Refugee finds anchor after years adrift
SICILY, Italy (UNHCR) - Mention asylum seekers, and many people in Europe imagine waves of illegal immigrants sweeping onto the continent in search of a better life. But amid the crowds are many individuals with genuine grounds for asylum.
Congolese refugee Chantal is one such example. The 36-year-old's journey lasted almost four years, a flight of despair that led her across four countries before finding safety in southern Italy, where she currently lives.
Her ordeal started on May 14, 1999, the day she and her husband José held a meeting to set up a local resistance committee to defend civilians against the rebel militia that had driven thousands of people out of their homes in Zongo, a small town 350 km south-east of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
That night, a group of armed solders entered their house in Zongo, raping Chantal, who was seven months pregnant, and taking her husband away. It was two days before neighbours found her gagged and tied to a chair.
"I was desperate. I couldn't stay in the house anymore and I left without knowing where to go," recalls Chantal with tears in her eyes. All around in the village, she saw destruction and the bodies of elderly people, women and children. She lived in the forest for a month, sleeping in the open and giving birth prematurely.
"I delivered the baby by myself, without any help, but I couldn't cut the umbilical cord." Eventually she stumbled to the main road and met a Polish priest who took them to the Catholic mission and gave them medical attention.
A few weeks later, Chantal and her baby, whom she named Marveille, joined 400 people on a boat to the Central African Republic. But when the priest died shortly after, she decided to leave in search of work.
In Sudan, a family in Kaya village offered her a place to stay in exchange for 12 hours of work per day. "It was terrible. I felt like a slave. I also had to keep my Catholic background secret because they were Muslim and feared the neighbours' reaction," she says of her year in Sudan. "I was losing hope until I heard that there were Congolese traders going to Kenya."
In northern Kenya, she was dropped near Lake Turkana with no money and no friends. She was starving and Marveille had a stomach infection. They eventually found help at a small centre run by a nun, but there was no room and they had to sleep outside the centre for 11 months.
"I thought the world was falling under my feet. What could I do? Where to go again?" recalls Chantal.
In November 2001, she took a boat to Turkey, where she slept in abandoned cars and in the streets, rummaging through garbage. "Language was a huge barrier that prevented me from getting a job. The more miserable I felt, the less strength I had to react," she says. "It is a real miracle that Marveille survived all this."
After eight months in Istanbul - where she suffered rape for the second time - Chantal realised she had to find a solution and decided to go back to Africa. "A man I talked to said his ship was ready to leave for Gabon. I begged him to let us on board but he wanted money and I had nothing."
Eventually Chantal and Marveille made it onto the boat, but after three days they found themselves in the middle of the sea with an engine failure. "I didn't know where we were. Suddenly I saw helicopters flying above us and boats with people trying to rescue us."
Chantal arrived in Sicily, off the southern coast of Italy, in July 2002 and was recognised as a refugee in early November 2003. Ironically, Italy was the one country she never even intended to visit. But after years adrift, she finally feels safe here and looks forward to building a better, more grounded life for her daughter.
By Laura Boldrini