As DRC election nears, ‘tortured’ dissidents in exile speak out

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The names of interviewees in this article, except professor Cheeseman, have been changed to protect their anonymity.

London – It was the number of unidentified bodies bearing signs of torture arriving at the morgue that made Cherie*, a nurse at Kinshasa’s General Hospital, get involved in politics.

As part of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress Party (UDPS), the main opposition party in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), she handed out leaflets and took part in protests. 

In December 2009, the 20-year-old was arrested after attending a memorial service for activists who had been killed.

For two weeks she was kept in the detention centre of the Rapid Intervention Police (Police d’intervention rapide, PIR). 

She says she was beaten and raped on four separate occasions, once by three policemen at a time. 

“It’s as if I lost a part of myself,” she says quietly. She was released after signing papers promising to stop any political activism.

Cherie has been in the UK since 2013. She is a witness in a report compiled by the UK human rights organisation Freedom From Torture based on the accounts and medical examination of 74 Congolese men and women who escaped detention and fled to the UK between 2013 and 2018.

After the first arrest, she carried on protesting. 

“I was a target already,” she says. 

The second time she was arrested in 2011 and was held for 10 days. She says she was raped once and beaten with bayonets and pistols. “I felt death within me.”

Rape in our country, it’s as normal as buying bread from Tesco.

Cherie, former prisoner and torture survivor

The Freedom From Torture report exposes how ordinary men and women in Kinshasa, far from the well-documented Eastern conflict, are being imprisoned and tortured for low-level political activity. They are guilty of anything from simply being a member of an opposition party to handing out leaflets.

The report found that nearly all of the women and two-thirds of the men had been raped. 

“Rape in our country, it’s as normal as buying bread from Tesco,” Cherie says. 

Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify Cherie’s claims, but they were consistent with several other people who claimed similar abuse.

“We’re not talking about a small number of individuals who are beaten or abused, we’re talking about tens of thousands,” says Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy and international development at Birmingham University. “This is characteristic of the state of politics in the DRC and, of course, it’s probably likely to get better rather than worse as we head towards the elections in December.”

DRC goes to the polls to elect a new president on December 23 to replace 47-year-old Joseph Kabila, who has ruled since his father, president Laurent-Desire Kabila, was assassinated in 2001.

Protesters attempt to leave the safe haven of a church during violent protests that left five people dead and scores injured in Kinshasa in January 2018. The banned protest was against President Joseph Kabila after he stated that he would not step down at the end of his term in December 2018 [Robert Carrubba/EPA]

Pierre*’s cousin had disappeared in 2014 on his way to hospital after a protest. 

On January 19, 2015, Pierre participated in his first political protest when he was arrested, along with his twin and an older brother, a known political activist whom he has not seen since. 

They were among the students in Kinshasa who were sprayed with tear gas after protesting against Kabila’s claim that a national census was needed before holding elections. 

Pierre and his twin were taken to the detention centre of the National Intelligence Agency (ANR).

For two months, he was kept in a cell with about 500 prisoners, in the basement of ANR headquarters. 

Fellow prisoners fell sick and died, he says; their bodies would be thrown into a hole in the floor, to be washed away into the Congo river. 

Detainees would be selected to clean the toilet using their bare hands. There were no washing facilities. They would eat once a day – a small can of tomato, rice and raw beans.

After two years, he finally escaped in May 2017 during a larger-scale break-out orchestrated by the political-religious Bundu Dia Kongo group. 

He still does not know the whereabouts of his twin. 

Pierre arrived in the UK in October 2017. During the day, he goes to English lessons. 

“I then come home. I eat if there’s food. I read the news about Congo,” he says.

Cherie has not seen her mother or two sisters since 2012. She knows she is a danger to them; her 12-year-old sister was beaten by security forces wanting information. 

“If my mother and sisters are dead, it is my fault,” she says. 

She now works as a youth leader at Congo Support, a London-based organisation which calls itself the diaspora’s leading opposition party.

In 2017, according to Home Office statistics, the UK resettled 210 refugees, including dependants. 

The Congolese refugee population is one of the tenth largest in the world, and over half of the 780,000 people displaced are children. 

Most Congolese refugees flee to neighbouring countries – the latest UNHCR figures show that over 60 percent reside in Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi – while 4.5 million people are displaced inside the DRC. 

Attempts to delay elections and seek a third term as well as the DRC’s economic difficulties have meant Kabila and his chosen successor Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary have lost popular support. 

In the run-up to the vote, the ruling party will have to fight harder to retain power. 

“I think we’re likely to see greater use of coercion in order to maintain control,” says Cheeseman.

Titi’s story

Titi*, 38, was also part of the Freedom From Torture report. 

She realised how unequal society was when she lost her job as a personal assistant. 

First arrested in 2013, during a peaceful rally for UDPS leader Etienne Tshisekedi, she spent two days in prison and says she was released on condition, like Cherie, that she sign a paper promising to stop her activism.

In 2016, she took part in a protest against Kabila standing for a third term. A young activist was shot dead beside her, she says.

She was taken to prison and remembers being forced to kneel in the courtyard of the prison with the other protesters and ordered to stare at the hot sun for hours. 

Titi spent two months in prison: after the second interrogation, they took her to another room. 

“There was one policeman in front and one behind. There was another in the room. They did everything they wanted to do.” 

After the rape, Titi changed. “Before, I didn’t have the same fear.”

She escaped with the help of a family friend who worked in the government and arrived in the UK in November 2016. She is now a cleaning supervisor. 

As she suffers from flashbacks, she attends regular therapy sessions at Freedom From Torture. 

She has no sympathy for those complicit with state repression, including her family friend. “They are monsters,” she says. 

Titi will only return when she thinks human rights are respected. 

On the upcoming election, she says: “I’m frightened and I pray to God. I pray there isn’t a bloodbath.”

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