Chained, jailed for being mentally ill

16:00, Jan 03 2014
 Robin Hammond
BACK HOME: Photojournalist Robin Hammond is in New Zealand for the first time since he was imprisoned in Zimbabwe in 2012, but continues to document human rights abuses in Africa. 

A sunny New Year's Eve in Wellington is a world away from an African prison for photojournalist Robin Hammond.

He is back in New Zealand for the first time since spending 25 days locked in a Zimbabwean jail in April 2012, visiting family over Christmas and New Year.

Wellington-born Hammond, who has won four Amnesty International awards for his work, was arrested for reporting without accreditation and thrown in prison by Zimbabwean authorities.

However bad the experience was, it has not stopped him covering human rights abuses in Africa.

His latest work, Condemned, is about mentally ill people and the neglect and cruelty they suffer in war-ravaged countries such as Liberia and South Sudan.

He saw men, women and children with mental disabilities and illnesses - often caused by trauma from conflict - chained up, kept in prisons and given only rudimentary care.


The genesis of the book came in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, during the referendum to decide on independence from Sudan in 2011.

Driving through the city, Hammond saw a mentally disabled man by the side of the road.

"I asked my driver, ‘What do you do with people with mental illness in South Sudan?' . . . he just said very casually 'Oh, we put them in prison'."

South Sudan's infrastructure and health services had completely collapsed during the long civil war with the north, a situation common to many African countries.

Sick people were kept chained up in the courtyards of Juba's prison. It was often the only care they received.

As recipient of the 2013 FotoEvidence Book Award, he was able to travel to 10 African countries and document the treatment of the mentally ill.

Condemned was selected by Time magazine as one of its books of 2013.

He is now banned from travelling to Zimbabwe, but wants to return.

After his arrest, near the border with South Africa around the Limpopo River, he was taken to a filthy jail, held with 250 other men and fed weevil-infested slop.

The New Zealand embassy, working with a charity, eventually secured his release.

"I'm a prohibited immigrant," he says. "I would really like to go back. I love Zimbabwe . . . it's beautiful and the people are so warm - apart from the government."

The situation there has not improved since 2012, he says. An election in July was marred by voter intimidation, rigging and violence against the opposition, with Mugabe once more consolidating his grip.

"Mugabe is totally willing to destroy his country in order to stay in power," he says.

"There's been a real core of people who have benefited from how [Mugabe] has run the country. Even if he does die, I can't see it becoming OK again."

His next project focuses on daily life in the megacity of Lagos, Nigeria, which will present a more rounded picture of life on the continent.

"If people only ever see death and misery in Africa, it can be counter-productive . . . I think the two works are complementary.

"People will empathise more with mentally ill Africans if they realise the societies they are from are not that different from ours."

The Dominion Post