very day, reluctant immigrants the world
over are forced to abandon their customs,and shed their very sense
of identity, all in search of basic safety. Since the passage of
the 1980 Refugee Act, over 1.6 million foreign nationals have journeyed
to the U.S. and applied for refugee or asylum status. Each one has
a chilling story to tell. Most narratives contain a combination
of state-sanctioned intimidation, secret detentions, disappearances,
torture, rapes, and killings. Mputa Mbundzu, a 45-year-old Congolese
descendent of the Lari tribe whose family was the target of multiple
atrocities, is a typical petitioner. In 2004 he narrowly escaped
his tormentors, went into hiding, then managed to flee, ending up
Like most African nations, the Republic of Congo has struggled to
emerge from under the yoke of its European colonizers. In 1960 the
country finally gained its independence from France, but kept socialism
as its governing principle and Brazzaville as its capital. The city
sits on the bank of the Congo river opposite Kinshasa, its counterpart
in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire, now generally
referred to as “DRC”). Three hundred miles downstream
is the port of Pointe-Noire, Congo’s economic gateway to the
Roughly the size of Montana, Congo is a land rich in oil reserves.
But according to the World Bank, its per capita Gross National Income
flutters around $770. Chevron and Exxon are among the major players
involved in petroleum exploration and exploitation while the French
company Elf Aquitaine still accounts for the bulk of Congolese oil
production. Perhaps another remnant of French influence is the unusually
high number of public sector jobs which, with a population of three
million, peaked at around 80,000 a little over a decade ago.
Before fleeing, the Congo state bureaucracy was Mputa Mbundzu’s
employer for 13 years. As an “industrial techniques engineer”
he assessed license applications submitted by local mining companies
and recommended those who met government standards to his superiors.
After being promoted to section chief, Mbundzu began to supervise
the field work and review the reports of a handful of employees.
While the work did not yield generous salaries (a car remained an
out-of-reach luxury item), Mbundzu and his colleagues managed to
support their families. His five children were fed, healthy, and
living safely in a typical Brazzaville house.
In 1991, around the time Mbundzu was hired at the Ministry of Mines,
Congo officially abandoned its Marxist-Leninist heritage, turned
its back on three decades of military coups, and transitioned to
a multi-party democratic system. A new constitution was ratified,
national elections were held, and Professor Pascal Lissouba was
elected, defeating his main opponent, incumbent president and Army
Colonel Denis Sassou-Nguesso, who had overthrown his predecessor
in 1979. After being rejected at the polls, Sassou-Nguesso left
Congo for a life of affluence in France.
The early 1990s saw incremental progress toward a more open and
efficient form of government. Lissouba’s economic platform
promised a redistribution of oil revenues away from the ruling class.
His modernization program called for increasing Congo’s 17
percent stake in its domestic oil industry to 50 percent in 4 years.
Religion was no longer banned from schools, churches were allowed
to open their doors, and people started to congregate and express
But old dictatorial habits die hard. Fueled by a complex mix of
personal ambition, secret alliances, and powerful business interests,
civil unrest percolated until June 1997 when Sassou-Nguesso returned
with a rebel militia, the Cobras, and attacked government forces.
Eager to protect his country’s oil assets, and opposed to Lissouba’s
nationalization plan, thenFrench president Jacques Chirac brokered
a deal with neighboring Angolan fighters to back the Cobras.
The civil war lasted four long months and devastated much of Brazzaville.
In October Sassou-Nguesso declared himself president of Congo and
appointed his own ruling council, prompting Lissouba and his elected
officials to go into exile. After the official ceasefire, many Angolan
soldiers stayed behind and effectively occupied the Pool region.
They continued their assault on a defenseless population, pillaging
and ravaging a rapidly disintegrating country. (To this day, most
schools in Pool have not reopened.)
