandoned people.

In the entrance hall of the dilapidated building of the Bukavu central prison, a small, ever-smiling man is greeted with deference by the prison director, who jokes: “I am not the real boss of this prison! He is, Father Adrien.”

Nothing in his clothing distinguishes the priest from the prisoners he has come to visit and who gather around to greet him. He walks across the corrugated iron-covered courtyard, with its worn cement floor crowded with inmates, whom he greets by their first names. 2,147 people live within these walls, which were designed to accommodate 500. Between two conversations with his charges, Father Adrien sums up the situation as follows: “There is not enough room for everyone, nor is there enough food; in fact, we are short of everything”.

Amid the thick smoke from the coal cookers in the prison kitchen, he holds up a 200 ml beaker and explains to ACN: “This is the daily ration of maize or sorghum that the government gives to a prisoner”. To satisfy his hunger, the prisoner must pay extra to the merchants who have access to the prison. Fortunately, there are also Christian associations that distribute free food to supplement the menu, but they cannot be there every day, Father Adrien says regretfully.

The drastic lack of resources is evident as soon as one sees the overcrowded cells, which haveneither electric light nor windows. More than 300 inmates must sleep huddled together on the iron sheets of the bunk beds or on the bare floor. Day or night, the darkness is so complete that it takes some time to realise that there are people living here. The flash of the camera reveals distraught eyes, staring into space. Although the sun is shining outside in the courtyard, some of the inmates do not go out, preferring to stay in the cell. This state of numbness and insensibility can have dramatic consequences.

In the infirmary, a young prisoner trembles when the doctor tells him that he will have to change his bandage. He is no more than twenty years old and yet suffers from bedsores, a condition that normally only affects very old and needy people who cannot move enough. He has been lying prostrate on the bed in his cell for days and this insidious condition has eaten deeply into his leg. The doctor insists that ACN should photograph his festering wounds: “I want the world to know what is happening here. We must fight for the provision ofnecessities like disinfectants and bandages! People here who have serious illnessesare doomed!” This “infirmary” is primarily used to separate tuberculosis patients from the rest of the prison population. A hospital bed and a chair are the only furniture available. The doctor shows us another patient,malnourished and with protruding ribs. For him, the remedy would not be very expensive, he just needs proper meals…

To bring the prisoners out of their lethargy, Father Adrien does his best to find occupations for them. With a conspiratorial look, he shows us an object he has hidden in his bag as if it were a valuable treasure: a trophy. The priest is preparing a football tournament in which teams of prisoners will play against one another.

Naturally he is also fulfilling his duties as a priest, bringing a breath of fresh air to the prisoners. Father Adrien has just consecrated a new chapel in the part of the prison whereyoung inmates aged under 18 are housed. He also had the pleasure of baptising nine prisoners during the Easter 2023 celebrations. Among the prisoners was a former soldier who had been involved in arms trafficking and banditry. A repeat offender, his request for baptism was the subject of questions and controversy. In the end, however, the man changed his behaviour and received the sacrament along with the other eight inmates.

ACN supports the Diocese of Bukavu in its efforts on behalf of this abandoned population. The pontifical foundation provides support for the construction of places of worship and seminaries, and training for seminarians and priests. It also works with religious sisters such as the Daughters of the Resurrection, who carry out numerous social projects including training for disadvantaged groups, food aid for the poorest, and running an orphanage.