18-04-2011 – The story of a man of African origin who has spent 8 months in detention, first in Vottem (Liège) then in Bruges.
Listen to the interview (FR) :[audio:http://gettingthevoiceout.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/la-souffrance-est-morale_01.mp3|titles=la-souffrance-est-morale_01]
My name is… Up until 2006, I didn’t know my real age. I only found out when I was 26. So at the present moment I am 29 years old and I was born on 23 April 1982.
I stayed at Vottem for four months. I honestly don’t know what they do with the money that is allocated for immigrants! The first thing I saw when I arrived was the gymnasium where people can at least keep themselves busy…but it was totally run-down! All the equipment they had was damaged. So I went to see the director and I asked him: “But where are the resources? Why don’t you provide equipment for the people here, they need to let off some steam, they are imprisoned, like a herd of livestock. The gymnasium is the only way to get some exercise, why don’t you provide the appropriate equipment?” I never got a response.
What I found good about Vottem is that they don’t make a distinction between the prisoners and the staff. At lunchtime everyone eats together, so if you have something to say you can say it right there at the table. I never missed this opportunity let me tell you! (He laughs)
In the dormitories, you are either in groups of 2, 3 or 4, compared with 16 to 20 a dormitory at Bruges. At Vottem you can go in and out of the room when you like. You go outside 3 times a day in the summer and twice a day in winter, always for quite substantial periods. You can let off some steam, run, play football or basketball…if you are an active person it is true that at Vottem it is difficult to get bored.
But nobody likes being detained, nobody can endure that. After a while I had had enough of it and I organised a hunger strike in my section.
– Why had you become sick of it if it wasn’t possible to be bored?
Boredom? But how would you handle it if you were detained, if you were told what to do, how to behave… no no! You are still imprisoned! Even if you are not locked in your room 24h a day like in a prison, and you can move about freely between the TV room, your dormitory, friend’s rooms…you are still imprisoned! (He laughs) You can’t see your family!
The question is therefore not a physical one, it is moral! Suffering is not physical! Physically you do some sport, see other people…but it is moral!
I have a daughter outside, my little brother is outside, my friends…my life is out there! And responsibilities! How can I meet my responsibilities if I am locked up!
It’s not nice to have your daughter come visit you in prison, or to bother others: “I’ve been detained, send me some money!” or to read letters instead of communicating face to face. Suffering is moral, it is not physical!
So I organised a hunger strike, but they didn’t give me enough time, they knew I was the organiser so they sent me to Bruges thinking that that would stop me! (He laughs)
Bruges! What can I say, at least by going there I learnt about the different working methods of this very Flemish centre. There are no care workers there apart from one social worker and a psychologist that you get to see from time to time, but they are not around you 24 hours a day.
At 7am sharp everyone has to be outside! In the dormitories, there are 20 people, sometimes 40. The courtyards are much smaller! The common room is much smaller! Bruges is horrible! HORRIBLE!
They never say anything to us, all we hear is: “If you want to go back to you country we can give you the money!”
– How long did you stay at Bruges?
4 months like in Vottem. So all together that’s 8 months I was detained for.
– Psychologically, how are you feeling
Being detained certainly leaves its mark, that’s for sure! I might see a psychologist soon, to see where I am, sort things out in my head (he laughs). But seriously, it is true that being here scars you. At the end of the day you are imprisoned, you are no longer free!
Nobody from the Ministry of the Interior (Home Affairs Ministry) with a good knowledge of African countries ever came to interview me. A woman asked me if I was Angolan. I said: “No, I’m Belgian!” (He laughs)
She asked me: “Why did you say you are Belgian?” I replied: “Because all my ties are to Belgium, my daughter is here, my friends are here, I came here when I was young, I went to primary and secondary school here, so the country I know best is Belgium. To me, I am Belgian!”
She said: “No, no, you aren’t Belgian…”, she went on about it so much that eventually I said to her: “Give me 5 days and I will leave your fucking country!” (He laughs)
In the end, she gave me the 5 days, yaaaay! After 8 months I could leave detention!
I restarted the administrative process for permission to stay and on 7th March they made their decision: “You have indefinite leave to remain.”
2011! Eduardo has his papers! 10 years later! Bravo! (He claps!)
– We’d like to know if there is any violence in the detention centres?
There is lots of verbal violence from the guards. And sometimes when they stop you and bring you back to your cell they can be very very violent. Often they hit you, but they are always careful not to leave a trace so that you can’t make a complaint.
– Which means?
It means they wear gloves, or they use telephone directories to hit you. I think it also depends on the ‘prey’, if they see you are a bit fragile they will really go for you and mess you up, but if you show a bit of courage they’ll just push you around a bit. However if you show too much courage and fight back, they will move you to another centre, usually one which is more severe like Merksplas where they really hit you. (He laughs while imitating the noise of fighting)
So yes, there is violence in detention centres.
At Vottem, the presence of the support workers really makes a difference as they play a preventative role. They are watching what everyone is doing. But when you don’t have this type of presence I think they feel a bit freer to do what they like.
But all the detention centres should be shut down. Nobody should be detained because they don’t have the right to reside in a country or possess an identity card! It should be illegal to imprison people who don’t have papers, or because of the colour of their skin…It is racial discrimination! Fascism even!
To think that a nation or a country who recognises racial discrimination as a punishable crime can open centres for imprisoning people who are not nationals of that country…it is indescribable! (He laughs)
In my opinion they should all be closed, it is not human, it’s the Gestapo! I think today we have the same regime we had when Hitler was around, the only difference being that then they imprisoned Jews. The only thing missing today is the gas chambers! Otherwise it is exactly the same!
I think about Semira Adumu who was suffocated, I think of all the others who were lynched. There are those who don’t want to be deported, those who fight back and struggle; they are hit, considered worthless. The policemen who accompany these people to the airport call them “dirty niggers” and “worthless” and tell them to “go home!” There are racists in the police force! So where does this lead us, that is the question, where are we going?
I have spent 8 months in detention centres. Today, I am still here in Belgium and I am going to get my papers. So what was the point in detaining me? To contribute to my hate? To my rage? To what?
– Do you still think about the centres?
Yes of course. It’s normal that I think about it. I also think a lot about how the Belgian state is hypocritical. I can give you a quick anecdote. We were at a protest one day and there was a couple there who said: “Those who work should be free, but those who don’t work should be deported.”
I looked at them and I said: “Stop this hypocrisy! Those who don’t work, why don’t they work? Why are the forced to leave their country? Because they don’t have any other choice! Belgium and Europe like to picture themselves as a kind of welcoming paradise, but it is just to attract workers, and as soon as there are too many workers and there is no longer any work they tell us to leave! Go home! It is hypocritical! The Congolese people currently in detention are only there because Congo was ransacked by Belgium and the other western powers!”
It is hypocrisy, it’s not right!
– What was the worst thing you saw in the detention centres?
The worst thing I saw was children being detained. What right do we have to lock up a child?!
– How did you explain the eight months you spent in detention to your daughter?
I explained it by saying that the white man is bad! (He bursts out laughing) It’s true but I no longer use this explanation.
– And did she understand?
Yes! Now she is just happy that I have my papers. Dad is no longer illegal!
– Is she Belgian?
Yes, she was born here, her mother is Belgian. The request I had made in the first place to stay in Belgium was as the father of a Belgian child. They told me that the request was not valid as my daughter couldn’t take responsibility for me! And that is why I went so long without papers!
– Ok thanks!