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Escape From the Congo

Kabuika Kamunga arrived in Chicago in 1986 with dreams of returning to Africa as a doctor. Twelve years later she was standing before a immigration judge pleading for political asylum.

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Weeks before her mother was shot and killed, Kabuika Kamunga had begun mourning her death. So when she got the call at her Edgewater apartment in the early morning of March 2, 1993, she reacted calmly to the news.

She picked up the phone and was greeted by a longtime friend from back home in Zaire, as the Democratic Republic of the Congo was then known. "The first question he asked was, 'Have you eaten breakfast yet?'" Kabuika recalls. "He kept repeating, 'Have you eaten breakfast yet?' I just knew. I was so calm. Even before he said it, I said, 'It's my mother, isn't it?' I just knew. My whole body knew--my whole being knew."

It's difficult to imagine the 36-year-old Kabuika, who stands tall and confident in a long traditional African dress with her hair braided in short knots, as a shy 18-year-old student exiting a Sabena Airlines jet in the mid-80s. But that's how her life in Chicago began. In the spring of 1986 she graduated with honors from high school in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa. She was a natural student who stood out academically among her eight brothers and sisters. She persuaded her father, Muteba, a wealthy doctor who had attended medical school in Belgium, to let her go abroad for college. He gave her two options: London, where he had business associates, or Chicago, where his cousin had briefly lived.

She chose Chicago and DePaul University (which the cousin had recommended) and started there in September '86, taking English as a second language for a couple years before majoring in chemistry and biology, with thoughts of becoming a doctor like her father. For two and a half years she lived like many foreign university students: studying nonstop, writing and calling home often.

But during her sophomore year, in 1989, things started to change. Her phone calls home weren't going through. Getting a connection to Kinshasa had often been difficult since she'd left, but it had never been so bad. "I tried several times and it wasn't going through--ever," Kabuika recalls. Her French accent is subtle, worn down from her having lived in the midwest nearly half her life. "So I started to write letters and I didn't get any response to those either. That's when I realized something was wrong back home."

Zaire's dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, was losing his stranglehold on Africa's second-largest nation. The economy was in ruins and public agencies like the postal service had shut down because workers weren't getting paid. Demonstrations and riots in Kinshasa signified a change in the Zaireans' willingness to question a regime that had pillaged the country's resources for more than two decades. As the economy--and Mobutu's health--deteriorated, the opposition grew stronger.

"That was the time that we became aware that we were kind of slaves," says Kabuika's youngest brother, Malu, who was not yet a teenager at the time. "Before that time, people were dancing for the president. Beginning in 1988 people had a little bit of strength to demonstrate."

During her childhood, Kabuika says, her father would simply shut off the television whenever Mobutu addressed the nation. When injured demonstrators showed up at his clinic, it was not only Dr. Kamunga's moral obligation to provide assistance, it was his way of indirectly supporting the opposition. "He would take care of them," Kabuika says. "He didn't care who you were."

When Mobutu learned of clinics that were helping these "dissidents," he put them out of business. Dr. Kamunga's clinic had contracts with companies throughout the capital and would provide medical assistance to all of their employees for an annual fee. Mobutu told such businesses they could no longer continue their relationships with Kamunga's clinic and other so-called sympathizers.

When the family's cash flow dried up, the checks stopped arriving at Kabuika's DePaul mailbox. She wrote letters feverishly, hoping for some response. When none came she suspected it was because her father had too much pride to admit he could no longer afford her education. "Suddenly he gets to a point where he can't pay for his daughter's schooling," she says. "That must have had a heavy impact on his mind. And I knew it. I knew how hard it was for him. He couldn't even write back."

By the middle of her sophomore spring semester it had been six months since Kabuika had spoken with her family. She would try calling them several times a night, but the erosion of the country's infrastructure, likely combined with a high volume of calls in from relatives abroad, made getting through impossible. Friends living in Belgium said the phone lines from there to Kinshasa were open, so she scrounged together her last few hundred dollars and flew to Brussels just to make a call.

"I finally got to talk to [my father] and that's when he told me, 'I don't have money to send you,'" she recalls. "So that's when I said, Well, I may as well come home. And he said, 'No, you have to go back. This is not a safe place for you. You have to go back and do the best that you can.'"

