Namibia: a long journey to prison

11-07-2006 Feature

The provincial town of Katima Mulilo in Namibia's northern Caprivi Region is the starting point of a very long journey for many families – a 1,300 kilometre trip to visit detained relatives.


For around two months before the journey, an ICRC field officer combs villages in the Caprivi region to inform families about the service and explain how it works. 
    Since 2001, the ICRC has been running a Family Visits Programme for hundreds of relatives of those held in Namibia on suspicion of high treason. The most recent of these three day visits took place in April and May 2006 when the ICRC enabled around four hundred people to travel to the capital, Windhoek, where the 131 suspects are imprisoned.

The detainees were arrested in connection with a secessionist uprising in the Caprivi Strip in August 1999 and are still awaiting judgement. Their imprisonment 1,300 kilometres from home entails expenses for those wishing to visit that, according to ICRC estimates, few of their families can   afford. In the Caprivi region poverty, unemployment, HIV/AIDS, flooding and drought coexist sid e by side to produce a humanitarian hot spot.

The ICRC's programme helps maintain a vital link between detainees and families and offers prisoners valuable support both material and psychological.

Under the guidelines of the Family Visits Programme established by the ICRC, each detainee is entitled to receive three relatives. For around two months before the journey, an ICRC field officer combs villages in the Caprivi region to inform families about the service and explain how it works. In an area where infrastructure is minimal, roads are bad, flooding is common and farming draws many away from the villages far into the fields, the process is arduous and time-consuming.

But whatever the difficulties the programme poses for the ICRC they pale in comparison to those faced by the families. Many walk for miles to the meeting pointing in Katima Mulilo coming from distant villages to spend the night in the cold while they wait for the early departure the next morning.

At dawn, the ICRC welcomes the families and briefs them on the days ahead. Children yawn and surround the gazebo where the identities are checked and people are registered and given a small individual food allowance. Blankets, bags, pots, pumpkins and maize for detainees are loaded onto trailers. The 1,300-kilometre journey to Windhoek begins.

Once in Windhoek, the families are transported to the main prison to see their loved ones. Once there, the visitors go through the usual process of search and registration.

Many of the detainees have not seen their relatives for years. Even now they are separated by a glass partition and there is no physical contact during the 30 minutes that must be shared by the three visiting relatives. Yet, these visits are crucial for the well-being of the detainees, reminding them that they are not forgotten and giving them an opportunity not just to see their wives and children but to hear other news from home.

In the evenings, all the families come together ot cook a meal for their relatives in a kitchen rented to them by the ICRC. 

 " These visits must continue because this is the only comfort we have " explains the wife of one of the detainees as she boards the bus for home.

The Family Visits Programme is organized on purely humanitarian grounds with the cooperation and organizational support of the Namibian authorities.