From his usurped position of power, SassouNguesso deployed small
roving units who fanned across the countryside looking for alleged
supporters of the previous regime. That is how on October 19, 1998
the Cobras appeared in Massembo-Loubaki, Mbundzu’s native village,
a small hamlet without electricity or running water some 60 miles
south of the capital. Shortly before dawn, a number of white flatbed
trucks carrying armed men were spotted on the outskirts of the village.
Word of the suspicious visitors quickly spread and inhabitants went
to bed with their flimsy doors locked, fearing the worst.
Under the leadership of a commander named Bakana Vital, the Cobras
began a random door-to-door search for young Lari men. Overcoming
resistance from both a neighborhood chief and the village elder,
the soldiers rounded up 23 of them. They lined them up against a
wall and executed them. One of the men sustained critical injuries
and another had the incredible presence of mind to drop to the ground
a fraction of a second before triggers were pulled. All 21 others
fell under a storm of bullets.
With limited resources, and anticipating a return visit by the soldiers,
the village people buried the gruesomely disfigured bodies in haste.
Many then left their huts and sought refuge in the surrounding forest
where they lived precariously for weeks thereafter. In Brazzaville
Mbundzu was contacted by relatives and was soon able to make his
way to Massembo-Loubaki. What he encountered there was an overwhelming
sense of loss. Everyone in the village was either related to or
had been a friend of one or several of the slain men.
Having to provide for his children, Mbundzu could not risk losing
his job by staying in the village indefinitely. After a few days,
he went back to the capital and resumed his functions at the ministry.
But a month later, along with two friends, he founded the “Association
pour la Memoire des Innocents de MassemboLoubaki” (Association
for the Memory for the Innocents of Massembo-Loubaki). The group
had four specific mandates: first it would provide moral and financial
assistance to the victims’ bereaved loved ones; it would undertake
to prove to national and international observers that the victims
were indeed innocent of any wrong-doing; it would attempt to bring
the perpetrators of the massacre to justice, thus showing Congo’s
youth that armed militias are not above the law; and it would try
to discourage survivors from retaliating and taking up arms themselves.
Not surprisingly, these initiatives did not endear the new association’s
leaders to the authorities. Over the months and years that followed,
they were each arrested several times, interrogated without access
to legal counsel, and detained for varying periods of time. Torture
was a routine intimidation tactic used by military captors guarding
prisoners. In some cases, the extreme physical abuse went so far
as to cause death and such was the fate of the group’s other
two founding members.
In May 2004, following an especially vicious series of blows, Mbundzu
was taken to a hospital where he remained in a coma for ten days.
When he miraculously regained his senses, he had no memory of being
transported there. Doctors told him he had been dropped off in the
night by men who left without identifying either themselves or their
When he was able to walk again, Mbundzu was taken to a local jail
for two more months before being granted a conditional release.
But the intimidation did not stop. One evening in August, armed
men came looking for him. In a state of panic, he escaped through
a back window while behind him, amid screams and a frantic scuffle,
two of his children were shot dead. That is when his life changed
and he went into hiding.
In September, at the behest of concerned friends, Mbundzu began
to plan his escape. A Congolese passport was made for him, but he
needed to get a visa to enter the U.S. The closest U.S. embassy
was in Kinshasa. Hiding from militia and police, he reached the
river, where a man in a small boat was waiting to take him across.
Once he set foot in the DRC, Mbundzu was not out of harm’s
way. As detailed in a 2003 Amnesty International report, Congolese
refugees who were smuggled into the DRC were fair game for authorities.
If picked up, they were either sent to undisclosed detention centers,
designated for extrajudicial execution, or returned to Congo where
Sassou-Nguesso’s forces often made them “disappear.”
Because traveling from the DRC capital was considerably more expensive,
Mbundzu embarked on a long trek back into Congo, through the regions
of Bas-Congo, Pool, and then to the airport in Pointe-Noire. Completing
different segments on foot and by car, truck, and train, he finally
reached his destination. At the airport, fighting his nerves, he
went through all the security checks without attracting any attention.
When the attendants closed the doors and the aircraft finally pulled
away from the gate, he knew he had made it.