Kabuika returned to Chicago. Meanwhile, the situation in her homeland was becoming even more unstable.

For brief periods of political transition over the last 50 years, the Congo appeared to be making progress. During the late 1950s a young intellectual named Patrice Lumumba rallied the Congolese population against their colonizers, forcing the Belgians to grant the country independence in 1960 and becoming a symbolic figure in Africa's fight for independence. But just as the Congo seemed headed toward democracy the country experienced its first and most significant postcolonial insurgency, backed by Western interests. Lumumba, the first democratically elected leader in the nation's history, was assassinated, and eventually his former friend and cabinet member Mobutu gained control of the nation, which he renamed Zaire.

If Lumumba represented the hopes of a continent, Mobutu (whose full adopted name, Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, means "the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake") symbolized the corruption and greed that would stall Africa's progress for more than 30 years. During his presidency (1965-'97) he funneled profits from the nation's resources as well as aid from his international backers into Swiss bank accounts, accumulating billions of dollars while neglecting the country's economic infrastructure. His rule was also marked by noneconomic oppression--he was known to torture and murder his perceived enemies.

Mobutu's tenure would not have been possible without support from a U.S. government that saw in him a valuable ally against communist invasion of central Africa. Zaire's strategic location in the heart of the continent and its wealth of resources--including diamonds, gold, timber, and coltan, which has become increasingly valuable because it's used to make cell phones and laptop computers--also encouraged American administrations to side with the regime. The U.S. provided Mobutu's regime with billions of dollars in aid with little accountability, helping him amass a personal fortune estimated at its mid-80s peak to be $5 billion. President Ronald Reagan referred to Mobutu in 1983 as "a voice of good sense and goodwill."

But the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989 meant a new phase in U.S. foreign policy toward Africa--one focused on bringing democracy to the continent. The United States cut foreign aid to Mobutu in 1990, after his power had already begun to fade.

Unable to pay tuition, Kabuika dropped out of school. Because she had been in this country on a student visa, she became an illegal alien. She spent the next four years working odd jobs under the table. She worked at the DePaul University library and then as a teaching assistant in the chemistry lab. She worked as a nanny for a year and a half in Skokie, taking care of three young children. When she tired of living in the suburbs she returned to the city, tutoring students in French and babysitting on the side. "By then I knew how to find jobs," she says. "I was more assertive. Whenever I was very desperate for something, the system somehow would fail. Or they [would think] I was an international student. So I'd get jobs."

Still, Kabuika missed her family. "I was very homesick," she says. "The communication to the country at the time was next to none. I really had no contact with my family. And that was very hard."

By 1993 she was living in her own apartment in Edgewater. She was working 14-hour days, teaching at a French secondary school in the morning and babysitting and tutoring in the afternoon and evening. Phone lines were slowly starting to open, so she was able to speak with her family more often, and while Kinshasa still had no postal service, Kabuika's relatives sent letters through friends who were traveling in and out of the country.

The news wasn't good. The Zairean economy was falling apart. Inflation was out of control and companies were going bankrupt. Mobutu's government was also losing control over the military, in large part because he had stopped paying soldiers' salaries.

Kabuika's brother Malu was 15. He remembers February 1993 in Kinshasa as one of the most frightening months of his young life. "Soldiers started to rebel against the government," he says. "We were one of the first people to notice, because our house was at the border at the military camp. We started to be fearful when we started to hear that rumor coming from the military camp. We started hearing gunshots."

That month a friend called Kabuika to inform her of her uncle's death. While no autopsy was ever performed, her family suspected he was poisoned, which was a common method of killing opposition members. She cried uncontrollably when she heard the news. But it wasn't just the death of her uncle she was crying about.

"I realized at that moment that my mother would be dying soon," she says. "Because the situation was getting so bad that I knew something would happen. She couldn't stand this whole situation in which my family was living. I could feel how bad the situation was through her letters." Kabuika was also hearing from her siblings and friends that her mother, Malu Wa Kalemba, was losing weight. "I knew just from hearing how thin she was that things were getting even worse," she says. "I could feel the situation through her body, through her way of being."

