I have had haunting dreams about piles of machete-hacked bodies in Rwanda and scarecrow-thin famine victims crouched in the dirt in southern Sudan. Frightening dreams too about the drug-crazed rebels wearing women’s wigs who were firing AK-47’s over my head in the Congo. Still, I have only one recurring nightmare.
It always takes place on a Sunday morning.
On the outskirts of Angola’s capital, Luanda, down a deeply rutted, garbage-strewn road, a church service is under way inside a sun-baked, mud-brick building. Men and women, perhaps two dozen in all, can be seen through glass-less window holes in the wall – swaying, clapping and sometimes wailing to the incessant beat of a drum.
What can’t been seen from the outside is that most of these men and women are in chains.
They are in Angola’s biggest treatment facility for the mentally ill. The man who runs it not only administers a special mixtures of herbs and roots to patients, he also tends to their spiritual needs as the leader of what amounts to his own religious cult. Clad in a green tracksuit, a broken stethoscope around his neck, the middle-aged, slightly paunchy unshaven man greets visitors while relaxing in his dingy office with a cigarette after leading the church service.
In the more than two decades the center has existed, the man says over fifty thousand people have been treated. He says that he finances the operation with donations from private sources and from Angola’s government, which appears all too happy to have given him responsibility for this particular social problem.
A former soldier himself, the man says Angola’s years of civil warfare have increased the number of mental patients in society.
Most of the current patients are former soldiers — picked up off the streets because they were said to be violent, or hurting themselves, or behaving strangely, or living in their own filth. Now they live in this walled compound — some chained to bedframes, others to scrap auto parts like truck transmissions or wheel hubs, which they pull behind them as they wander about.
The man says he is forced to restrain some of the patients because they are a danger to themselves and others.
It is not a pretty sight. Parts of the compound are unroofed, exposed to the blistering sun. Most of the beds lack mattresses. Human waste lies exposed in the courtyard.
Perhaps most disturbing is the chained figure leaning against a wall who claims in a soft voice that he was snatched off the streets and deprived of liberty against his will.
In my nightmare, I am that figure. Every New Year’s Eve, I vow to purge this memory from my head. Every year, I fail.
Alex Belida was a senior news executive and correspondent for Voice of America for nearly 30 years. Among his many assignments, he served as East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi and Southern Africa correspondent operating from Johannesburg. He lives in Rockville.