By Juliana Tafur, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – Kasongo is only 23 years old, but seems wise beyond his years. Nearly two meters tall, well-built and strong, he also looks like a 35-year-old. As he shares his life’s story, it becomes clear why he was forced to grow up quickly.
Kasongo barely escaped death in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R.C.) a year ago. In the last of a series of articles about international refugees living in Brazil, Kasongo reveals his past and present life in an exclusive interview with The Gringo Times.
“I still live in fear,” he says, as he takes us back to the events leading to his escape from his hometown of Kinshasa. Formerly known as Zaire, his country in Central Africa has suffered decades of political instability.
According to Kasongo, it is a place where conflicts are resolved with violence and opposing the ruling party is unheard of. But partly by chance and partly by choice, he worked as the bodyguard of one of the presidential contenders in the 2006 election – whose identity we won’t reveal for safety reasons.
“It was a good job,” says Kasongo. “It paid well and came with the added prestige of serving someone powerful, who had a chance of being elected president.”
But when his expectations didn’t materialize and the party in power was re-elected rather than his candidate, life got complicated. He was persecuted for being part of the opposition and engaging in hostile acts. The only way to evade capture was by hiding in next-door Brazzaville, while crafting a plan of escape.
“I stayed in a hotel for three weeks. Afraid of being seen, I only used the phone to order room service. I finally left the country with a fake passport, which had a a visa to Brazil,” says Kasongo.
He was safe upon arriving in Rio de Janeiro, although his living conditions didn’t improve. He moved into Vila da Penha, a modest neighborhood in Rio’s North Zone surrounded by favelas (slums). He often went to bed listening to gun battles, which sometimes lasted well into the early morning hours.
“I was traumatized after all I had gone through, so this wasn’t easy,” he says. “In Kinshasa the only people who carry guns are police or security personnel. But near Vila da Penha, I frequently saw young kids walking around with pistols.”
After two months in Brazil, he received news from abroad – and it wasn’t good. Congolese police had searched his home in Kinshasa. After not finding him, they had questioned his family and killed his father.
“It’s terrible. I feel like if it’s my fault that my father died. None of this would ever have happened if I hadn’t had that job,” says Kasongo.
It has been very hard for him to overcome such a tragedy, along with the added difficulties of life in a new country. With no one to talk to, he fell into a severe depression. Luckily, the local office of the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner for Refugees provided him with material and moral support.
Now, he has a job, has relocated to a better neighborhood and has plans of attaining a higher education. He is also more optimistic about his future – a feeling he doesn’t share about the country he left behind. “Despite its rich natural resources, political oppression, corruption and war have taken a toll on the D.R.C. Sadly, I don’t think I’ll see any significant improvements during my lifetime,” he says.