“When we, the refugees, came from Kinshasa, there were troops at the border. They started shooting. The men were killed. Women and children – we were all abducted. Every day they would come and take away a person. They said: our president needs the blood of people from the south to make him stronger. I was 15 years old. In 2006, the president ordered the elimination of all surviving witnesses.”
John and his family fled the Republic of the Congo for the first time in 1998, when civil war broke out. A few months later, the authorities declared that the war was over and civilians could return to their homes safely. But the ship with refugees on board, which was sailing to the other side of the river separating Kinshasa and Brazzaville, was met with the presidential troops.
Young men were killed immediately: lined up and shot on the spot. Women and children were forced into buses and taken to an unknown destination. Those who did not fit into the buses were led to a metal cargo container at gunpoint. After the last person entered the container, it was simply lowered into the water, drowning the people alive.
John says that the bus brought them “to the president’s yard”. Every day the military came and led away one of the refugees. Sometimes they would return with their severed head, lifting it high and showing it to those who were still alive.
“There was no food, there was no water. Some people who had water shared it with the children while suffering from hunger and thirst themselves. This is how I spent several days. Then one day a military man came. He recognized me.”
John’s father was a priest – his name was Father Joseph. He worked a lot with children at a school, and the military man who recognized John turned out to be one of his father’s former students. They were closely acquainted, and later John remembered this man: he would come to his father’s house and have extra lessons in physics and chemistry.
“He came and said: do not touch this boy, let him be at the end of the hall. And he left to look for my father. My father handed him money for the commanders, and they ordered to let me go. I was blindfolded, put in a car, and soon I was free.”
Afterwards John lived peacefully for almost eight years, studying and preparing to enter university. In the meanwhile the relatives of those killed on that terrible day, now known as Disappeared of Beach, were seeking justice. In total, more than 300 people died and disappeared back then. The families succeeded: in 2005, due to pressure from France and the support of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Congolese Observatory for Human Rights (OCDH), a trial against the country’s leadership began. At first it was carried out at state level, and all war criminals were acquitted, which caused outrage amongst the international community and led to increased pressure on the president Denis Sassou-Nguesso, who is still in power as of 2016.
“Then the president ordered to eliminate all surviving witnesses. They began to look at databases, pick up archives. First they found the military man who helped us, and then me.”
A friend of the father immediately alerted the family that John had to leave the country urgently. At first he tried to take refuge in his home village, but soon it became clear that it was as dangerous as staying in the capital. At the time, Nguesso was putting pressure on consulates and intermediaries so that the Congolese could not obtain European visas: he did not like the fact that refugees had initiated an investigation, and did not want to develop the case. Only Russian visas, which anyone could get for a certain amount of money, remained. John and his father went to one of the intermediary firms that sent students to Russia, and a few days later he had a visa.
“We also had to pay bribes in order to fly out of the country – otherwise I would not have passed border control as they were already looking for me,” recalls John. “So when we arrived at the airport with my mother and sister, they immediately took me by the hand and led me through lanes for the staff. I went to the airfield, and they immediately put me on board of a plane.”
John’s coming to Russia as a student was not just a formality for obtaining a visa; he began to study. John decided to apply for refugee status only in 2009, when he found out about such an opportunity.
“When they killed my father, I became lonely. I did not know where to go. It was the most difficult moment, I almost went insane. Then I was expelled: I did not have the money to pay for my classes. For several days I slept on the street. It was the most difficult moment here. I even wanted to kill myself, really – I had these thoughts, because I did not see any way out in this life. And then I had hope.”
His first attempt failed: despite the fact that John had plenty of documents confirming his story, migration officials did not find his situation sufficiently dangerous. The Civic Assistance Committee helped him appeal this decision to a higher authority, which was successful, but the second review of the case also did not lead to anything. Only in 2013 the court ordered the Federal Migration Service in Moscow to reconsider John’s case. This time it was successful, four years later, he was granted asylum.
During his time in Russia, John married a Russian woman, and his daughter turned four this year. He knows Russian well. Now John is applying for a residence permit in Russia: he has decided that he wants to live and work here.
“I can share my plans for the future. First, I want to become a citizen of Russia. Secondly, I want to do something to thank Civic Assistance, which has done so much for me. Do not laugh, this is my plan.
Then, I want to find a good job in my field. I want to continue studying, get my degree, since I am a chemist – I was studying in my fourth year, but did not graduate. All because I am working to be a citizen of Russia. And I will have that chance.”
Text: Elena Srapyan
Pictures: Alexandr Fyodorov