1 October 2013

Africa: From Africa to Brazil in the Hold of a Ship

Rio De Janeiro — Ornela Mbenga Sebo, a young Congolese woman, escaped in 2011 from a rebel camp in an unidentified location in Africa where she was being held as a slave and stowed away in the garbage bay of a merchant ship, with no idea where it was headed.

When the ship reached its destination two weeks later, she found out she was in Santos, an Atlantic ocean port in southeast Brazil.

She is one of hundreds of people from the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who have sought refuge in Brazil.

Mbenga Sebo was born in Walikale, in the eastern DRC province of North Kivu. Armed groups and the army are fighting over the gold, cassiterite, coltan and other minerals in that region.

But until 2011, she appeared to be safe from the violence. Her family had a comfortable life. Her father taught at the university, and she was studying journalism and working in a bank. She had learned English and French and had travelled abroad.

"We walked for two weeks. I found other people who were also escaping: people who were sick, children, women and men." -- Ornela Mbenga Sebo

Her odyssey began in January 2011, when she was 21. Walikale became the target of an attack by insurgents, who slaughtered local residents and set fire to homes and public buildings.

She was at work when the rebel invasion began. She hid there until things calmed down, before running home. But her house was burning and there was no sign of her family.

Alone, with just the clothes on her back, she walked for weeks with other people who were running away from the violence. Her aim was to reach the capital, Kinshasa, where her grandparents lived.

"I was on foot," she told IPS. "We walked for two weeks. I found other people who were also escaping: people who were sick, children, women and men."

The DRC, a vast, resource-rich country in Central Africa, has been caught up in armed conflict between government forces and different armed groups for decades. Some of the insurgent groups have ties to neighbouring Rwanda and Burundi.

In 2010, a United Nations fact-finding mission documented a range of human rights crimes, including mass rapes, by the militias and the army itself in Walikale.

Mbenga Sebo described the terror she felt as she walked through ghost towns, abandoned and destroyed, only inhabited by the bodies strewn along the streets.

"It's so vivid in my mind that when I talk about it it's like I'm back in that place again," she said.

The biggest danger was running into armed groups, "who roamed from town to town looking for people to kill," she said.

On more than one occasion she pretended to be dead, to save her life.

But she ended up being captured and taken to a camp, where she was kept as a slave along with dozens of other people.

The armed men who seized her were Rwandan, she said. They loaded her and the rest of the group she was travelling with onto three helicopters. The trip took about two hours. From what she could see from the air, the camp they arrived at was not near a town or any populated area.

Charly Nzalambila, a Congolese volunteer with Caritas Brazil who helped transcribe Mbenga Sebo's story to submit to the authorities in Brazil, believes the men were members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda.

When they were communicating by radio, her captors spoke Swahili and some English, Mbenga Sebo said.

She spent all day hauling buckets of water to supply the rebel camp. The insurgents "forced the women to sleep with them, wash their clothes, and cook their meals. I slept on the ground. They would beat me. I suffered moral, physical and mental abuse," she said.

But one day she met a young man who took pity on her and helped her escape, showing her that the camp was near a port. He told her they were in Tanzania, but IPS was unable to verify this.

Late one night in February, she climbed over the wall surrounding the camp, and made it to a merchant ship. "It was a matter of life or death," she said.

The only thing she found to eat were some peanuts. Two weeks later, after discovering that she had landed in the Brazilian port of Santos, the second surprise was realising that she could understand the local language - Portuguese - because she had once spent a year in Angola with her family.

She quickly made contact with people from Angola and DRC living in Brazil, and not long after her arrival, she was living as a refugee in Rio de Janeiro.

This country of 198 million has no limits on the number of people who can be granted refugee status. According to the law on refugees, passed in 1997, even people who have entered the country using false documents can apply for refugee protection.

Destination unknown

Fleeing overseas with no clear destination may not be so uncommon among Africans desperately escaping violence and armed conflict.

"Many young people fleeing these situations end up in Brazil by chance," Angolan refugee Fernando Ngury told IPS in 2007, 10 years after the law on refugees took effect.

"Many stow away on ships that they believe are heading to Europe, and find themselves instead in Brazil. But some are thrown overboard at sea," said Ngury, the head of the Centre for the Defence of Refugee Human Rights (CEDHUR).

According to the latest official figures, there are 4,715 people from 74 different countries who have been granted refugee status in Brazil today. The largest groups are made up of nearly 1,700 Angolans, 700 Colombians and some 500 people from the DRC.

Of the 4,715 refugees, 2,012 still receive assistance from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

There are also 1,441 people who have applied, and are still waiting, for refugee status.

The process of requesting refugee protection in Brazil begins at the National Committee for Refugees (CONARE), in the Justice Ministry.

Rebuilding

Now 23, Mbenga Sebo is rebuilding her life little by little. Today she shares a house with four Congolese roommates in a suburb of Rio. As a refugee, she has the right to work and has full access to public services, such as healthcare and education.

The fact that she speaks several languages helped her get a job as a receptionist at the Technological Park of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, where she has also made friends.

Recently, through the online social networking site Facebook, she received wonderful news: that her parents and siblings are still alive.

She learned that her family had managed to flee by bus to Senegal, with the savings they had in their home. Today they are living in Chicago. Her mother is working as a waitress in a hotel and her father is unemployed.

Her dream is to join her family in the U.S. Her friends and office mates are trying to raise funds over the Internet to buy her a plane ticket for Chicago.

She said she had no intention of returning to the DRC. "I love my country, I am African, but I would only go back if the situation changes and it is safe. And even then, only to visit my grandparents, who are still there."

Her workmate, George Patiño, told IPS: "She is an example of strength, conviction and hope." It was his idea to turn to crowdfunding, on the Brazilian web site Vakinha, to send Mbenga Sebo to Chicago.

Patiño hopes to raise the necessary 2,500 dollars in three months. The Ornela Mundi campaign was launched on Vakinha Sept. 5, and 26 percent of the funds needed have been raised so far.

"She has always managed to overcome, and she'll find happiness in the end," Patiño said.

Mbenga Sebo's story deserves to be told in a book, according to Brazilian journalist Ana Paula Laport, who is preparing to write her biography.

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