Americans tell story of 9-day detainment in Congo
Published: Thursday, June 1, 2006 at 2:10 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 1, 2006 at 2:13 p.m.
They said they slept on inch-thick, bug-infested mats and flushed toilets with recycled bath water, eating only a piece of bread or a small can of corned beef hash once a day.
But the three Americans captured in Congo while working for a presidential candidate are back home, safe and in seemingly good spirits - though they are still awaiting blood tests to see if they contracted malaria.
Two of the men, retired Orlando police Capt. Joseph Robinson, 47, and retired U.S. Secret Service agent Kevin Billings, 49, spoke publicly with reporters Thursday about their detention.
The two, along with Seth Taylor, of San Diego, said they were working for Orlando-based security and consulting firm AQMI Strategy Corp. to provide security and strategy consulting for a presidential candidate. The three were among 29 other foreigners whom Congolese officials accused of planning a coup ahead of national elections. The men denied that they were plotting a coup.
They were captured May 19 and released Saturday. They returned to the U.S. on Monday.
Billings and Robinson said they initially feared for their lives in Congo, but despite being detained so long later came to believe the Congolese government was simply trying to intimidate their candidate, Dr. Oscar Kashala, ahead of scheduled July 30 elections.
"I don't think either one of us are the types to think that we're going to lay down and die," Robinson said.
To pass the time the men sang theme songs from "Gilligan's Island" and "The Beverly Hillbillies," and created some commotion with a rendition of "If You're Happy And You Know It."
"By the time we got to stomp your feet we had a whole bunch of security guards with AK-47s peeking around the corner," Robinson said.
Robinson and Billings said they were originally headed home for a brief visit on May 18 when government officials removed them from an airplane, took their passports and told them a minor mix up would keep them in Congo until the next morning.
Then, at about 5:30 a.m. the next day, more than a dozen police and military personnel with assault rifles and grenade launchers stormed the walled house they were staying in, taking them into custody.
The Congolese government said they were arrested with military items, but the men said they weren't armed at any time because weapons are illegal in Congo. Instead, they said they were told that the GPS units, laptop computers and hiking boots they carried were tools of insurgency.
The two said they were never harmed, but a South American arrested at the same time was nearly bludgeoned to death with rifle butts, and Nigerians in their holding cell were beaten in interrogation before the prisoners began to refuse individual interviews.
"We were told every day we were going to go home," Robinson said.
Congolese officials continued to insist Thursday that the men were planning to overthrow the government.
"All the mercenaries - the Nigerians, the Americans and the South Africans - admitted that they had been recruited to carry out a coup d'etat," Congolese Information Minister Henri Mova Sakanyi said. "Now they're saying they admitted this because they were beaten, and that is false."
The men also described being robbed at gunpoint by police officers when they were arrested.
"They put a gun to your head, reached into your pocket and stole your money. They stole pretty much everything that we had," Billings said. "And that's unfortunately the way they survive, because the corruption is so bad in the Congo that the line officers, police officers over there, rarely get paid."
Robinson said they were kept in a holding cell at a police station that somewhat resembled an unfurnished apartment, but had barred doors and windows. Sixteen people were held primarily in a room that measured about 12 feet by 20 feet, he said.
Despite the ordeal, both men said they would return to Congo if they hadn't been banned following their release.
"I'd like to go to Switzerland or something like that," Robinson joked.
Nearly 18,000 U.N. troops are on the ground trying to ensure the Congo elections happen peacefully.
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