Dem. Rep. Congo - Repubblica Democratica del Congo
Guillaume Ngefa Atondoko
Photo by Eddie Adams
"We knew exactly how many people were killed. And we passed on the information. Then the government began to take notice."
Researching, recording, and exposing grave human rights abuses committed by Zaire’s notorious dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, Guillaume Ngefa risked his life on a daily basis. As founder and president of his country’s premier human rights organization, L’Association Africaine de Défense des Droits de l’Homme (African Association for the Defense of Human Rights, or ASADHO), Ngefa monitored the bloody seizure of power by President Laurent Kabila in 1996–97 during which, Ngefa estimates, "200,000 refugees in Zaire, mostly ethnic Hutus, and thousands of Zairians were killed as a result of the deliberate strategy of extermination of a portion of the Rwandan population." Ngefa based his report on field research, along with a synthesis of reports by a number of human rights and humanitarian organizations. Persecuted first by Mobutu and then by Kabila, Ngefa and ASADHO gained a reputation for even-handed and well-documented reports of abuses, regardless of the ethnic affiliation of perpetrators or victims. As such, ASADHO is a pillar of moral and ethical support for Congolese working to reduce interregional and interethnic tensions. As a result of his unflinching honesty, Ngefa is now living in exile in Geneva, Switzerland, and the Ivory Coast where he continues to work for human rights and for the dignity of his countrymen. Ngefa joined with other defenders including Bishop Desmond Tutu to speak at an August 2008 Speak Truth to Power event in Capetown, South Africa and also participated in the 2009 Speak Truth to Power event in Milan, Italy.
Human rights are rooted in my life. I’m told that as a child I reached out to others. I befriended pygmies, even though, in my community, they were considered to be animals. I cut bread with them, I brought them to our home, I gave them my clothes. It was a shock to the society around me, but I saw the pygmies as my friends, just like anyone else.
While I was training as a Jesuit, one of my professors spoke about human rights. Later, I decided to leave the order and went to the University of Kinshasa. I was horrified by the ethnic hatred among students, and the police informers planted in the university, so I became part of a network collecting information about the repression of the regime. I began to send this information to embassies in Kinshasa, listing who had been killed within one or another university. In 1986, I founded an organization called Club des Africanistes, a group where students interested in African matters could discuss their ideas. We organized a big meeting in Kinshasa, where students from all universities and institutions could discuss the issue of francophonie (French as a common language). Trying to organize this kind of meeting under one ruling party was dangerous, and I was soon charged with receiving money from foreign governments to destroy the regime. The dean warned me that if I continued with the "subversive activities" I would be expelled from the university.
When I returned to school, I created an organization to fight against ethnic divisiveness among students. When our numbers swelled to include over six hundred members, we decided to run for student elections against the ruling party. We refused to endorse Mobutu and his old political cronies. The academic authorities accused us of being backed by foreign countries. Though we lost the student election, our message was heard within our university, and we were respected. Then the president of the university called us to say that our movement was becoming very political and would be banned. He threatened me with expulsion for the second time. I had one year left until graduation and so I tried to negotiate. We said, "We will not accept this ban. We will continue our movement because we think that our movement is not against the regime but is against some of these ideas which will affect the university in a very dangerous way." He accepted our compromise.
I graduated just when the general discontent with Mobutu began to open the political system. The time was right to start a human rights organization and participate in public affairs. First I recruited activists from our two university organizations. Our founders were old friends. We knew each other and trusted one another. We called ourselves ASADHO, and set out to investigate and document human rights abuses, to play a key role in society, to maintain independence from all political parties, and to hold onto our principles. The organization was national, drawing together people from different regions. We began working with lawyers, journalists, and physicians. Each group tried to strengthen or promote human rights by using their particular expertise. For example, our physicians gave us information about human rights violations suffered by victims of AIDS. Some people who had served as human guinea pigs had been injected with the AIDS virus, without their knowledge, in the name of "scientific research." We relayed that information to the outside world, to human rights groups and to the press. We published reports at the same time. We knew exactly how many people were killed. And we passed on the information.
Then the government began to take notice. I was arrested and beaten up many times in 1993 and 1995, and I have had problems with hearing in the left ear ever since. Nobody would rent me an apartment, because they were afraid that the security forces would destroy their house. Once when I was walking on the street the cops came, pointed their guns in my direction, and forced me into a car. They brought me to the Camp Tshatshi [home of presidential elite troops] and began punching people in my presence. One guy said, "After him, it will be you." I got nervous. I said, "Look, the American authorities know that I am here." After they beat me, they let me go.
In August 1995 I had dinner with the Swiss ambassador, the chargé d’affaires of Belgium, and some of my colleagues. That same day, I had published a report denouncing the elite troops’ killing of thirteen members of the PALU (Parti Lumumbiste Unifié) party. As I was driving home after dinner, I was stopped by soldiers shouting, "Get out! Get out! Get out! Get out!" One put a gun to my head. They told me they would kill me. People recognized me and tried to help. The soldiers shot into the air and people fled, but the soldiers were afraid, too, and said, "Get into your car and go." As I was driving away, I thought they would shoot me in the back. When I got home my wife was waiting for me. I told her the story. "It was you?" she asked. She had heard the shooting. I realized that it was time to leave the country.
After obtaining a master’s degree abroad, I returned from exile, continued my work, and told Mobutu that I wanted to change things. However, in 1997, during the rebellion led by Kabila against Mobutu, ASADHO disclosed a report denouncing the slaughter and extermination of Hutu refugees by Rwandese troops at the command of Kabila. In this context, I was threatened not only by Mobutu’s troops, but also by Kabila’s, who claimed that I was opposing the war of liberation, and promised to "tear me to pieces" if they found me. This is what made me decide to leave my homeland for good.
I didn’t get a chance to become a priest, but with human rights I found a new vocation. It’s the same: trying to create a voice for the voiceless. I’m against injustice; I will never stop. Courage is conviction, courage is your commitment to something. You just have to believe in what you are doing, that’s all.
Speak Truth To Power (Umbrage, 2000)