By: Debra Gersh Hernandez
Columnist for newspaper in Zaire is granted asylum in the U.S. sp.
WHEN ASKED ON his asylum application what would happen if he returned to his home in Zaire, journalist Jean Bruno Kalala Mbenga-Kalao answered simply: “If I return home, I fear for my life. I am certain that I will be killed.”
Kalala’s fear was well-founded. A columnist for La Tempete des Tropiques (The Tropical Storm), he was arrested and detained four times in as many years for writing truthfully and critically about the brutal regime of President Mobutu Sese Seko.
Kalala’s first arrest occurred in 1990 while he was still in college. A few days after writing about a Mobutu speech, he was arrested and held for six days, during which time he was tortured with an electric cattle prod.
As he was being released, the authorities told him he would be arrested and killed if he continued to write about politics. He did, and he was.
The first time you get arrested, it’s scary, Kalala said, but after that, you’re inoculated.
The 27-year-old columnist was granted political asylum in the U.S. last spring.
His then-pregnant wife, Sylvie Lumu-Nseya, was allowed to join him soon thereafter, and their first child, Mitch, was born in the United States.
Kalala first came to Washington in March 1994 to receive the National Press Club’s (NPC) International Freedom of the Press Award.
At the time of his interview with E&P, Kalala spoke seven languages, but English was not among them. Only a few months later was he proficient enough in the language to call E&P with an update on his life and family.
During the original interview, he told his story in French, which was translated by Kara Andersen, an attorney from the National Women’s Law Center. Timothy J. Carlson, an attorney from Hogan & Hartson, who worked on Kalala’s asylum application, arranged for the interview and translator.
Kalala said after the arrest he continued to write because if there is to be freedom of the press in Zaire, there must be pioneers. That was his contribution and inspiration, and it gave him courage, which, in turn, gave courage to other journalists who used him as an example.
Kalala’s third detention, in 1993, was the longest ? 27 days, not including Sundays and holidays ? and it was the hardest.
That arrest was provoked by Kalala’s three-part investigative series proving, among other things, that 70% of the Zairian armed forces were of the same tribal heritage as Mobutu.
On the first day the series ran, Kalala’s father-in-law was so afraid for the safety of Kalala’s wife, he took her away. On the third day of the series, Kalala was arrested.
Kalala described the imprisonment in his asylum application: “My cell was barely large enough to hold my body and had no windows or doors. I was tortured by electric shock throughout this 27-day period of detention. I still have scars on my body as a result of the torture I received . . . . “
Kalala, who showed some of his scars to E&P, said he saw people killed because they were suspected of giving him information for his articles. Others still are in prison, while still others remain free yet have been subjected to attempted poisoning or “accidents” that later occurred, he charged.
Kalala believes he would have been shot had there not been so much attention to his arrest from international press and human rights organizations, as well as from the local press, which followed his case daily.
Upon his release, Kalala said Mobutu told him not to write about politics or economics, only sports and music.
It was not a veiled threat, it was an open threat, Kalala said.
Mobutu told him if he wrote about politics, he would be returned to prison.
“When I left the prison after 27 days, I was weak and had many injuries because of the torture I received,” his asylum application read. “It was a miracle that I was still alive. I was hospitalized three different times, once for several weeks, in order to be treated for my injuries. When I was in the hospital, and for a little while after I was released from the hospital, I did not write about politics in the newspaper.”
Kalala is still not sure what long-range effects from the torture persist to this day, particularly the injections he said he was given while in prison.
About a month later, ignoring admonitions to stay clear of such topics, Kalala attended a government press conference announcing a change in the nation’s currency. He was warned there by the prime minister that his continued comments against currency reform would lead to his arrest.
“Despite the warnings . . . I felt very strongly about what the government was trying to do,” Kalala stated, adding that he wrote an article about the reforms for his newspaper.
Afraid that the government would shut down the paper, Kalala’s editor printed a disclaimer at the end of the article, stating that the opinions expressed were those of Kalala alone, and not reflective of the whole newspaper.
The day after the article appeared, Kalala was arrested again and held for 48 hours. Upon his release, he was told he was neither to leave the city nor write about political topics.
“On the same day that I was arrested, a newspaper called La Renaissance published a list of journalists and opposition political activists that the government wanted to execute. I was the 19th person on that list,” Kalala explained in his application.
