18 January 2016
|"I couldn’t help her and all I could do was to run as quickly as I could, back to the village to ask for help! I was afraid he might shoot me in the back, but I just kept on running!”|
Lunda Norte, 15 January 2016 – Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), in Angola has now concentrated its work around advocacy in the Capital city, Luanda. Prior to December 2015, JRS in Angola also provided legal, administrative and advocacy assistance to refugees and asylum seekers in the North Eastern province of Lunda Norte, in Angola, but this aspect of the programme has closed since.
However, the people they worked on behalf of, refugees and asylum seekers, have not only had their rights protected by JRS, but managed to claim back their agency and take action in protecting their rights themselves. In JRS’s global experience, we find that refugees and asylum seekers leave behind great difficulties, only to be confronted with new challenges in their host nations. Institutionalised xenophobia as well xenophobia from the locals from the host nation not only marginalises refugees and asylum seekers, but all too often results in their lives and safety being placed at massive risk. This is why one of JRS’s central pillars is advocacy.
Advocacy is important in giving a voice to the voiceless, in empowering those that are disempowered and its importance is no better illustrated than by what it did for a group of displaced people, a few kilometres outside of Dondo, in Lunda Norte.
The experience of Maria Punge Bunyanga, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as well as that of the rest of her community, speaks volumes as to why advocacy played such an essential role in the lives of refugees and asylum seekers in these rural parts of Angola. The land Maria and her community occupy, was allocated by the district authority, for refugees to occupy. However, the construction of houses and all other services required, became the sole responsibility of this refugee community.
The community is nestled in a poor part of Angola where communities are surrounded by equally poverty stricken locals and forests. There is no electricity, sanitation facilities or running water supplied to the small community. Therefore, Maria and the rest of her community have to embark on a two hour long walk to the nearest river to collect water for household needs, every morning.
One morning, at 5 o’ clock, she and a friend, Bea, embarked on their two hour trek to the river to collect water. Bea, believing that they were alone, and thus having relative privacy, decided to take a bath in the river. A young man then appeared, at first trying to extort money from the two women. However, neither of them had any money with them and so he threatened to rape and kill them. Maria responded by pleading with the man: “We are old enough to be a mother to you. Please let us be, we have husbands and families.” But her pleas fell on deaf ears as the armed assailant – armed with a knife and gun – attacked them.
He grabbed Bea and began sexually assaulting her. Maria, despite fearing for her life, confronted the armed assailant and tried to intervene to save her friend. He then began assaulting the two ladies severely. “He tried to stab Bea, but she bravely defended herself. I remember seeing deep cuts to both her palms and bleeding heavily from her wounds. I couldn’t help her and all I could do was to run as quickly as I could, back to the village to ask for help! I was afraid he might shoot me in the back, but I just kept on running!” Maria describes the incident.
Maria and the rest of the community returned hours later, to find Bea severely injured, with several cuts across her face, hands and body. She had also been raped. The trauma has been too much for her to deal with and she left the community and now lives in Luanda. The community reported the incident to the police, who instructed them to apprehend the assailant if they spotted him and hand him over to the police. The community managed to capture him and hand him over to the police. JRS supported the community by informing them of their legal rights and recourse and supported them as they continued to pursue justice.
Echindo Lowoko, hails from Maria’s community as well, and like many other refugees from the DRC, has experienced violent incidents of xenophobia. Like Maria, he fled into Angola in 1997. One day, the local Soba (Chief) summoned Echindo. Before that, Echindo had his documents destroyed by the Soba’s son, who insisted on inspecting it and then said that Echindo’s documents were not authentic. “People do not respect our asylum and refugee documents, making life very difficult.” says Echindo. When Echindo insisted that his documents were in fact authentic, he was attacked with a knife. He still bears the scars to this day.
Echindo, like so many other displaced people has been subject to arbitrary arrest, assaults and a persistent need to assert their legal rights. JRS has been there advocating and accompanying throughout. This service has yielded results for the community.
Today it is believed that Maria and Bea’s attacker is most likely imprisoned for his crimes, as the community have not heard from him since. Despite the ongoing difficulties with strained relations with locals, continued concerns about safety and a lack of essential services such as water, sanitation, electricity as well as adequate schooling facilities; the community feel enabled to look after these concerns themselves.
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