It's a Sunday afternoon in November. The relentless summer rain, which every end of the year leaves victims in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, has finally given in and the ravishing beaches in the privileged South Zone neighborhood are bursting with tourists and locals since the first hours of the morning. On the corner where the Atlantic Avenue - renowned for the black and white mosaic of its sidewalks - meets the busy Siqueira Campos street on a fair day, entire families indulge in abundant portions of feijoada and fried chicken at some of the most traditional seafront restaurants in the city.
Just a few meters away, a large, bright yellow executive bus coming all the way from Brás de Pina, an underserved district located in the North Zone, unloads a group of about 100 people. Judging by their clothing, one wouldn't think they had just covered a distance of more than 35km to enjoy a pleasant sunny day. Most people are dressed from head to toe in garments embellished with colorful African-style prints. The boiling hot weather and the promise of a 3km walk to the other end of the beach, the Copacabana Fort, don't seem to have had any impact on the women's resolution, as they wear high heels, intricate accessories and turbans wrapped around their heads.
In Brazil, Nov. 20 marks the celebration of Black Consciousness Day in remembrance of the death of Zumbi dos Palmares, a national symbol of the resistance and struggle of the black enslaved population. Not coincidentally, it was the date chosen by the Congolese community settled in Rio de Janeiro to organize a demonstration demanding peace in their home country. Carried out by the group Friends of Congo with the support of the Caritas branch in Rio, the movement almost feels like a festive gathering, with music and dance. But the gravity of the appeal for asylum from the Brazilian government and the indignation inflamed by the postponement of the presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo echo louder.
Facing a shy audience comprised of a few curious locals who are unaware of the Central Africa country's incendiary political conjuncture, the Congolese don't restrain efforts to outline the devastating panorama. On Dec. 19, Joseph Kabila's second and last presidential term came to an end, but he gave no indication of intending to leave the office by democratic means. Kabila has been in power for 15 years, since the murder of his father Laurent-Désiré Kabila in 2001, and w elected, in 2006 and 2011.
As stated in the national Constitution, a president can't stand for re-election after serving two consecutive 5-year terms. New elections had been scheduled for November but ended up being postponed indefinitely under the pretext of logistical and budgetary issues. One of the arguments used by Kabila and his supporters not to proceed with the legal voting is that registrations hadn't been updated since 2011 and, as a consequence, millions of new voters would be prevented from performing their rights as citizens. For the opposition and most of the population, the president is articulating his permanence as head of government in spite of what determines the Constitution and risking to prolong the scenario of instability in the country.
The ongoing violation of democratic principles also takes the form of an escalation of violence against the opposition and those protesting in favor of a peaceful transition of power, as well as of reprisal attacks on the media. According to a Human Rights Watch report published in January 2015, dozens of pro-democracy activists, human rights defenders and political leaders have been arbitrarily detained and persecuted under forged accusations. Bloody clashes between civilians and the government security forces in the capital Kinshasa and other cities throughout the territory were reported in September 2015, May 2016 and last December. The official death toll is unknown.
In May, the rising political tensions in the DR Congo related to the uncertainties in the electoral process led the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to release a statement expressing his deep concern for the situation in the country and urging all political actors to put national interests above their own and to engage in dialogues in order to come to a peaceful resolution.
For the refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo in Rio de Janeiro who participated in the march on Nov. 20, democracy can only be found in the country's name. “The Congolese people live poor and die poor," said one of the movement's organizers. "Women and girls are turned into sex slaves. Congo is considered the worst place for them to live in the world. The elections are the opportunity for the Congolese people to express their desire for change.”
Daughter of Congolese, the student Fanny Dorcas, 22, was born in Angola and has never visited her parents’ home country. But this hasn't stopped her from adding her voice to the cries for help of that refugee group in Brazil, where she has been living for six years now. “I fight for my father and my mother who are Congolese," she said. "I have Congolese blood and that’s what gives me the will and the strength to be out here fighting for them. We have to shout so people can hear that these people are in need of peace, of refuge. Things we had never seen or heard of are happening in Congo right now, like the rape of an 85-year-old woman and of a baby girl only three months old. Mothers are dying with their children laying on their lap. It’s too much pain, too many deaths.“
Between January and September 2014, more than 11,000 cases of sexual and gender-based violence were registered by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in the provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu, Orientale, Katanga and Maniema. Of those, 39% were considered to be directly related to the dynamics of the armed conflict that lasts for more than two decades now.
According to recent data provided by Caritas, the Congolese nationals represent the largest group of refugees in the state of Rio de Janeiro, with 116 arrivals registered only in the first quarter of 2016, which represents 55% out of 210. For comparison purposes, in 2014 and 2015, they accounted for only 36% and 40%, respectively, of the total number of foreigners who requested refuge in the state.
There are currently 808 registered refugees from the DR Congo in Rio de Janeiro or 20% of the total of 4.111. Angola still represents the majority, with 2,311 refugees or 56% of the total, followed by Congolese nationals and Colombians (320 persons or about 8%). Regarding the number of applicants for refuge, the Congolese account for 500 requests, approximately 21% of a total figure of 2.410.They are followed by nationals from Bangladesh (463 or 19%), Senegal (314 or 13%) and Syria (175 or 7%).
By fleeing, the refugees hoped to have a chance at surviving and building a life elsewhere. But many of them dream of returning to their country one day. Until then, they struggle to have their asylum claim accepted and receive the National Registration for Foreigners (RNE). Graça M., 24, left her family in Kishasa and arrived in São Paulo in 2014. After two years, she is living in Rio de Janeiro and all she has in her wallet is a provisional protocol, which is valid for one year and can be renewed, and a Brazilian Tax Number (CPF). According to her, the biggest problem is the bureaucracy involving the service provided by the National Committee for Refugees (CONARE), a governmental body in charge of reviewing and deciding all asylum claims in Brazil and presided over by the Ministry of Justice.
"They are not releasing the permanent documents," she said. "We are going through an investigation process as if we were criminals, instead of receiving protection. I am not a criminal. Why would I come to Brazil if my country was better? If the Brazilian government doesn't help us, all they are going to have is an increasing number of homeless people on the streets."
Although the protocol should allow the asylum seekers to obtain a work permit, Graça claims that some companies don't recognize the provisional document as an identity card and require the RNE. "I couldn't even get my driver's license because the State Traffic Department (DETRAN) refused the protocol. I often have trouble boarding a bus to travel to São Paulo. The driver stares the paper and says: 'what is that'? I say it's the document I've been given by Brazil."