We met Francis on the Kursky train station in autumn, it seems, he wanted to talk to a lawyer but was two hours late so only we were left to meet him – Committee’s permanent French Canadian volunteer Agnes Blais and me, Elena Srapyan, press-secretary. We were ready for a long conversation since back in 2015 we suddenly realized that despite the wide press coverage of the attack on Francis we never published his personal story, never talked about the reasons that forced him to leave Congo.
Francis has lost a lot of weight, he has been roaming around Christian shelters for people of no fixed abode and drug-addicts. He is living near Naro-Fominsk now, in a protestant rehabilitation center “Phoenix”. The center belongs to pastor Andrey Gennadievich; according to Francis, he is an ex-addict, who decided to change his life completely after imprisonment. There are fifteen other people, addicts, living with the Congolese – some used to be heroine-addicts, some did other drugs, some suffer from alcohol addiction. The conditions are not too bad: two big houses with a kitchen in each, one sauna. But it’s difficult to get out since the train station is a 30-minute drive away by taxi. This is why Francis spends most of the time at home.
There are seven people living in one room together with me. I talk to them in Russian and English. We pray every day. Half-past seven we get up for a morning work-out, have breakfast and then we pray from 9 to 12. We read the Bible. There is meditation too, sometimes we sit in the lotus position and listen to music. I’m a religious person myself; every time I enter the kitchen I cross myself. People are always surprised when they see me do that. Russians think that Africans are either Muslim, or voodoo. But I’m a catholic from Africa and I don’t even go the steam bath together with everyone, seeing naked people is sinful.
There are major problems with discipline – it all is similar to summer camp for children, the pastor rarely visits us, he has a big business and seldom has the time. Sometimes he comes to explain the Bible to us. You cannot drink there, cannot smoker or do drugs. One might hide sometimes and smoke, for example. There are certain rules: you can only go outside in twos, never alone. And only without the phone. I am allowed to walk by myself though since I’m not a drug-addict.
Francis ended up with Andrey Grigorievich early in 2015 after he got sick with heavy pneumonia and spent a lot of time in the regional hospital MONIKI (Moscow Regional Research and Clinical Institute). Before that he lived in an orthodox monastery in Artemovsk where he got that pneumonia; it was very cold and the people in rehabilitation warmed themselves up with physical labor. Still entirely sick from the assault Francis couldn’t work.
He is in a warm place now but his future is still unclear; Francis cannot get asylum in Russia.
I don’t know what to do and I’m very much concerned. I’ve been doing nothing for three years now, it’s hard being in this place, not to be doing anything, sitting without a job. I’m a doctor but the FMS officer told me that “I would never work as a doctor here”. It’s good that I have internet and can read newspapers. My visa is long expired and I would like to leave Russia but I don’t know how or where to go. If Kabila (Joseph Kabila Kabange, President of the DRC) resigns I will go back to Congo. But no sooner than that.
Francis’ wife died almost thirteen years ago during labor. His parents and daughter stayed in Congo, he often looks through the photos they post on their Facebook page. They are not persecuted in Congo, all the threats were addressed only to Francis.
I worked as a doctor at a military base of Kamina, Katanga province, in the south of Congo. It’s the military base of Kabila’s father, Laurent-Désiré. He got power back in 1996 through military support from the Tutsi from Uganda and Rwanda. His army had a lot of minors, they call them kadugu, give them arms and send to fight. I’ve worked there since 1998.
One day a man came to my father and told him: “We have chosen your son to study medicine because he has very good grades at school”. When I finished my studies I stayed in Kinshasa to work, I chose those who were able to serve as soldiers. Then I was transferred to the Kamina base. Everyone had to go through me, I know all current army leaders of the country.
Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame promised Laurent Kabila military support for a reason: he was expecting the rebel general to give him South Kivu province, rich in resources, once Kabila won over the previous president. When Kabila came into power, he refused to turn South Kivu over to Rwanda.Their relations were harmed to the point where in 1997 Laurent Kabila threw Rwanda’s and Uganda’s military from Congo asserting an attempt upon his life and extermination of the Hutu by Rwanda’s army.
