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Ahead of Israel’s planned deportation of Congo nationals, escapee asks: ‘Why do they want to send us back now?’ 

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Like the 403 other Congo nationals in Israel, Elijah (not his real name) faces deportation any time after January 5. He says he won’t go. “I’m not safe back in Congo. The same people who forced me to run away from there are still in power.”

Sitting in a park in a poor neighborhood of Tel Aviv where he rents a room in an apartment with other African asylum seekers, Elijah, in his 30s, tells how his decision as a young man to oppose Congo’s murderous, dictatorial government led to his imprisonment, attempts on his life, the murders of 10 of his political co-workers, the arrest and death in prison of his father, and his own tumultuous escape across Africa before getting to Israel in the middle of last year.

Now Israel intends to send Elijah and all his other countrymen residing in Israel back to Congo – despite protests by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Israeli human rights organizations and HIAS, the international Jewish refugee organization, that the murders, rapes, kidnappings and torture at the hands of both government and rebel troops in Congo have not abated at all, while the deadly Ebola virus has reemerged to claim additional lives in the battered central African country.

Starting some 20 years ago, Israel had allowed Congo nationals to stay in the country because of the dangers in their homeland. Between 1998 and 2003, as many as 6 million people were killed in Congo’s civil war, and while the slaughter has greatly diminished since, the country remains wracked by constant lethal brutality against civilians.

A Human Rights Watch report in November on just one city in Congo found that “at least 235 people were killed in more than 100 attacks in Beni between January and September. Many were hacked to death with axes or machetes or shot dead. More than 165 civilians have been kidnapped for ransom or abducted, and dozens of others have been wounded or disappeared this year. The attacks complicate efforts to stem an Ebola virus outbreak that has left at least 70 people dead since August.”

The UN Security Council reported in March that “in 2017 … deliberate attacks against communities along ethnic fault lines have included the use of taboo practices, such as victims being raped in front of relatives, a pregnant woman having her fetus ripped out and at least one victim being forced to perform sex acts on a family member before being executed. In April, Bana Mura militants raped 41 women and two girls in a series of attacks on Lulua and Luba villages.”

On October 5, it was announced that Dr. Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist who has treated tens of thousands of women who were victims of sexual violence during the civil war, was this year’s co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Two days later, Israel’s Interior Ministry announced that after consulting with the government’s Foreign Ministry, it had decided that there was now “no obstacle to sending nationals of the Democratic Republic of Congo back to their homeland.” Thus, “the policy of granting temporary protection to Congo nationals is no longer necessary and is therefore canceled.” The new policy would take effect in 90 days, starting January 5, 2019, the ministry said.

Sharon Harel, a senior representative of the UNHCR in Israel, points out “Israel is the only country in the world that has decided to cancel its protection of Congo nationals now, when at best there is no improvement in conditions there.”

Aside from the ongoing political violence and resurgent Ebola, Congo suffers from some of the worst poverty in the world: Only one in seven citizens earns more than $1.25 a day. The life expectancy is 58 years.

“I know what’s going on in Congo,” says Elijah. “I’ve seen mothers with nothing to feed their children except uncooked semolina and water.” This, he says, is why he sends part of his monthly wages as a delivery man back to his mother and sister at home.

He talks with the fire and urgency of the community activist and political oppositionist he was in Kinshasa in the mid-2000s. “Congo is such an incredibly rich country in natural resources, it has gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt, zinc, it could feed the world on the wealth it has in the ground, yet it so poor because of the political leadership.” In 2007 he went as one of 15 activists to film the mining and smuggling of these resources, hoping to publicize how the country is looted and spark opposition to the regime. He and his colleagues filmed surreptiously, at night, in the hope that they would not be detected by the government’s network of police.

They operated in three groups of five, and two of the other groups, 10 people, were found out and killed, five of them burned alive in a house set afire by police, says Elijah. The day after the fire, a newspaper carried photos of all 15 of them, including him, identifying them as “rebels” being sought by the state, and Elijah knew he had to get out of Congo.

A truck driver smuggled him across the border into Zambia, and from there he got to Zimbabwe and then to South Africa. Along the way he learned from his mother over the phone that his father had been arrested, the clear reason being to lure him back to Congo. “I told her I wanted to come back so my father could get out of prison, but she said he didn’t want me to do that, that it would not be good for me.” A year later, his father was found dead in his cell.

In South Africa, the political and economic beacon of the continent that attracts masses of migrants from neighboring countries, Elijah settled in Cape Town’s Philippi township  – but fell victim to the xenophobia that tends to well up in these pockets of poverty against foreign workers. “My house was broken into many times, and finally they burned it down. I went to the police but they said they could do nothing – I didn’t know who had set the fire.” At this point, he decided he wasn’t safe in South Africa, either.

A Christian, he was enchanted by the name “Jerusalem,” and had even started a business in the township called Jerusalem Business Production, selling and repairing phones and filming weddings. On the basis of this spiritual connection, he decided to move to Israel. “Just like that. I have no friends or family here, and I didn’t know anybody in South Africa who was planning to come live in Israel.”

He had planned to arrange his travel documents at the Congo Embassy in Pretoria, but was told by a friend in the city that the newspaper photos of him and his fellow “rebels” was posted outside the building. With the help of a bribe, he got his documents sent to him by mail, then joined a Christian pilgrimage to Israel, arriving on a tourist visa in mid-2017.

At first he slept on a park bench near the Tel Aviv beach. Then he got a work permit, found his current job as a delivery man and was able to rent a room, buy a bicycle and even send a little money home each month.

“Life in Israel is fine, you can work, nobody gives me problems.” Like the other Congo nationals, Elijah is residing in Israel legally. “I can’t understand why they want to send us back now,” he says. “What have we done? Who are we hurting?”

Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator at Israel’s Hotline for Migrant Workers and Refugees, said there was no legitimate reason. “I don’t think it’s so important to the government to kick out 404 people, what’s important to them is to get the headline that they’re kicking out Africans, because that’s what right-wingers who support the government want to hear.”

In recent years, Israel’s government has gone all-out to arrest and deport what it calls “infiltrators” who fled the violence and oppression of Sudan and Eritrea for refuge in Israel. It has winnowed their number down from 60,000 to about 35,000 and the declared policy is to expel all of them.

Asked why it had concurred in the decision to deport every one of the Congo nationals in the country despite the extensive protests, testimony and documentation that they will be in severe danger in Congo – even if they’re not, like Elijah, wanted for “rebel” activity – Israel’s Foreign Ministry offered no response.

About Larry Derfner

Larry Derfner volunteers for the Tel Aviv-based Hotline for Migrants and Refugees, and is the author of the 2017 memoir "No Country for Jewish Liberals."

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