If leaving Congo had become an essential means of staying alive,
Mbundzu’s new life in the U.S. would soon take the shape of
a different kind of survival. Because he was not applying from his
own country, Mbundzu was considered an asylum seeker and not a refugee.
This meant that, while waiting for a decision in his case, he would
not be allowed to work or be eligible for financial support. That
he managed to cope in an environment that is overwhelmingly hostile
to poor and disoriented immigrants is in great part due to the benevolence
of the Congolese community in Chicago. Some put him up on their
couch for a few nights and fed him, others gave him basic goods
and helped him adapt to the city’s fast pace.
It is through a Congolese ex-patriate that Mbundzu first heard of
the Marjorie Kovler Center for the Treatment of Survivors of Torture.
Part of the not-for-profit Heartland Alliance for Human Needs &
Human Rights, the center is also a leading member of the National
Consortium of Torture Treatment Programs (NCTTP). Since its inception
in 1987, the Kovler Center has provided social, medical, and mental
health services to over 1,300 torture survivors from more than 70
countries. Most of the center’s operating budget comes from
the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, but it also competes
for foundation grants and receives money from corporate and individual
donors. All services are delivered free of charge.
After a few introductory screening sessions with a case manager
and a French-speaking interpreter, Mbundzu was put on a waiting
list for an intake appointment. Following an extensive intake process,
he was added to the center’s list of “clients” and
a treatment plan was developed with his input. Implementing the
finely-tuned Kovler response model, an experienced team made up
of a clinical psychologist, a psychiatrist, an occupational therapist,
a nurse, and a doctor embarked with Mbundzu on what would be a long
healing process. Beyond physical scars, Mbundzu displayed psychological
and physiological symptoms that are typical of torture survivors:
disturbed sleep (prolonged insomnia, recurring nightmares), chronic
headaches, bouts of depression, feelings of guilt, and an instinctive
and paralyzing fear of those in police or military uniforms.
though he did not have a fixed address and lived on extremely limited
resources, Mbundzu attended his regular sessions at the Kovler Center
diligently. In the fall, as temperatures began to dip, he was offered
warm clothing from the center’s “free store” in anticipation
of his first Chicago winter. Later, with the help of his case manager,
he was enrolled in English (ESL) classes at a local community college.
The almost daily lessons put him in contact with other immigrants
from a variety of countries, some of whom also spoke French.
When summer 2005 came around Mbundzu turned his energies toward
petitioning for legal status, a process that U.S. Immigration Law
stipulates must be initiated within one year of arrival. The first
step is the filing of an “Application for Asylum and Withholding
of Removal,” which protects against summary deportation. To
assist in this, the Kovler Center directed Mbundzu to the Midwest
Immigrant & Human Rights Center (MIHRC), which is part of the
Heartland Alliance’s network of service providers. His case
was referred to an attorney with Winston & Strawn LLP, one of
the country’s leading firms when it comes to pro bono work.
Thus began the all-important documentation phase.
The main contention in Mbundzu’s case was that he was fleeing
“persecution,” a concept that does not enjoy a universally
accepted definition. But the
as well as international
human rights law and precedent, offers specific guidelines that
the U.S. still follows, albeit not as closely as in the past. According
to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Refugee Convention,
no country shall extradite an individual to another country where
he/she has been, or fears being, “persecuted” on account
of a fundamental aspect of his/her identity—namely race, religion,
nationality, membership in a particular social group, and political
Whereas foreign jurisdictions allow for an asylum claim to be based
on any combination of those components, in the U.S. a bill introduced
in January 2005 by U.S. Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-WI)
seeks to limit each claim to a single aspect. Commonly called “REAL
ID,” the proposed legislation is on its third version and has
now been referred to a Senate committee. It would, among other restrictive
provisions, make document requirements considerably harder to meet
by demanding that medical records from the home country be submitted
in their original form. It is not clear what the bill intends in
terms of recourse for the thousands of asylum seekers whose abusers
did not keep detailed written records of their torture practices.
