Kris Berwouts (°1963-2023) studeerde Afrikaanse taalkunde en geschiedenis in Gent.
Kris Berwouts: Four days in the hands of Congo’s insecurity services
I was expelled from Congo in September 2017. I have never really understood why, but very soon I had the impression that my situation would cool down after a few months. Of course, the bilateral row between Belgium and Congo could only be in my disadvantage.
In September 2018, I investigated if there were potential obstacles for a new visa and a new return. The feedback from the political circles (the president’s cabinet) and from François Beya, Director-General the migration services DGM (Direction Générale de Migration) were positive. I applied for a visa and received one in the best delays. But when I entered Congo, I was immediately stopped by the authorities. This is what happened.
Sunday 7 October
I arrived in Kinshasa at 8.15pm with Turkish Airlines. The aim was to co-facilitate a training session on PEA (politica land economic analysis), for people working in a major project on local governance of one of Congo’s most important bilateral partners.
It was immediately clear upon arrival that the lady who was supposed to stamp my passport, was alerted by something on her screen regarding me/ my passport/ my visa.
I was brought to the DGM officie at the airport, where I had to wait for the person in charge. Meanwhile, together with the lower ranked staff, we watched a live football game from Belgium.
The message of the person in charge when he arrived was: “I have no idea what are you being critized for. I don’t know if there is a solution for your problem. But if there is one, it will certainly not be here. It will be at the DGM HQ in town.”
I was brought tot he HQ on the boulevard, which at 10pm on a Sunday evening was not staffed except by the night guards. My passport was put in a metal locker, I was sent to what was called an accomodation facility.
That turned out to be a construction site (the new DGM HQ?) where I was handed over to four-five people. The plan was to lock me up in le cachot. Absolutely every item in my luggage and my wallet was examined. Something I found a rather humilitiating experience.
I was too “haut gradé” for the “cachot”, they told me, so I could sleep on a mat on the spot separated by a piece of cloth, where the guards themselves sleep.
I kept my cool and I extensively listed my high ranking contacts within the regime, which made them change their mind. I was too haut gradé for the cachot, they told me, so I could sleep on a mat on the spot separated by a piece of cloth, where the guards themselves sleep. I was invited to join them, they explained in detail how thirsty they were, and how much they would appreciate if I used a bit of my money to buy the drinks that would allow all of us to spend the long hours of the night more joyfully together. I replied that I was a bit tired because of the journey via Istanbul and said I rather wanted to sleep. So I could sleep on the mat, which I shared with a uniformed but sleeping guard. Next to us, under a mosquito net, a white man seemed to be in deep sleep. A Frenchman, they explained me.
Around midnight I was picked up by the security of the Belgian embassy who had claimed my phone back (they had tried to do the same with my passport but this was refused). They brought me to Pullman hotel where the organizers of the training session had booked a room for me, and I spent the rest of the night in very different circumstances.
Monday 8 October
At 9am, the security services of the Belgian embassy brought me back to the DGM HQ where I sat for hours in the waiting room. My phone was kept at the reception. As the night before I was repeatedly asked what exactly I was blamed for. My standard answer was: “If you don’t know, how should I?”
Around 1pm I was brought before a chef de division who explained me there was not really a problem. I would receive my passport, stamped for entry, with my visa intact. But it was not clear where the passport exactly was, nor where was the man who was supposed to clear its restitution. I had to wait a bit more.
At that point I thought there was no real issue around my entry, but that some of the alarm signals built up around my name in 2017 hadn’t been dismantled yet. I thought I would be cleared in an hour or two.
Around 5.30pm I was brought before the DirCab who said he would study my case overnight and I would be informed of the verdict at 9am on Tuesday.
The security of the Belgian embassy picked me up, brought me tot he embassy for debriefing and consultation, and then I was brought tot he hotel, where I had my first meal in 13 hours.
Tuesday 9 October
At 9am I was brought to the DGM HQ, where my phone was kept.
Approximately one hour later, all of a sudden, I was transfered in a barred vehicle to another place. I had the time to send discretely a short txt msg tot he Belgian chargé d’affaires acting as ambassador to tell him I was displaced. Upon my question where they brought me to, they answered I was expected at the provincial delegation of DGM. We arrived in a place ten times bigger than the national HQ, so I understood I was not at the provincial HQ but probably the HQ of the ANR (Agence Nationale de Renseignements).
I was dealt with by very low ranking (probably unpaid) staff who insisted they could do a lot for me (including tell me where I was) for a bit of money.
I had come to the DGM with only the necessary objects for a long day waiting, so they could register my belongings very quickly. I was dealt with by very low ranking (probably unpaid) staff who insisted they could do a lot for me (including tell me where I was) for a bit of money. An official document formalized my arrest, and I sat there waiting for hours again. Nothing much happened or moved, except occasionaly a rat passing by, seeking for food. Myself, I did not receive anything to eat or to drink.
