by Levi Keidel
My Death Sentence
We arrived at Likasi when people were beginning to stir from their sleep. My guards untied my feet and walked me to prison. It was like the last prison, only much larger. They stripped off my clothing and put on me a pair of short black pants. They shaved my head. They untied my wrists, then retied them in front of me so that I could work at feeding myself. I looked at my arms; my stomach twisted. The wrist bonds had almost buried themselves in rotting flesh. The skin on my hands and fingers was blue, and wanted to split.
Guards fastened my ankles in bands of iron connected with a short chain. My neck iron remained. They locked me into a cell with five other men. Because of the odor from my wounds, those with me loathed me. Days of waiting passed. More and more my mind began to grasp my plight; I feared what was to come, and had no hope of changing it. I was lost in a cavern of empty blackness. Every offense of a soldier-guard pushed me deeper into the dark. How was I yet to suffer? Who would ever show me a way of escape? What would be my end?
On the morning of the tenth day, two black soldiers with guns walked me out of the prison to the tribunal building, and made me to stand before a judge. He was a white man. He sat behind a large table with papers spread out before him. Black helpers sat on either side of him. This man would decide my sentence. His eyes followed slowly from my head to my feet, his mind taking a careful picture of me. The odor of rotting flesh was always with me.
"Where does this man come from?" he asked sharply.
"From prison," a soldier replied.
"How long has he been there?"
"We do not know."
"When did you enter prison?" he asked me.
"Ten days ago."
"When you arrived, were you shown to the director of the prison?"
He looked angrily at the soldiers.
"Your work at prison is to guard people. Look at this man. Do you feel that you have done your work well? Has it been your mind to guard him, or to kill him?"
His words were like the light of a match, wanting to call me. He ordered a sick-bed truck. It took me to a hospital. They untied my wrists; my neck and leg irons remained. They treated my rope wounds, a soldier with a gun standing at my bedside. At the end of two months the wounds were healing. I was taken to the judge again. I hoped much that he might help me.
"We have received your papers from Kolwezi where you were arrested," he said. "For many years you were a good worker in the copper mining company. What changed your heart, so that this trouble has caught you?"
"Truly?" marvelled the girl. "But how can we know it unless you show us?"
My mind was not able to find the answer to such a question. It was still busy plotting acts of vengeance against those who tormented me. My words were as arrows shot by a blind man.
"Ask those who caught me. I had broken no laws. I had harmed no one."
"Then why did you kill a soldier?"
"I was following my own affairs; soldiers came with ropes to tie me."
His eyes wanted to bore into me like red-hot nails.
"It is clear that you have not yet thought carefully about your trouble. They will take you back to prison. I will see you again."
The match-light went out. My blackness returned. I was delivered again into the hands of my tormentors.
Soldiers took me to prison. They laid me stomach-down on the ground in the middle open area. They lowered my pants. They brought a mfimbu whip. They lashed me eight times across the buttocks. Then they returned me to my cell. They whipped me thus every morning. They were doing this for two reasons: to avenge the death of their comrade, and to teach me that it was foolish to rebel against their authority. By the tenth day flesh on my buttocks was shredded. My hips were sore. They let me rest a few days. Then the judge called for me. I walked with suffering.
Again, by asking questions, he tried to uncover the reasons which brought me trouble. Because of my suffering, my mind had no room for new thoughts. He was about to return me to prison when I spoke.
"Sir, don't you see my condition? By now the mfimbu has shredded my buttocks. The poison of my wounds has filled my body. Will you send me back to prison to rot? Why don't you kill me?"
"Why have you been whipping him?" he asked my guards.
"Because he tried to escape," they lied.
He sent me to a dispensary nearby. They laid me on a bed and left. Then I heard my soldier-guard talk with the girl-nurse who was to care for me.
"That man is dangerous. He should not have mercy. If you want to make us happy, when you clean his wounds, cut them back so they bleed well."
My arm wounds had begun to dry. Who was a girl to despise the word of a soldier with a gun? That night, with the soldier watching, she opened my wounds again. She pulled the skin and cut with a scissors into the living flesh around my arm. Much blood flowed . She filled the wounds with salve-medicine. The next morning they were swollen and hurting. I knew this was death. I longed for it. Then they pushed me into my cell and locked the door.
The next morning no one came to take me out for a beating. Nor the morning which followed. For days following one after another, I was counted as one with the other prisoners in my cell. We were given no work to do; we were all waiting sentence. Two more months passed. From time to time the white judge called me to ask more questions. They passed off me like raindrops off a banana leaf. The light did not flicker again. When the judge talked to me the last time, my last hope disappeared.
"I have tried to send your thinking in the right path," he said. "I wanted to help you accept the evil of what you have done, and to understand what pushed you to do it. I saw this as the only way out of your trouble. But you have closed your mind against it. Thus I have no power to help you. We are sending you to the provincial tribunal at the capital city of Lubumbashi. There they will review our decision. I must ask that they sentence you to prison for life."
I was sent to Lubumbashi. It was January of 1945. They put me into a hospital. They tested my blood, and spinal water, and other things; they wanted to know if my anger-sickness came from insanity. Then I waited two months in a sentencing cell in prison. Then the word came:
"We change nothing. Whenever you die, on that day your prison term will be finished."
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