But until such changes are enacted, and if provisions are not applied
retroactively, petitioners whose papers are in order will continue
to move to the next step where, like Mbundzu, they receive a notice
to appear at an Application Support Center to be fingerprinted.
A thorough background and security check is subsequently performed
and any applicant who is believed to have been involved with a terrorist
organization is rejected and put in “removal proceedings.”
With the passage of the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act, the definition of
“terrorist activity” has been broadened and the grounds
for inadmissibility have been expanded. While the great majority
of asylum seekers are genuine victims of repressive regimes, some
of them still run the risk of being associated with radical elements
and falsely identified as enemies of the state. For those particular
individuals, setting foot on U.S. soil may prove more dangerous
than they realize. As Mbundzu had no link to any proclaimed “terrorist”
group, his case proceeded.
three weeks later, he received a second notice, summoning him to
an interview at the Chicago Asylum Office, one of eight such locations
nationally. There, he was interviewed by an asylum officer who had
examined his file. Through an appointed interpreter, Mbundzu related
the events that led up to his escape from Congo and answered a series
of questions. The following week, in what turned out to be an unusually
rapid turnover, he was informed that he had been granted asylum
and that, in accordance with the Immigration and Nationality Act,
he would be assigned a Social Security number in 30 days. He would
also be eligible for financial assistance. Although a minor system
glitch extended that date slightly, he did obtain his papers, and
his attorney helped him apply for a temporary, modest monthly stipend,
which was quickly awarded.
It is worth noting that had the interviewing officer doubted any
part of Mbundzu’s narrative, his application would have been
sent to a federal immigration judge for further investigation and
questioning. Much like French magistrates, immigration judges take
on the dual role of interrogator and adjudicator. Citizenship and
Immigration Services statistics show that such a procedure is undertaken
in an increasing number of cases, sometimes keeping the applicant
in limbo for more than a year. REAL ID attempts to strip federal
judges of this function and speed up the removal process by limiting
avenues for appeal.
In early October, as the seventh anniversary of the Massembo-Loubaki
massacre approached, and not giving up on the goals of his association,
Mbundzu tapped his friends and acquaintances in the local African
community to collect money for the families of the victims. Contributing
a large portion of his own monthly allowance, he was able to send
almost $700 to pay for essential school supplies. Turning a sad
date into an occasion for hope, a memorial service was held and
an open-air reception was organized at which books and pencils were
distributed. Mbundzu is now looking into registering the association
with the state of Illinois. Eventually, Mbundzu wants to apply for
support from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Survivors of
Torture. A small grant could help provide vital health services
and sponsor educational programs for the children.
indications are that Mbundzu’s life will improve substantially
in 2006. He is progressing rapidly through the five ESL proficiency
levels and has completed Certified Nursing Assistant training. Not
content with living off the government stipends, he obtained a cleaning
job on the night shift at the Fairmont Hotel in downtown Chicago.
While he is in regular contact with his wife and children in Congo,
he does not know when or even whether he will see them again. He
has applied for family reunification, a process that promises to
take several years and be significantly more expensive than his
own. Before his children can be eligible to leave Congo, they will
have to undergo a series of medical exams, including DNA testing.
Then, Mbundzu will have to pay for travel documents and airfare
for all of them.
In late January the African Union (AU) held its annual summit to
elect a new chair. The organization’s mission is to foster
democracy, instill respect for human rights, and encourage economic
development. Sudan, the host and leading contender for the top position,
was forced to withdraw its nomination when many member states refused
to endorse it. Citing the Khartoum regime’s well-documented
record of human rights abuses in the Darfur region, they lobbied
for a less controversial choice. Looking for a brighter beacon of
peace, the AU turned around and picked none other than Sassou-Nguesso’s
Congo. When he heard the news, Mbundzu sat back in his chair and
slowly closed his eyes in disbelief. For him and thousands of Congolese,
this was adding insult to injury. Quite literally.
Mbundzu is an assumed name. Marie-Jo Proulx is a senior writer for
Windy City Times.