Somewhere in the afternoon, I was brought before a young man who interrogated me. His points of interest were:
- Mapping my contacts in the political landscape, where I invested more energy in my pro-Kabila network than in the opposition or civil society.
- I had to explain extensively my first trip in Congo (January 2000, as a Belgian Red Cross Central Africa Desk) and the five trips I did in 2017 (four for the UK based study bureau I work with since 2014 on behalf of major biateral donors, and one private trip reg. the deuil of my assassinated friend Gildo Byayuwa).
- He wanted to know my contacts with what they see as an efficient anti-them lobby in the States: HRW, Congo Research Group, some influential Congolese opinion makers in DC or NYC.
- Contacts with key people within La Lucha, in Goma or Kinshasa (and probably elsewhere, I did not recognize all names) as well as Filimbi and other new youth movements. They had obviously had a close look to my Facebook firends list, assuming that I maintained intensive ties with each friend. Which is not true. There were names i didn’t recognize, even if they appeared on the list.
- Some of the Congolese academic people in Belgium, also influential as opinion makers.
- My contacts with the people who had written about Kabila’s personal economic empire.
- They are convinced I work together with the Belgian filmaker/ journalist who was expelled in September 2017 as well, a few days before me. Which is not true: he interviewed me once for a leading Belgian magazine, and I was at the presentation of his movie in Masina, just before we were both expelled.
- He extensively asked how I could be so stupid to think I could come back. I described in detail what I did to prepare my visa application and how I received my visa in the standard delay. I explained him no visa was issued in Brussels without ANR clearance.
After this, I was brought to a place of detention in the ANR building. That was a big appartment with several empty rooms. In two of the rooms there were two people. In the first room a Gabonese citizen who was there since ten days and a Congolese man staying there since February. In the other room two Chinese young men (one very young). I was put in the same room as them, probably because of the color of my skin. There was no mosquito net for me. It was suggested that I could buy one the day after, together with a whole list of necessities which would make my stay there even more enjoyable. In fact, this is how the guards earn their own money. In the meantime I could share the space on two one-person mattrasses under the same mosquito net with the two Chinese boys. The Congolese man acted as a host and gave me some bread and a bottle of water. That was the first thing I ate or drank since breakfast.
Around 8pm (I guess, I had no phone nor watch), the Belgian chargé d’affaires came to see me in presence of the DirCab. He tried to negotiate the fact that I could sleep in the hotel. The DirCab could not decide on that himself, called ANR-boss Kalev who categorically refused. Interesting detail is that the DirCab had given me some chips with chicken before meeting the Belgian diplomat. “After all, he’s Belgian. I knew he would like chips.” I gave the diplomat the keys to my hotel room and he took care of my luggage, including my laptop.
I spent the night with my new friends from China and had the remaining cold chips for breakfast.
Wednesday 10 October
In the first hours of the morning nothing much happens. All of a sudden I was brought back to DGM, still handled as a prisoner. Between the ANR and DGM offices, I received my phone back. At the DGM reception, I had to hand it over again and immediately saw some manoeuvres which made me fear that I wouldn’t receive it back. It disappeared indeed.
The administration at the airport was a bit heavier than I thought, I had to sign many documents stating I was personne non-désirée and I was extensively briefed on the meaning of that concept.
I was surprised that they did not give me my documents at the feet of the plane as it happened to be the case in September 2017. My documents were handed over to Ethiopian Airlines who was supposed to deliver them (and me) tot he Belgian authorities at Brussels international airport. They did upon arrival. The Belgian authoirites had to registrate it, copy my documents and set me free without further interrogation. The treatment by Ethiopian Airlines was impeccable.
I had spent since Sunday evening in custody, even if I had slept one and a half night in excellent circumstances. I have not been accused of anything, apart from having the stupid idea to come back. Even if I had a valid visa.
I have not been mistreated but things were not easy, especially after the transfer to ANR. I had spent 48 hours without washing or brushing my teeth, with no access to decent meals until handed over to Ethiopian Airlines. I was kept incommunicando without access to my medication (I need pills to keep my diabetes and high blood pressure under control). I lost my mobile phone and everything on it.
What happened to me was a rather effective attempt to neutralize me as an independent analyst with the only ambition to contribute through critical and constructive analysis and provide elements to objectivate the Congo debate. But, apparently, this is not possible in Congo today.
Kris Berwouts has worked for several NGOs between 1985 and 2011. Since 2012 he works as an independent expert in pogrammes of DFID, USAID, etc. In 2017, he published “Congo’s violent peace. Confict and struggle since The Great African War”. Follow him on twitter at @krisberwouts.