By Peter Townson
Journalists in DR Congo have witnessed and experienced unimaginable horrors, with many being forced from their homes in fear of their lives. However, the situation upon relocation is rarely as safe and secure as expected.
Adolphe Chebeye lives in fear of his life despite relocating to Kampala, Uganda
Similar to other countries in East Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo has witnessed and continues to experience frightening levels of violence, forcing many people to leave their home country and seek refuge elsewhere.
Among the thousands of refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries are a large number of journalists, many of whom were targeted for their work, decided to escape amidst threats and extreme danger.
Sharing a border with DRC, Uganda has become a popular destination for exiled Congolese journalists. However, journalists remain frightened for their lives even after relocation. And with good reason.
“Living under fear”
Despite fleeing to Kampala, Adolphe Chebeye still lives in constant fear. Working for the radio network RTGB in his home country of DRC, he witnessed massacres, genocide and mass human rights violations, all of which he and his brother, who worked at the same station, documented. However, their work and their inside knowledge of the behaviour of rebel leader, General Kakolele, made them targets.
Adolphe’s brother, Patient Chebeye was killed, and while three people were charged with his murder, Adolphe is sure that the real masterminds behind his brother’s death remain at large. He also feels that his own life is in danger, partly due to the fact that a friend of his, who was mistaken for Adolphe, was recently brutally beaten.
According to a report by the Criminal Intelligence office in Kamapala: “All of this is a risk to the life of the subject who is living under fear.”
“The life of the subject is indeed under threat because of being a witness in cases of crimes against humanity,” it continues.
Crimes against humanity
However, Chebeye’s case is by no means a one-off. Spending time with exiled journalists in Kampala, it becomes clear that media workers from DRC have experienced and been subjected to unimaginable horrors.
Stervoce Kibandja Shandwe, a 32-year-old journalist and human rights activist who fled to Kampala in 2008, was forced from his country because of his “reports on crimes against humanity.”
His mother and father were killed, his brother was sodomised by government forces, his sister was raped and his wife and young son were taken from their home. He later discovered that his wife, taken to be an army General’s wife, had been killed during a raid.
After relocating to Kampala, Stervoce continues to face incredible hardship. His sister has been raped again, this time by Ugandan government forces, and he has now been left with another mouth to feed, as well as a range of medical issues to deal with.
“I wanted to carry on my work and serve my nation – that is my wish,” he said, adding “journalists these days in our country don’t have a value and face very bad things.”
Benoit Tshikombe Wa Beka was working as a freelance journalist when he was forced to flee DRC after writing on issues related to insecurity, government corruption, treatment of Rwandan refugees and problems on the border with Angola.
“They did not want coverage of these issues and I was hunted by the government, arrested and tortured,” he saidexplaining that the families of journalists who were covering these topics had also been harassed.
As he fled to a neighbouring province for his safety, Benoit said that government soldiers visited his home, raped his wife, pillaged his home and violated his children.
His family joined him in another village, seeking safety, but Benoit was taken and drugged by government forces who raped his wife once more.
“I felt down and I told them just to kill me,” he said, adding that he told the soldiers “I am useless now.”
Benoit and his family then fled to Uganda, where he now lives, jobless. His family members at home have been killed, and his brother who had also escaped to Kampala, was sent to an IDP camp where he was seized and forced to join Congolese forces.
“In our country they don’t want people to be informed, but we want to inform them – that is why we are facing problems,” he added.
Insecurity for speaking out
Andre Ndagije Mubera, 37, is now living in exile in Kampala with his wife, four children and three orphans who the family have taken in.
“I faced insecurity for speaking out against crimes and violations against journalists,” he said.
“I was arrested in 2006 and spent three days in jail with nobody knowing,” he explained, noting that he was later released.
However, when government forces came to arrest him 2008, the results were tragic. “I was not around, but unfortunately they found my wife who was at home, with my children and young sister. They took my wife and raped her, and my young sister was beaten – when she started quarrelling with them, they killed her. That’s why I decided to leave Goma and come this way.”
“Even here I am not safe and not secure, and the living cost in Kampala is so high,” he said, explaining that he has also been arrested in Uganda.
“I need to get a safe place, and I need to be able to help educate my family – that is my wish,” Andre added.
“No journalism…no truth”
Journalists of all ages have faced persecution in DRC, and while there are a large number of young media professionals living in exile, older media workers have also had to flee.
Kamalebo Wa Munyakasubi is 55 years-old. Because of his work highlighting gender-based violence in DRC, he was forced to flee to Kampala in 2009. He now lives in his adopted home with his wife and three children.
“Really, the cost of life is very high and life is very bad,” he said, adding that he has had to move outside the city because of his lack of financial resources.
“I don’t feel safe here – when I ask people about Congo, people tell me that they are still looking for me and I cannot go back to the country.”
“Media freedom is very important if there is democracy, but right now you can say in Congo that there is no journalism because there is no democracy and there is no truth,” he added.
Communication and verification issues
John Kalume is the East and Horn of Africa coordinator for Freedom and Rights Initiative, an organisation aimed at providing assistance to journalists in need. Himself an exiled journalist from DR Congo, Kalume described life in Kampala as posing “many problems.”
“There are security concerns – some armed groups pursue us here,” he said, adding “we are not safe.”
He explained that his organisation attempts to help journalists from across the region through advocacy and putting pressure on decision makers.
However, as is often the case, there are serious difficulties in determining exactly who are journalists and who are refugees fleeing for other reasons. “Everyone is living in miserable conditions, and they see that journalists can receive assistance, so they claim to be journalists,” he said, explaining that he has identified ten people posing as media workers in the past.
Kalume noted that there are many other “true journalists” with whom his organisation has been unable to establish contact, adding that media workers remain committed to the spirit of their profession, whatever their circumstances.
“We are all still journalists and we will die journalists – if we don’t continue our work then we will never be able to change our country.”
All the journalists DCMF met in Kampala were passionate about their work and wholly committed to the profession of journalism, despite the difficulties they have faced because of their careers.
The human cost they have paid for working in the media is almost unconceivable, and after the hardship they have faced, they find themselves in an unknown country, lacking language skills, financial sustenance and basic accommodation.
However, most importantly they lack safety and security. While they have fled their homes, they still feel the threats of Congolese agents and are unable to trust anyone they meet. And yet they remain committed to protecting media freedom, to spreading the truth of the atrocities they have witnessed and to developing their own professional ability in the future.
These brave journalists require a safe haven to fulfill their potential and their professional capacity. Unfortunately, Kampala does not offer them the effective protection they need as they await a date when returning to DRC will once again be possible.
As for now, waiting for news about resettlement applications, Kalume and his colleagues dream of returning to their homeland: “We would like to return to our beautiful country, but when war is over, when there is rule of law, good governance and democracy. Including media freedom, freedom of access to information and freedom of expression.”