Asylum Seekers in the Congo
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At the very back of the plane, a young African woman was moaning quietly and  pleading monotonously in a low, intimate voice, ‘Laissez-moi, laissez-moi’. Like a child wearing down a parent. She wasn’t crying. The escorts at either side of her looked straight ahead impassively. Two police officers in the aisle made it clear there was to be no interference from any curious or kind-hearted passengers.

I adjusted the belt of my window seat on flight 898 from Paris to Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She was a failed asylum-seeker being returned to her homeland. I knew at once. (In the jargon of immigration officials, active verbs become passive and words are chosen carefully: people are ‘removed’, rather than ‘deported’.) The woman’s noises of distress – which I could never have anticipated – were the reason for my journey. I reached into my hand-luggage for a microphone.

I was part of a new investigative radio series on the BBC World Service. My assignment was to find out what happens to Congolese asylum-seekers – those forced to go back, when they are rejected by the wealthy countries of western Europe.  Although there is still conflict in much of the country – 4,000,000 people have been killed since 1998 – the capital Kinshasa is considered safe. That is not how it feels. I never once felt relaxed in this city of roaming gangs and furtive transactions. Uniformed men sit in doorways with their feet up, Kalashnikovs across their knees, watching you and waiting. The transitional government of the Democratic Republic of Congo is a bizarre coalition of warring factions, each with its own private army. Soldiers regularly terrorise and abuse innocent citizens. The level of rape is astonishingly high.

If ordinary people are at risk here, I wanted to know what happens to men and women who, by seeking asylum abroad, have ‘betrayed’ their country – and are then sent back in handcuffs. Human rights campaigners claim that asylum-seekers risk imprisonment or torture. But there has been no supporting evidence of systematic ill treatment. My brief was to test the truth of those claims.

It was a story I’d hoped to cover for a long time, but it carried a high risk of failure. The series producer, Andy Denwood, had done some initial research, but a tight budget meant only three weeks in total – to make contacts in Kinshasa, set up in advance as many interviews as I could, record material and then, with Andy’s help, edit it into a half hour programme.

I had only seven days in the Congo.

My starting point was the copy of a Home Office document about Munto Mavembo, aged 39. He was detained in Harmondsworth Detention Centre near Heathrow, then put on a plane to the Democratic Republic of Congo in January 2005. His London solicitor described him as a shy man with a stutter. He was an accountant who had supported Mobutu. After the president fell from power in 1997, Mavembo had to escape.

Mavembo promised to contact his solicitor once he arrived. Nine months later, she had heard nothing from him and she was concerned about his safety. I had a black and white copy of his passport photo, and an address in the suburbs of Kinshasa. My plan was to search for him, but as the date of my departure approached, the task seemed increasingly foolhardy. What were the chances that this address was genuine? Could I find him in a city with more than 8,000,000 inhabitants? And if I did find him, would he tell me a tale of threats and abuse by the Congolese authorities? Or might he be sitting on a suburban veranda chilling out with a Primus beer in his hand? A great result for him would fit uncomfortably with the general thesis of my programme: I found myself reflecting with moral queasiness on the news-reporter’s role.

The edgy chaos of Ndjili Airport put all but immediate concerns out of mind. The reluctant returnee, who had sobbed herself to sleep many hours ago, was led from the back exit of the plane while the rest of us edged our way onto the baking, warping tarmac. The outbuildings swayed and shimmied like a mirage. I looked for her in the crowded arrivals hall but she had vanished along with most of the other Congolese nationals, leaving a perspiring queue of self-assured aid workers, Italian nuns, freckled American missionaries and some uneasy executives from a telecom company.

In the Congo, failed asylum-seekers are regularly taken aside into a small airless room for questioning – either by officers employed by the director general of migration, the DGM, or the national security agency, the ANR. Most arrive empty-handed or with just a small amount of money, but officials insist on a bribe of 100 US dollars or more before releasing them. If they cannot call family or friends to bail them out – an option only for those with connections in Kinshasa – they are at risk of a long stay in detention.