On February 28 the military took to the streets of Kinshasa, looting wealthy residences on the outskirts of the city. Malu remembers the day well. In the afternoon two of his brothers came running into the house, locking the front gate and telling their siblings to go to their rooms and lie under their beds. "Everything was closed because people were hiding in their houses. There was almost no one on the streets," Malu says. "We could hear gunshots from far away. We lay down on the floor and put the mattress on top of us. We could see from the window, and there was nobody but soldiers around. We lay there for hours."

Late in the evening soldiers brandishing machine guns stormed through the gates of the Kamunga residence, ordering Kabuika's oldest brother, Laurent, who was standing watch at the front door, to lead them to the family's valuables. The soldiers went from room to room, collecting jewelry, paintings, china, and the television. Before they left the house they took Kabuika's mother into a separate room and shot her.

"When they left, my brother went to one of the rooms and saw my mom dead," Malu says, stuttering slightly. "He started yelling for us to get out [from hiding] and come over because mom was dead. He was screaming." Malu and his siblings ran to the room to find their mother lying in a pool of blood. Until a nurse arrived and pronounced her dead, Malu held out hope. "I didn't want to believe it," he says. "I was so shocked."

The Kamungas are still unsure what led the soldiers to kill their mother, but they suspect they wanted to send a message. Kabuika's father, who was not home at the time, was becoming more involved with the leading opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress.

Later that night Laurent was killed after soldiers made him carry the family's television to the military compound. The circumstances of his death remain unclear.

Kabuika began to learn more about the tragedy weeks later, as letters from family and friends began arriving in Chicago. But she still doesn't know some of the specifics. "There are still details today that my siblings said, 'We have to see each other face-to-face before can I tell you,'" she says.

The looting ended two days later and daily life in Kinshasa returned more or less to normal, but Kabuika's family started pressuring her to help them flee the country. "We felt like once you come to North America money is not a problem," Malu says. "We were bothering her to help us financially. That was stressful for her. But we were looking for a way out."

Kabuika had been sending whatever savings she had to her family for a few years, but after her mother's and brother's deaths she "really just sent everything," she says. "I worked even more and sent money home in order to have [my family] first be able to eat more than once a day and then to get some of them out of the country as soon as possible."

She decided to ask friends for help. In the spring of 1993 she sent letters to everyone she knew, explaining her family's situation and asking for any kind of donation. She raised $2,000, which she promptly sent home. But there was little else she could do.

Friends who'd received the letter spread the word to other people, who in turn passed it along. "By telling my story to everyone, people who I'd not met heard about it," she says. "And one of them was a professor at Roosevelt University." Professor Frank Untermyer, who had been looking for a French tutor, called Kabuika and asked to meet her a few days later in his office. "I was about to go on a trip to France and I needed someone who might assist me with that trip," says Untermyer, who taught political science and African studies at Roosevelt. (He's since retired.) "She would come and see me every week and we would speak French, and it was enormously instructive."

He persuaded Kabuika to apply for a scholarship at the university, which she won. "[Roosevelt University] didn't realize I wasn't an international student," she says. "It was amazing!"

That summer she resumed her studies in chemistry. "It was the best thing. I was so happy," she says. "This was like my dream come true. I had no idea how it happened, but it was happening."

By the time Kabuika graduated from Roosevelt in 1996 the situation in Zaire was ready to explode. A revolutionary force led by Laurent Kabila and backed by troops from Uganda and Rwanda was making its way toward the capital. Her family, meanwhile, was gradually escaping. First, two sisters fled to South Africa. Then her father made his way to Canada, where he was granted political asylum, allowing him to sponsor Malu, who joined him there as a refugee. After getting asylum status Dr. Kamunga encouraged Kabuika to try to do the same in the States. Strangely enough, the idea had never crossed her mind. She'd been attending local meetings of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress and going to Washington, D.C., whenever there was a conference of Zairean opposition groups, but she hadn't connected her own situation with the larger political problems in her home country. "It didn't occur to me that everything was related," she says. "I felt like each event was separate. My mom dying. My family fleeing the country. I never felt like a political activist, but I was one."

In April 1997 she filled out the necessary paperwork. Three months later she appeared before an immigration officer in the Loop. "He asked me some questions and I started to cry when I began thinking about my mother," she says. "I couldn't remember anything. I just cried and cried and cried."

