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The most important thing


The most important thing

They fled Angola nearly empty-handed. Now finally returning home, some after decades in exile, 11 refugees present their most cherished belongings.
5 February 2016
A jacket from his father kept Sebastian warm when he fled at age seven.

If war and violence tore apart your country and you were forced to suddenly run for your life, what would you bring with you?

American photographer Brian Sokol, working with UNHCR staff around the world, has posed this question to hundreds of people who have experienced this terror first-hand. The resulting photo project, "The Most Important Thing," provides surprising and thoughtful answers to this question.

The latest instalment in the series focuses on Angolan refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), offering a twist as Sokol shifts from photographing newly arrived refugees to others who have been displaced for as long as 50 years.

Amazingly, many of these long-time refugees still possess the items they took when they fled, having saved them as reminders of lost loved ones or of a way of life gone forever. With Angola at peace since 2002, and with prosperity on the rise, many Angolan refugees hope to bring these items full circle on the journey home. Others have new objects they plan to take home to help start their new lives.

Past subjects of this project have included Malian refugees in Burkina Faso; Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan; Sudanese in South Sudan; and Central Africans in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


Maria, 68, says this cross is the most important thing she brought with her when she fled Angola in 1962. "With it I am at peace. If I didn't have this cross, I wouldn't be here today. It saved my life and the lives of my children." She recalls how soldiers in Angola came and killed her husband in front of her. Tears fill her eyes as she describes the scene over 50 years later. She and her children, the youngest just nine days old, immediately fled into the forest, where they lived off the land and drank rainwater for seven months before crossing into the country now known as Democratic Republic of the Congo. If she had to flee again, she says, the cross is the first thing she would take.


Antonio, 53, was orphaned by age 12 and forcibly recruited as a child soldier into Angola's bloody civil war. He says he led 150 child soldiers, some as young as six years old. "I was a soldier, and ... I did what I did in order to stay alive." After two battles, Antonio deserted and vanished into the forest. For more than a year he lived off the land, hunting buffalo and antelope with his gun. Eventually, he made his way to present-day DRC, then called Zaïre. "It was only after leaving Angola for Zaïre that I became wise. When I crossed the border, it was like beginning a new life. Everything from before remained in Angola." Antonio says the most important thing he brought with him is his story. "My family died, and I suffered greatly. I don't want my children to suffer. I tell them to look at what my life was like, at what wrongs I committed and how now I can't go home ... I want them to learn from my story."


Elizabeth, 72, says her Bible is the most important thing she brought with her when she fled war in Angola. It's the only thing she has from that journey 52 years ago. "It was a gift from my pastor on the day of my baptism," she says. Although she found safety in the country now called DRC, living in exile has been difficult. The mother of seven children, she has been separated for years from various family members and struggles with the feeling that she doesn't have a real home. "In this world, bad things happen, but in the Bible you can find words which help you."


Born and raised in exile, Francisco doesn't hesitate when asked whether he feels even a little Congolese. "My answer is clear like water. I can claim only one nationality: I'm Angolan." A shoemaker who learned the craft from his maternal uncle, Francisco returned to his native Angola in 1977. But when war broke out again in 1992, he was forced to flee back to Zaïre, now called DRC. "I lost everything. My shop, my education documents. Everything." Francisco says the most important items he brought with him were his small pliers and cobbler's hammer. "With these, I will never starve," he says.


Angolan Lumona, 36, says that if she were to flee again and could only take one thing with her, it would be her portrait painted by a friend 10 years ago. "I love it because it's art. It isn't a photograph. Someone took the time to draw me. It's beautiful and makes me happy, and I'm sure seeing it makes others happy as well."


Fighting reached Edward's town in Angola in 1993, when he was 16. His family fled when a rocket exploded two kilometres from their home. They took this pidi jar, filled with buffalo meat, to sustain them on their journey. Edward recalls seeing many dead bodies as they fled and hearing news of neighbours who had been killed. When he crossed the border into Zaïre, now called DRC, he felt relieved to be alive, sad to have lost so many loved ones and apprehensive about what this new life would hold for him. "I can tell my children our family's story through this pidi jar. It's the only thing we have left of that journey. Hopefully we will take it when we make the return trip to Angola in the future." In exile, Edward managed to earn a degree in electrical engineering. "I'm lucky," he says. "Not all refugees received an education."


When asked what she would bring with her if she were forced to flee again, Isabelle, 53, thinks for a moment and gestures to a soft toy zebra keychain hanging from the wall. "I would bring this because it would remind me of my small room in Kinshasa," she says. Born in Angola, Isabelle has been displaced by war twice to the country now known as DRC -- first as a little girl, and again after civil war broke out in 1992. Now the mother of six children, she makes a living in DRC's capital, Kinshasa, running a small roadside shop that sells tea, cassava, bread and dried fish. "I have a small business. I know how to make money anywhere I go."


Sebastian was seven years old the night that his family, having fled Angola's war of independence, arrived in the country now known as DRC. Some 60 years later, he recalls, "It was cold, and my father gave me his jacket to keep me warm. I was wearing it as we crossed the border. When I see that suit, even now as we're talking about it, I think about Angola. The day I can cross back into Angola, I will have it on me, and I will remember my father. I will wear it because I am now a father myself."


A former soldier in Angola, Sebastio, 55, fled upon learning that his life was in danger. Although he's afraid to return, he still considers it home. If he were again forced to flee for his life, he says, the most important thing to his family is the document he holds in this portrait, a Billet de Composition Familiale. "This is proof that I am a refugee," he says. "Without it, I could be arrested, my children could be expelled, or their mother would take them and they would become Congolese. This document proves that my children are Angolan."


Edward recalls that his family fled Angola sometime between 1958 and 1961, but the details of the journey remain clear in his mind. "We were five and I had cassava and ground nut. My mother was carrying clothes and a bag of cassava. I kicked a tree when we were walking through the forest, and the toe dried up and fell off on the way." After more than 50 years, Edward is preparing to return home. When asked about the most important thing he would take with him, he holds up his two strong hands and says, "Do I look like a man who doesn't work? I need these, just these. One for a machete, the other to hold a hoe." Although he will miss the hospitality of the Congolese, the 73-year-old says he's excited to go home. "I'm happy because I am going to work the same land that my father worked." He plans to grow beans, ground nuts and cassava.


One morning in 1992, Kabamba and his father were cooking an omelet outside their home in Angola while his mother and sisters worked in the fields. Several men carrying machetes arrived, dragged his father inside and murdered him. Then they forced Kabamba to sit in the pan of searing oil until he lost consciousness. When he came to, he was in his mother's arms as she fled with his eight siblings to Zaïre, now DRC. Today the situation is very different in Angola, and much of his family has returned home. Kabamba, still physically and emotionally scarred by his experience, says "Personally, I don't want to go back. But I can't survive here alone, and all my family are returning." The most important thing he'll take with him is a photo of his pregnant girlfriend, who must stay behind for now. "She can't go with me because we aren't married yet, and she can't be listed as a family member. In the culture here, you can't marry a pregnant girl. We have to wait until after the birth to begin the marriage process."