By Peter Salter, Lincoln Journal Star
January 8, 2018
He woke Christmas morning in Omaha to a half-dozen missed calls and messages — from his mother in the Republic of Congo, from a man who knew what went on where his father was imprisoned.
Percy Pika had grown to fear his phone.
“I knew someday getting a call that late would be someone announcing our father passing away. When I saw it, I was like, man, we’re getting really, really bad news here.”
He talked to the man. His father, 70-year-old Marcel Pika, had suffered an apparent stroke in the Brazzaville prison, where he’d spent nearly two years as a political prisoner of President Denis Sassou Nguesso.
Then he talked to his mother, Josephine.
She and his father — a retired colonel — had fled Africa with their family in the late 1990s, after Sassou Nguesso took office during a violent civil war.
They’d landed in Lincoln in 1999. They worked at Cook’s Foods and Kawasaki and raised eight children and became U.S. citizens and bought a house on Y Street. They’d returned to their homeland in 2007 to start a farm, and they were safe until 2016, when Sassou Nguesso regained power and Marcel Pika was carried away in the night, shirtless, to the prison.
Early Christmas morning, Percy Pika’s mother was panicking on the other end of the phone.
“I said, ‘Calm down, we’ll see what’s going to happen.’”
And less than a week later, on New Year’s Eve, Marcel Pika’s children and grandchildren greeted him at the gate at the Omaha airport. They barely recognized the man, who had lost nearly 10 inches around his waist, and who later said he felt like he could have died from the joy of that moment.
“He kept saying, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you,’” his son said.
His family tried not to lose hope, but it was slipping away as the months piled up.
“We were hoping for the best but preparing for the worst,” said his youngest son, Audrey. “We had our faith in God, but at the end of the day, we wanted to make sure we were prepared for death.”
They also stayed busy. After Marcel Pika was detained in March 2016, his family here and in Africa started fighting for his release, and making arrangements to meet his daily needs.
They spent thousands, paying for their mother’s living expenses in Brazzaville and buying their father’s medication. He has diabetes, so they hired a maid to prepare and deliver diet-specific meals to the prison.
This wasn’t a traditional prison. It was built in the 1940s to house 150 men but, according to reports, held more than 800 last year. Prisoners have no access to running water, no relief from the African heat, scant nourishment or medical care.
It was an abrupt change for Marcel Pika, who had lived a comfortable life, with servants and drivers, as an Army officer before fleeing the Congo in the 1990s. Even when starting over in Lincoln, working factory jobs, he and Josephine were able to buy a home, feed their children, make sure they went to college.
He lost weight behind bars. He developed high blood pressure. He grew cysts on his kidneys and lungs.
His family lobbied elected officials at all levels — from the Nebraska governor to the U.S. president — outraged the country wasn’t doing more to help a U.S. citizen. Finally, in August, they were encouraged by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s office, which pledged to work with the Congolese government to allow Marcel Pika to return to Nebraska.
Still, months passed, and he remained detained.
Percy Pika and his brothers began talking about flying to Brazzaville, to see their father at least one more time.
But Marcel Pika’s collapse Christmas morning started something.
After Percy Pika spoke to his mother, he called Fortenberry’s office. Soon, a team from the U.S. embassy was visiting his father in prison. Soon, Congolese officials agreed to his release.
And soon, Marcel and Josephine Pika were beginning a two-day trip, starting over in Lincoln for the second time.
Marcel Pika is sitting on a soft, leather sectional at his son Freddy’s home in southwest Lincoln. He’s wearing his slippers, and he can hear grandchildren in another room.
He hasn’t lived in the U.S. for a decade, he explains. His English isn’t as strong. He’ll speak French, and Freddy will translate.
But when he’s asked how it felt to learn of his release, he understands. He throws his arms up into a touchdown V and shouts, “Viva America.”
He and his family are grateful to everyone who helped get him here. The governor, Fortenberry and his staff, Sen. Deb Fischer, the president. They’re grateful for the Berean Church and for the nonprofit Hostage US, which supported the family during Marcel’s detention. He’s thankful that Freddy’s employer, Nebraska Interactive, donated more than $5,000 for the plane tickets home.
But he also wants people to know he worries about other political prisoners in Brazzaville, held on similar flimsy charges. They’re not U.S. citizens like him, but they need our government’s help, too.
The physical conditions at the prison were dangerous, filthy and crowded. But what he saw, and what he felt, amounted to mental torture, he says through his son.
He witnessed a dozen men die. He was locked in a place for a crime he didn’t commit, with no due process and no contact with the outside world, other than the visits from Josephine.
He didn’t suffer a stroke, but he likely collapsed on Christmas from all of the suffering he’d been through.
He’s still weak now, his family says. Fragile.
And he was almost knocked down by emotion when he landed in Omaha and walked into the arms of 26 loved ones. Behind bars, he had missed a son’s wedding, the birth of four grandchildren, the burial of one.
He puts his hand to his heart. He tells Freddy what that moment was like.
“It was one of the most beautiful days of his life,” his son translates. “Not only do you feel loved, you feel blessed.”
Appeared in January 8, 2018 edition