Congressman Jeff Fortenberry

Representing the 1st District of Nebraska

Lincoln Journal Star: Family Fights for Former Lincolnite Imprisoned in Africa: ‘We Fear We’ll End Up Losing Our Dad’

Aug 14, 2017
In The News

The last time Percy Pika saw his father, the smell was suffocating.

The prison had no air conditioning, no defense against the African heat. The cells had no toilets or water, but they did have dozens of men living and dying in each, sleeping on cardboard or on mats no thicker than a sponge.

The prison in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, was built during World War II to house maybe 150 men. Last year, according to reports, it held more than 800 — many of them said to be political prisoners of President Denis Sassou Nguesso.

But only one of them is a U.S. citizen, a former Nebraskan, a father and grandfather who worked the lines at Cook's Family Foods and Kawasaki in Lincoln, raising his big family on Y Street before returning to his homeland to become a farmer.

For nearly 500 days, 70-year-old Marcel Pika has been held in Brazzaville's central prison, plucked from his house by armed men in late March 2016, just after Sassou Nguesso's 2016 re-election.

His family is outraged by his detention and worried about his health; they say he has developed high blood pressure and cysts on his kidneys and lungs, and the prison provides little nourishment or medical care.

But they’ve been equally angry with the lack of tangible action by their own government in Washington to work for their father's release.

“We are Nebraskans today, and we’re proud to be Nebraskans,” Percy Pika said. “We want the U.S. government to act on behalf of our father. Whatever actions that need to be taken need to be taken.”

* * *

Marcel Pika was born in a farm village in the Congo, the first of his generation to attend college, and spent his career as an Army officer, retiring as a colonel.

In 1997, when Sassou Nguesso returned to office during a violent civil war — with help from the militia he called the Cobras — Marcel Pika and his family and others fled to the West African country of Benin.

They weren't safe there, either, Percy Pika said: There were reports Sassou Nguesso was targeting refugees who had been loyal to his opposition, returning them to his country to kill them.

The United Nations was willing to help, and it gave the officer's family a choice: Canada or the U.S.

The decision was simple. Marcel Pika had a daughter in Lincoln whose husband was studying biology at the University of Nebraska.

He and his wife and their seven other children arrived in September 1999, helped in their resettlement by Catholic Social Services. They spoke little English, and this was a strange new world for them, but here they were safe, and here they were starting over.

That first day, they all gathered in the house that had been rented for them near 29th and Vine.

“We just started looking out the windows. We started laughing,” Percy Pika said. “We held hands that day. We prayed, thanking God for the opportunities.”

Marcel Pika and his wife, Josephine, wasted little time finding work. In the Congo, the army officer and his family had servants and drivers, but now he was clocking in at a packing plant. They lived in a series of rentals — on Adams, on L Street — saving their money, their older children working and contributing, too.

“It was a dream come true for us,” said Freddy Pika, a son. “For once, we started to look at a future of peace.”

They walked around the city at first, to Super Saver and Kmart. They rode bikes to school, and the bus during winter. They saved enough to buy cars. They saved enough to buy a house.

They became U.S. citizens. And they became part of their new community.

“He was one of the best neighbors I ever had,” said Bob Davis, who moved next to the Pikas in 2002. “He was a man of integrity. He was honest. He was always willing to help a guy out.”

Davis admired the family’s structure — how the boys worked hard, avoided troublemakers and deferred to their older siblings. Davis would help them conquer small home repair jobs; the Pikas would ask him over to dinner.

They remained close, even after Davis moved a few years later. He’s attended most of the Pika children’s weddings.

“All of his sons, if you look at his sons, that’s one of the ways you can judge a guy,” Davis said.

The Pika children learned English, graduated from Lincoln East, attended Southeast Community College and then earned degrees from four-year universities. They are managers and nurses and administrators and business owners.

“Lincoln is our home,” Percy Pika said. “Lincoln adopted us.”

But Marcel Pika was missing something, and he found part of it in the Sandhills. Percy Pika had married a woman whose grandmother lived in Broken Bow, and he drove his father west one weekend.

