CHATHAM – For the 10 years between 2005 and 2015, Tony Ntumba was a translator and photojournalist for the United Nations in his native country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Fluent in six languages, he was the first person out of a U N helicopter, the chief means of transportation due to jungle conditions, ready to reassure the people of a village that this “group of white men” were there to help them.
But Ntumba’s main responsibility was to make a photographic record of the plight of the Congolese citizenry at the hands of both the government and the rebels it was fighting in a civil war. Because his pictures informed the world of facts the leaders of the Congo wished kept secret, he was arrested, tortured, held captive and marked for death. After he could not get visas from foreign embassies for he, his wife Joelle and their small daughter Pearl Hope to leave the Congo, Ntumba used a visa already on his passport to relocate to the United States, eventually ending up on Cape Cod four years ago.
That is the back story for “Losing Stability: The Refugee’s Journey From the Congo,” a G. Peter Fleck Memorial Lecture sponsored by and held at the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House on Sunday. Ntumba’s talk, along with a display and slideshow of his photographs, was first presented last October as part of the Paul Hush Memorial Series of forums held at the First Parish Brewster Unitarian Universalist Church in Brewster.
In his comments, Ntumba described the conditions under which many Congolese live.
“The government is corrupt,” he says, “and virtually every official action requires a bribe. Most workers are vastly underpaid despite the relatively high resale value of the mineral tantalum, vital for smartphones and other devices, they mine. Quality education is almost impossible to attain. There are some 50 different rebel groups involved in the civil war, and some of them are actually armed by the government. Rather than going to school, children are recruited either to serve in the official or rebel military forces or to work as mine laborers.”
Though Ntumba was doing the jobs for which the United Nations employed him, the Congolese government did not want the world to know what was happening in his country.
“Every day I was experiencing the madness of human beings,” he said. At one point, Ntumba received a call from the president’s office. “They wanted to hire me. I asked them why, since the president already had photographers on his staff.” He believes the goal was to gain control over his work.
When that failed, he was detained and tortured – he still has trouble wearing shoes due to the electric shock treatments he received. The last time he was arrested he was held in a house, an unofficial and secret location, from which a guard, believing Ntumba’s life was in danger, set him free. Deciding he had to leave the Congo, yet fearing being arrested at the airport, he hid in a truck carrying fuel to his plane and then “climbed aboard by way of the landing gear.”
Most foreign embassies in the Congo will not grant visas to citizens wishing to emigrate to their countries, Ntumba says. Some will even force applicants to leave the embassy grounds even though the officials know that the Congolese army is waiting outside to arrest and kill them. To gain the desired visa a person has first to escape to another country – some as far as Libya and beyond.
“You are running away from something and you do not know where you will end up,” Ntumba says. “I am lucky to be here because I already had a visa to come [to the United States].”
Ntumba was forced to leave his wife behind and it took two years to finally attain a U.S. visa for her to leave the Congo and join him. Both have applied for asylum status with the help of immigration lawyers in Hyannis but have no idea when and if that will be granted. Also, they have twice requested a visa for their daughter, now six and living with her grandmother in the Congo, but until their own status is settled their efforts to facilitate their daughter’s arrival here will not succeed.
Ntumba and Joelle are living in a rental home in Hyannis which they may have to vacate due to the landlord’s desire to rent it for the summer at a higher rate. He is working as a driver for the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, while his wife, who held an important position in an electric company in the Congo, has only been able to obtain seasonal retail employment on the Cape.
Under international and federal law, asylum has two basic requirements. First, an asylum applicant must establish that he or she fears persecution in their home country. Second, the applicant must prove that he or she would be persecuted on account of one of five protected grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or particular social group.In his introductory remarks, the Rev. Rod MacDonald of the Nauset Faith Alliance’s Refugee Support Team explained that under the Trump Administration the possibility of a person successfully applying for refugee or asylum status has been severely curtailed. Ntumba and his wife are being supported by the Alliance in terms of housing, employment, fellowship and obtaining local legal assistance for the application process. But as became apparent in the question and answer session that followed Ntumba’s presentation, there may be little that can be done to address the conditions he photographed, the oppressive actions of the Congolese government and the rebels, the economic inequality and lack of opportunity so many of its citizens, or facilitate a change in the status of Ntumba, his wife, and his daughter.