When he returned home, he was told by his landlord he would have to leave because the landlord was afraid the soldiers would burn down the building to murder or intimidate Kalala.
“Even my friends and relatives did not want me to come stay with them. They all knew that I was a marked target by the government, and that they could be harmed by being close to me,” he stated. In hiding from the government and with nowhere to go, Kalala hid in a poor neighborhood outside the city.
At the time he learned he was the recipient of the NPC press freedom award, the Zairian authorities had instructions that he was not to leave the country. Later, when they learned he had departed, they made it clear that he would be arrested and killed upon his return.
Kalala organized his departure from Zaire with the help of the American embassy. He wore a wig and a fake beard to avoid being recognized.
He made his way to the coast and was ready to take a boat to the Congo and into its capital, Brazaville, when he was spotted.
Fortunately, his passport and other documents were sent ahead in a diplomatic pouch, but that didn’t stop the dock officials from confiscating all the cash and clothing he was carrying.
They said, “Where you’re going ? that’s where they make clothes, so you don’t need them,” Kalala recounted.
He was held until the evening, when the dock officials said, “OK, you don’t have any more money. Make no noise, we’re going to organize and help you get across.”
Kalala made his way to the center of the Brazaville journalism district, where colleagues found him a shirt, pants and shoes to replace the ones that had been taken from him.
Kalala stayed in a hotel there for four days ? no one knew where he was staying ? and went to the American embassy at 10 a.m. on a Monday to reclaim his documents.
By 2 p.m., Kalala was at the airport in Brazaville. Had the Zairian security forces known he was there, he said, they would have come for him.
Kalala could not go directly to Europe, even though his flight to the U.S. was through France. He was afraid the French authorities would send him back to Zaire, so he first flew to the Ivory Coast and then to France.
After his plane took off from Brazaville, Kalala borrowed a portable phone from the pilot and called his wife to tell her he was leaving. He waited to call, because the authorities wouldn’t be able to find him once the plane was in the air.
Prior to his call, Kalala did not tell his wife he was leaving, for fear the authorities would try to get information from her. Nevertheless, both she and Kalala’s brother were arrested, and after their release they both went into hiding.
“When she was released,” Kalala wrote of his wife, who was five months, pregnant at the time, “the authorities threatened her with potential rearrest, incarceration and torture. They also followed her after her release and ransacked our house.”
Arriving in France, Kalala stayed in the airport overnight so no one would know he was there, and the following day, he left for the United States.
By this time, people in Zaire realized he was missing, but they did not learn of his whereabouts until after he had spoken on Voice of America.
Kalala said that when he left Zaire, he had no intention of staying in the United States. After his trip, he thought he might go to Belgium and stay there.
According to Kalala, Zairians usually do not consider the United States as a place of exile. Aside from a poor social welfare system, he said the language barrier places them at a great disadvantage.
Kalala, in fact, at first worked late hours sweeping floors and doing other odd jobs in a print shop in Columbia, Md.
Since then, Kalala has been accepted to Georgetown University and the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Va. ? which helped him find a better job and place to live and improve his language skills ? is trying to raise funds for his tuition.
Kalala already holds a journalism degree earned in 1991 after five years of study at L’Institut des Sciences et Techniques de L’Information in Zaire.
Kalala said it is unlikely he will be a journalist here, because even if you speak English, you can’t necessarily be a journalist, you have to have a certain style.
Also, you have to be able to think logically in English, and that’s the problem ? he speaks other languages. As he learns English, he’ll speak English, but he’ll still be thinking in another language.
“So it’s going to take time to get accustomed to the life here, to be able to think in English, and you have to wait ? and maybe you won’t even get there,” he said.
Although he is cautious, keeping a low profile and avoiding much socializing, Kalala said if Mobutu wants to find him, he could do so ? even in heaven.
He’s on earth, so if he wants to find him, he’ll find him, he said.
But even if Mobutu finds him and kills him, Kalala said, life continues.
?( Zaire journalist Jean Bruno Kalala Mbenga-Kalao (left) at the National Press Club Freedom of the Press Awards presentation with (from left) award winners Maura Lerner and Joe Rigert of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and Attorney General Janet Reno, who spoke at the luncheon.) [Photo & Caption]