Restoring family links: bringing Caprivi families to visit their detained relatives in Namibia

21-05-2007 Feature

As the rest of the world marked May Day, more than 140 people from the Caprivi Strip of Namibia were rejoicing from a different perspective: they were celebrating the long-awaited opportunity to visit their relatives who are behind bars since the secessionist Caprivi uprising of 1999.

  ©ICRC/D. Zambuko    
  ICRC delegate with relatives of a detainee at Windhoek Central Prison.    

  ©ICRC/D. Zambuko    
  ICRC delegate welcomes families back to their accommodation after a day of visiting their detained relatives.    


The May Day event was part of a series of visits organized by the ICRC which started on 23 April and ended on 11 May. By the end of the three weeks, the organization had afforded a total of 385 relatives of the 131 high treason suspects detained since 1999 the opportunity to see their loved ones.

The ICRC organizes and finances two such visits a year as part of its international mission to re-establish and maintain family links severed by conflict and its consequences. The programme in Namibia involves not only coordinating with the detaining authorities but also transporting the relatives 1,300 km from Caprivi to Windhoek Central Prison, accommodating them in the capital and covering their expenses there. They stay in Windhoek for three days to allow for several visits.

Though the conditions of the visits are not ideal, detainees being separated from their families by a glass screen, they are nevertheless cherished by all the beneficiaries.

" For me, the ICRC programme provides a golden opportunity to communicate with my brother and four uncles for a whole 30 minutes, " says Maria. This is the time allotted for daily visits by the authorities. " What is more important is that this is the only time I have to revive hope in people who are fast losing patience and hope,” added Maria,* shortly after her visit on 1 May. Life has been tough for her since 1999, as she has had to look after the six children of her detained uncles. The children's mothers have left the village to seek employment further south. The Caprivi Strip is Namibia's poorest region.

For many this is the only chance they have to discuss news from home and receive instructions from their detained men-folk on how things should be run in their absence, in accordance with their traditions. It is also a chance for the detainees to see or hear about their children, as well as deaths and births in their respective families.

Moses,* a 17 year-old whose father has been detained since 1999, saw him for the first time since his arrest in 2005 through a visit arranged by the ICRC. The boy says life has changed since his father has been in detention. His mother has now taken up selling fish to raise enough money to send him to school.

Nosisa* told the ICRC soon after her visit to the prison that it should consider doubling the number of visits to four times a year since they are so essential for the families and their detained loved ones. She is already impatient to see her husband again. Thanks to the ICRC's programme, Nosisa has been able to visit him every year since 2004.

“I feel privileged,” says Nosisa “because the journey from Katima Mulilo (her home town) in Caprivi, to Windhoek would normally cost me at least N$500 just for transport. Yet I make only N$100.00 from selling buns to school children every month to enable me to earn a living. I couldn’t dream of visiting my husband here in Windhoek from my own earnings. Life is tough for me in Caprivi. "

According to the ICRC's estimates, few of the detainees'families could afford the journey on their own, not to mention the expenses they would incur on arrival in Windhoek, where the cost of living is much higher than in Caprivi.

Sarah,* who works as a school cleaner, says she is delighted to hear her husband tell the family that his blood pressure levels have been decreasing ever since he started receiving news from home. Sarah and her daughters visit him every year in May through the ICRC programme. “I make it a point to buy him new clothes every year, so for him Christmas comes in May when he can see our faces,” she concludes with a grin.

Although each series of visits lasts three weeks, they in fact require far more time to prepare. Each detainee is asked to list five relatives he would like to see. The ICRC then has to try to find and bring three of the people listed to the centre of detention. Teams from the ICRC and the Namibian Red Cross have to comb the most remote areas of the Caprivi Strip to find the identified relatives and inform them about the programme and the next visit.

The Caprivi Strip is the result of a territorial swap between Britain and Germany in 1890. Britain thereby acquired Zanzibar in return for which Germany got the band of territory now called the Caprivi Strip, giving it access to the Zambezi River. It is a long finger of territory that pokes eastwards out of northern Namibia and runs along the borders of Angola and Botswana towards Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Since independence in 1990, several members of SWAPO, Namibia's ruling party, have questioned the loyalty of Caprivians to the new state. Many Caprivians feel they don't have much in common with the rest of the country and have been neglected by the central government. The 1999 uprising was a failed and unrepeated attempt to secede from Namibia.

The 131 high treason detainees have been awaiting a verdict for approximately seven years now. " I hope the trial ends soon so that my father can come back home, " says 17-year old Moses. " I have been missing him for too long. "

 *All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the concerned individuals.