They visited a farm and a ranch, his father taking notes and making sketches. “For my dad, he felt like home, being around farms. That was his dream. He wanted to end up retiring and doing that.”

He wanted to own his own farm in his own homeland. And in 2007, eight years after moving to Lincoln and two years after becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, Marcel Pika returned to the Congo, buying 46 acres with his wife to grow vegetables and raise pigs and chickens, his sons said.

They had been assured it was safe to return. And it was, until Sassou Nguesso's latest re-election bid.

Marcel Pika was napping when the men came. He wasn't even wearing a shirt.

* * *

Picture the worst prison Hollywood can conjure, with killings and torture and trash and human waste, a place where you have to be careful where you step, and that's what his father's prison is like, Percy Pika said.

His father must fill a water bucket in the morning and find a place to bathe. It's not enough.

“Every time I go see my dad, I smell like it. My dad, he smells like it.”

Percy Pika and his family had been living in the Republic of Congo but returned to the safety of Lincoln after his father's detention.

He and his siblings have since spent thousands of dollars supporting their parents, they say. Their father has diabetes, so they hire a maid to cook his diet-specific meals and a driver to deliver them to the prison. They pay for his medication. They pay their mother's living expenses.

They've also spent the past year and a half lobbying for their father's release.

Marcel Pika is under investigation for supporting Sassou Nguesso's opposition, his sons say. They've heard he and others are accused of organizing a strike to protest the election results.

But they call it a witch hunt by a president holding a grudge.

“It’s simply a matter of you vote against a dictatorship and he throws you in prison,” said Audrey Pika, the youngest son. “There is nothing. Their case is empty.”

So are their efforts to get their father released. They've repeatedly asked politicians for help — requesting meetings with lawmakers, an audience with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a statement from President Donald Trump — but have little to show for it.

“Based on all the responses we've gotten, there's nothing concrete,” Freddy Pika said.

They've heard plenty of words.

The State Department provided the Journal Star with a statement this week, saying it's following the case closely, it's concerned about Marcel Pika's detention and it's calling on the Congolese government to “respect due process and human rights.” Its consular team in Brazzaville is visiting Marcel Pika in prison and providing assistance, it added.

“The U.S. Embassy has repeatedly raised concerns about Mr. Pika's case, including his health, at the highest levels in the Republic of Congo.”

Last week, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts issued his own statement, calling for Marcel Pika's immediate release to U.S. authorities. “I have urged members of our federal delegation and officials at the U.S. Department of State to continue to do everything in their power to secure the safe release of Mr. Pika,” the governor said.

In June, a New Jersey congressman spoke in support of Marcel Pika: “The principle of due process demands that Congo-Brazzaville should have released Marcel Pika long ago, but the government continues to ignore their own laws and continue his imprisonment without charging him or bringing him to trial,” Chris Smith said.

Marcel Pika's sons did get a face-to-face meeting with Sen. Deb Fischer, but they haven't heard anything from Sen. Ben Sasse, and his Washington office didn't return a call seeking comment.

This week, they heard hope from Rep. Jeff Fortenberry's office: His chief of staff met Wednesday with Congolese Ambassador Serge Mombouli, who pledged to visit with his country's president and justice minister about the case.

“We have undertaken active engagement with the Congolese government, appealing to them to quickly free Mr. Pika, particularly given his condition,” Fortenberry said in a statement. “We are attempting to bring him home safely to Lincoln, where he can reunite with his family, who are active members of our community.”

Fortenberry originally contacted the ambassador in June and plans to stay focused on the case, a staffer said.

And so will his family. They don't understand why the U.S. government hasn't pushed harder, and earlier, for the release of one of its citizens.

They point to the State Department's own 2016 Human Rights Report for the Republic of Congo, which includes allegations of government-coordinated killings, torture, rape, arbitrary arrests of political prisoners and harsh detention conditions.

Percy and Audrey Pika traveled to Washington in July, and they're planning another trip next week.

Since his imprisonment, Marcel Pika has missed a son’s wedding and college graduation, the births of four grandchildren, the burial of one.

They worry he will be next, Percy Pika said.

“We fear we’ll end up losing our dad.”

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