In 1998 Francis had a conflict with a certain General Lyukame, a military advisor to the president. The advisor arrived at the military base and ordered Francis, who was already working as a military doctor, to kill 600 Hutu people from Rwanda brought from jail. Francis was to poison them.
I told him I couldn’t do that, I was a doctor. My job was to treat people, not kill them. Why was he offering me to do that? Why me? Were there no other employees? There were other military doctors at the base. He told me that I was the one to do it since I was the best and I had to do it leaving no trace.
Francis was placed into a cell as punishment for his refusal. The general threatened him with death. Bu the doctor got lucky; one of the guards turned out to be his friend who helped him escape.
If you were wearing military uniform you had all the benefits. You could just board a plane and fly somewhere, you didn’t need any documents. I went to Kinshasa to see my father but he told me to leave the country. The general was too influential, he had too much power. But I stayed. I worked in a private clinic because I was too scared to work in a government hospital; the general was looking for me. I had a big paycheck, around 700 dollars. But I was living in constant fear. The military visited my father and asked him about my whereabouts. And I was looking for an opportunity to leave the country. I contacted many embassies but they all denied me visa. Until I had some luck with the Russian visa.
I knew one man, Patrice, he had been living in the same area as my father. And he went to Belgorod to study. He told me: “You can come here with no trouble. Send me a scan of you medical diploma. I will arrange an invitation for you”. I didn’t know how it was possible. I was 44 years old, already a doctor, and that Belgorod University was a technological one. Patrice said it wasn’t a problem and told me to send him my diploma.
Francis followed the plan. A month later he received an invitation via DHL. It happens quite often in Africa, he says, – students get accepted to fee-based departments and have their documents examined not too closely. Francis faced his troubles at the embassy; a man named Alexander who accepted Francis’ documents questioned his intentions.
Alexander asked me what I would be doing in Belgorod. I told him I would like to learn the language and enter a PhD program and the university in Belgorod was the cheapest option. There is a lot of corruption at the Russian Embassy in Kinshasa; when I left the office I saw that Alexander was taking bribes. A doctor was standing near the office, he told me to give the officer 50 dollars. I gave the money to Alexander.
At first I was afraid I got a visa denial. I didn’t think it would work. There was a travel agency nearby so I went out to buy the earliest plane tickets to Morocco, showed them at the embassy and they gave me the visa.
Francis indeed went to the university. Belgorod is famous among Africans for its largest communities for students from Angola and Nigeria, and many people go there just because they already know someone in the city. Francis paid for one year of studies but stayed in Belgorod for only three months until his father warned him about being looked for even there.
He told me to go to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I went to Moscow. The university didn’t reimburse the money, I paid 1800 dollars, they gave me 1000 dollars back. At the Kursky train station I met a Congolese man who accompanied me to Podolsk. I stayed with some Africans there, one of them promised to take me to the High Commissioner.
A lot of people know how Francis’ stay in Podolsk ended; in 2013 he was surrounded by several young people at a train station and got seriously attacked with a knife. The story was widely reported but it didn’t help Francis much. There was no money and he had to roam around shelters for homeless people and Christian rehabilitation centers instead of rented flats. Later the Congolese became one of the characters for a “B&W” photo project of Aleksey Sorin.
I’ve always had a high standard of living in Congo. The people I knew were all educated, we were living well. Here I found myself at the bottom. I’ve learned to peel potatoes and carrots, chop wood and remove snow. I’ve never lived like this. But it’s good experience, now I have a deeper understanding of life.
Francis has relatives in Belgium but no opportunity to go there. One cannot put a visa stamp into an expired passport, and no one would even give him the visa. He has no asylum in Russia now and the migration services keep denying him again and again. Sadly, this already not very convincing story cannot be proved with documents. The “Civic Assistance” Committee continue helping Francis. We are hoping that proofs can be found and the military doctor will finally get his asylum.
By Elena Srapyan, Agnes Blais, Civic Assistance Committee