Weeks later she received a response in the mail. "In his decision it was very simple: there is no proof that there is anything going on in your country that would be threatening anyone's life," she recalls, chuckling. "That's when I got very fed up with this immigration system. I was like, This guy is a joke."

In May, Kabila and his army chased Mobutu from Kinshasa (he fled to Morocco, where he died from cancer four months later) and seized control of the country, changing its name to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But Kabila's grip on power was loose. The country soon became embroiled in what Madeleine Albright has called Africa's "first world war." Armies from six neighboring countries and various indigenous rebel factions vied for control of regional governments and the resources they held while Kabila tried to stave off bigger revolutionary movements in Kinshasa. According to the U.S. Committee for Refugees nearly 2.5 million Congolese have died as a result of the war.

The conflict loosely pitted soldiers from Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi against Kabila-backed troops from Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. The USCR reports that massacres, lynchings, rapes, disappearances, and assassinations occurred regularly during the three-year civil war, which ended with the signing of peace accords in 2001. More than 2.3 million Congolese were believed to have been uprooted by the end of 2001, while an estimated 350,000 were refugees in foreign countries.

Kabuika appealed her immigration officer's decision after Marta Delgado, then a lawyer with the Midwest Immigrant and Human Rights Center, learned of her case from another lawyer and agreed to plead on her behalf. "We started to rewrite my story, but in a clearer form," Kabuika recalls. "And that made the whole difference."

She went before an immigration judge in June 1998. Delgado calls the case the most memorable of her career. Kabuika was on the stand when the judge made his decision. "As she was testifying she started to get really emotional," says Delgado. "The judge turned to her and said, 'I'm granting your application for asylum.' In that second she went from tears to joy. She got up and hugged me. I think she may have hugged the trial attorney."

"I couldn't believe it," Kabuika says, smiling widely. "I was just like, what? After all these years of stress and that was it, I was legal. That was amazing. I had gotten permission to live, to make plans for my life." She was also finally able to travel outside the U.S. to visit her father.

In December 1999 she stepped off the train in Montreal, carrying her army surplus backpack, and embraced her father, whom she hadn't seen in 13 years. "We just held one another and cried," she says. "We couldn't say anything. What could we say? I was crying the African way--nice and loud."

During her two-week visit, she stayed up late into the night with her father and his new family (he had remarried), telling stories and making up for lost time. "We talked about everything and anything," she says. "It was mostly about funny things. I remember that first night. Oh my gosh. Everybody was telling stories. It was just a time to reconnect and just laugh together. And that's what we did. We just laughed all night."

Kabuika's life was starting to settle down. Most of her family had made it out of the Congo, and she now had a steady job with a pharmaceutical company in Mount Prospect. But it wasn't until last year that she finally felt ready to observe her mother's death. "It was ten years later," she says. "You can mourn as long as you want in my tradition." In March she organized a memorial. Her father made the trip from Montreal to attend. For three hours on a cold winter evening, Kabuika, her father, and friends danced, told stories, and acted out skits to celebrate Malu Wa Kalemba's life. "It was only when I did it that I was able to feel at peace with my mom being away," she says. "Spiritually present, but physically away."

Kabuika recently started work on a quilt to commemorate her mother's life. On it are pictures of Malu as a child and letters she sent Kabuika during their many years apart. She's also compiling a list of cities she might move to: Austin, Savannah, Paris, Marseilles, Florence.

Today she works as a client services counselor for the Pan-African Association, a year-old nonprofit that assists African immigrants with their transition to life in Chicago. "You handle the problems they have because you know how they feel," she says. "They come in to tell you their life story, and you understand it without asking too many questions. And they know that you understand it."

She was recently accepted to the graduate program at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, where she plans to study reporting and photojournalism "to tell the stories of people that don't have the ability to tell their own stories."

In January 2001 Laurent Kabila was assassinated in an attempted coup. His 29-year-old son, Joseph, took over as president and started moving the country toward a wary peace. A series of accords between the Congo and six other African countries were signed in 2001 and '02, and international aid agencies have gained increasing access to needy areas within the country. Still, pockets of resistance, particularly in the northeast, continue to destabilize the country, and, given the nation's troubled past, the prospect for greater conflict seems never too far away. Nonetheless, Kinshasa is one of the cities on Kabuika's list.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe.

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