Foreign visitors attract a different sort of attention. I was carrying 1,500 US dollars strapped to my waist. I had precious recording equipment on my back. I was anxious not to lose either – in bribes or to thieves. As a precaution, I’d been advised to pay for ‘protocol’ – a plump Congolese man in a blue pin-stripe suit. He watched me pick up my luggage, then imperiously led me – through passport control, through a throng of baggage handlers, through the taxi drivers – to the BBC stringer who was waiting outside.

Local stringers are the mainstay of BBC reporting across the world – freelance journalists delivering stories and packages to the hungry news and current affairs machine on an extremely modest rate of pay. Patrice was new at the job. It was an interlude in his long term plan to become an aeronautical engineer. On the 45 minute journey into Kinshasa, nose to tail traffic all the way, windows closed against the exhaust fumes, he told me proudly how he’d been staying in the forest with a TV crew tracking gorillas. He seemed less enthusiastic about this new project he had to deal with.

In the days that followed, he was charming and reliable but nervous. He warned me not to go out of my tower-block hotel in downtown Kinshasa on my own. Although I ignored the advice, I soon realised that it was not a place to stroll about in, chatting to street vendors. Despite the heat, I had to stride purposefully to avoid unwanted questions and demands – so that even the shortest journey left me clammy and exhausted. Patrice’s company was the reverse of comforting. Whenever I produced my microphone in a public place, he glanced over his shoulder at the growing crowd of suspicious onlookers and pleaded with me to get back in the car before we were both arrested. I wanted to do a ‘stand-up’, the radio equivalent of a piece-to-camera. The ANR headquarters were behind a road block in the avenue opposite the presidential palace. I persuaded Patrice to get out of the taxi and get as close as we could on foot. Walking past the gates we were challenged by a menacing bunch of armed guards. We made a dignified but fairly rapid retreat and I tried to relieve the tension between us with what I thought was a light-hearted remark about prison conditions. Stony-faced, Patrice pointed out that he would be inside long after I had used my return ticket to fly to freedom.

Our visit to the central prison, Makala, was a low point in our relationship. I had learned that some asylum-seekers were confined in jail, where they were regularly beaten and were at risk of starving to death. The UN says that a sentence of a year or more in prisons like Makala is a death sentence. I wanted to see for myself and to capture the sounds and atmosphere of the prison, knowing how powerful that could be for a radio audience.

There was no question of being allowed in as a journalist. I arranged to tag along with a small group of benefactors who were bringing food for child prisoners. They introduced me as a member of the Mennonite Church, a branch of religion I know nothing about. I was told that, as we went in, there might be a cursory search of our bags – nothing serious. Just in case, I put my minidisk player in one pocket of my rucksack, thinking I could pass it off as an innocent possession. And I wrapped my hefty Beyer microphone in a T-shirt, stuffing it right to the bottom and covering it with packets of biscuits for the children.

Once inside the main entrance, I waited for a suitable moment – when the rest of the group was occupied – before pulling out the microphone and trying to connect it to the minidisk player. By leaving the zip of the bag slightly open, I planned to record without anyone noticing. The BBC has strict guidelines about secret recording, but I was after general atmosphere, not private conversations – and there was no other way of getting the material. It was a risk of course. Other journalists have been arrested in the Democratic Republic of Congo for less. I looked to Patrice to provide some distraction that would cover my fumbling efforts with the bag. He wanted no part of this foolishness and hissed at me to join the others, which I did.

After many speeches, the governor, a wiry man with bloodshot, expressionless eyes, led us through the large central courtyard. Under a grey sky, privileged inmates in blue tunics were throwing handfuls of beans and dirt into a cooking pot. A second gatehouse opened onto the main body of the prison – an exercise yard surrounded by bleak two-storey buildings where three and a half thousand men, women and children jostled for space and supremacy. As we walked along a narrow path, prisoners lined up, stamped their bare feet and chanted: ‘Honour, dignity and submission to you, Mr Director’. To a beat that conveyed both fear and fury.

It was a magic radio moment. Missed.

Cursing my failure to set up my recording equipment, I trudged behind the benefactors, with prison guards at my heels. I tried to ignore the imploring gestures and the pleas for food. In a crepuscular room without a light, or any furniture, we were mobbed by 50 or more ragged children who pushed and punched each other as they grabbed our offering of biscuits and bread. We were not allowed to see the cells where prisoners are chained in total darkness. Nor the political wing, where they enjoy comparative luxury. However, the governor took us to the so-called hospital – another bare room with three metal beds and one filthy mattress. A young man lay in a coma attached to a saline drip.

It was only when we were in the women’s section, in the reassuring presence of mothers and babies, that I managed to connect the microphone and press the record button. By then, it was too late. The governor was marching us back to the outer courtyard. Yet more speeches from another member of the top brass – who seemed genuinely concerned about the treatment of children in the Congolese judicial system and grateful for charitable assistance.

I crept away and pretended to take a call on my mobile. Holding the phone to my ear, but cradling my back pack with its half-opened zip and hidden microphone, I tried to describe what I had seen. But my voice was dry and the right words would not come.

Later that afternoon, in my cocooned hotel room, I felt a complete failure. I had put myself and Patrice at considerable risk, but hadn’t had the wit or courage to set up my equipment properly. I had come away without capturing any sounds of the horrors of the prison. My producer, Andy answered my anguished phone call after a Sunday dog-walk in the Lake District. He tried to sound comforting but I could sense his disappointment.

My search for Mavembo took me into the noisy, muddy back streets of the city. Huge puddles were created by the first rains of the season. In a small backyard, a charismatic preacher was shouting about the glory and power of the Lord. His congregation swayed and clapped. The address on my Home Office document was a breeze-block house. It looked as if it was still under construction but had obviously been there for decades. Outside, a small crowd of people were sitting on the ground. When Patrice and I explained why I was there, they all started talking at once, very loudly. They said it was their family home. They had never heard of anyone called Mavembo.

As we were leaving, an elderly man beckoned me from across the street. Another even bigger crowd gathered. He told me the Mavembo family had once lived there but had moved away in the 70s. When I got back into the battered taxi, a young man jumped in beside me. He said he was Mavembo’s nephew and could take me to where he now lived on the other side of town. An hour or so later, we edged further and further into narrow pitted lanes until eventually our car came to a halt. Making the rest of the journey on foot, in total darkness, we arrived at the door of a single-storey house. 

Inside an otherwise empty room, a man was lying, sweating with fever, on a mattress on the floor. This wasn’t the accountant who had sought asylum in the UK. I wasn’t going to get such a neat ending to my story. Although this was where Munto Mavembo lived, he had gone to visit a relative in another part of the city.

In the next few days I had other people to meet with experience of asylum-seekers returning to the Congo. It was all done clandestinely through an intermediary – curtained rooms, false identities. A man, who’d escaped to Belgium but was refused asylum, described in a whisper his interrogation and beating at Ndjili Airport before his transfer to Makala Prison. There the physical and psychological torture increased.   Ten days later, suddenly and without explanation, he was released. As he walked out of the prison, the guards taunted him, saying they knew where to find him. He has been in hiding ever since.

Another man explained that he had been held for 45 days and repeatedly questioned about his reasons for seeking asylum in the Netherlands. The most chilling evidence came from a member of the ANR, working at the airport. He said he had orders to pick out returning asylum-seekers as they arrived – and arrest those political dissidents who had tarnished the country’s reputation abroad. He also arrested those connected to enemies of the government, a group which included people with ‘Rwandan morphology’. He said his information about the returnees was gathered by the many Congolese spies operating in embassies and High Commissions across the world. However, even with the guarantee of total anonymity (he would not let me record his voice) he balked at the most important question, ‘What happens when you hand these people over to your bosses?’. For a few moments he pretended not to know. Then he shrugged and said, ‘Everything. Everything happens to them’.

I did find Munto Mavembo in the end. And his story was neither the happy ending that I had selfishly dreaded, nor the clincher I had been praying for. He was not pleased to be discovered and had no messages of gratitude or fondness for his solicitor and other well-wishers in the UK. He had passed through Ndjili Airport without trouble but since his arrival in January, he’d had a hard time. He’d been very sick and now preferred to stay in the shadows, unnoticed by the authorities. He refused to be interviewed for the BBC. That was another radio moment in my journey that went unrecorded. By then, though, it didn’t matter. I had nine hours of material – enough evidence to show that many asylum-seekers do face considerable danger on their return to the Congo.

'Arete is a journal as exquisite in its execution as in its intentions.'
John Updike

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Milan Kundera