Alene was a taxi driver in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2005 with little interest in politics. But then politics found him. Shortly after the contested 2005 election, federal police began stopping his taxi and seizing his customers. “Police would open the door of my taxi, a mini-van, grab a customer and start beating him. I saw them punch a man in the face -- in his eyes, nose, teeth—try to break his arm and drag him into the street,” said Alene. “This happened a few times a month. If you asked any questions, the police would flash their badge and show you their gun. You knew to keep quiet.”
Alene heard similar stories from other taxi drivers. He became angry and decided to attend a political meeting organized by Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), a multi-national opposition political party. “The ruling party wants to divide Ethiopia’s ethnic groups, UDJ wants to unite them. Their message inspired me and I decided to join.”
He put UDJ pamphlets and posters in his taxi and distributed party literature in small town around Addis. The police were watching his movements and arrested him in 2010. “They slapped me around and warned me to stop supporting the UDJ,” said Alene. But he refused to be intimidated. Between 2010 and 2013 he was arrested almost 20 times just for seeking to participate in political life.
Police beat him on his back with wooden sticks and spit on him, saying: “You are never going to change anything, you will die for nothing.” The worst time was in 2012, when they took Alene to a secret building with three other political activists. “They broke my teeth, my nose, the inside of my mouth and my backbone. The injuries still hurt, even more when it is cold or when I stand a lot.”
“Then they took him to a prison. “ But police were afraid to beat us there because other detainees would hear our cries and start pounding on their cells. So they took us to the secret building again to torture us. Three months later I was released, I was weak, hungry and had injuries all over my body. I made up my mind to leave Ethiopia.”
He fled to Sudan and flew to Turkey from there. He passed through Spain, Central America and Mexico, then crossed into California on July 9, 2013. He asked for political asylum, but was immediately detained by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), part of the Department of Homeland Security, and in a short-term holding cell called an “icebox” because it is so cold.
Customs and Border Protection kept him there for two days under miserable conditions. “It was freezing and people had to sleep on rubber mats, there was no shower or privacy and the room smelled horrible. They kept the light on all day and night, you never knew what time it was.”
Konjet was a young mother working in her family convenience store in Addis Ababa when Ethiopia held its first multi-party competitive elections in 2005. Her father was active in a major opposition party; when the opposition received far more votes than expected, the ruling party cracked down, killing leaders of opposition parties and imprisoning at least 30,000 of their supporters. This even included people like Konjet who did nothing more than distribute political flyers for her father.
The police knocked on her door and forced Konjet, her father and brother to go with them. She never saw her father again. She was imprisoned and tortured for six months in one of Ethiopia’s brutal prisons where she was sexually assaulted by a prison guard. After she became ill, she was released and managed to escape the country, leaving her little girl behind with her mother. She travelled thousands of miles, through Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa and South America, finally ending up in Mexico.
As soon as she crossed Mexico’s border with Texas, agents from Customs and Border Protection (CBP), part of the Department of Homeland Security, arrested Konjet and some 20 other immigrants. They detained her in one of the infamous “iceboxes,” short-term custody cells kept deliberately cold to “convince” immigrants to return to their country of origin. Konjet knew that if she returned to Ethiopia, she could be jailed again, and maybe never get out.
No U.S. government agency monitors what happens in the iceboxes, unlike the case with the long-term detention facilities used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE. “The conditions in these cells were horrible,” says Konjet. “We kept banging on the walls, asking the guards for a blanket, but no one responded. The bathroom was a hole in the ground, there was no privacy. The officer and other people could watch us while we were in the bathroom. All we got to eat was a sandwich once a day -- two pieces of white bread with a slice of turkey. We tried to sleep on the hard floor but we couldn’t because it was so freezing inside this small room.”
Konjet had no idea about how long she would be kept in this cell -- there was no phone, no one to talk to, no chance to go outside at all. “I did not know if they were going to deport me to Ethiopia or what was going to happen.” After 3 days, Konjet was put on bus and sent to the Don Hutto Detention Facility near San Antonio, where she remained for almost two months until a cousin in Washington DC agreed to sponsor her. In Washington she found the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) International, which provided her with supportive services and a community.
Konjet now lives in Bethesda, Maryland and is working in local restaurants. She was granted political asylum in July 2014 and is excited about seeing her daughter after four years of separation.
This survivor’s name and image have been changed to protect her identity.
Charles Forchenmbin was a traditional tribal chief from the English-speaking region of Cameroon with a Master’s Degree in English and more than 20 years of experience teaching high school English. Following in the footsteps of his father, a village chief, Charles began speaking out about the harsh discrimination against Anglophones by Cameroon’s French-speaking majority in the 1990s.
“Anglophones, who make up 20 percent of Cameroon’s population, are a subjugated minority,” says Charles, “the government calls us ‘enemies in the house,’ and treats us as second-class citizens.” Most traditional rulers are willing to help the regime maintain power by falsifying election results. But Charles refused to go along with this fraud. “It is because of dictators like Paul Biya, who has ruled Cameroon for over 30 years, that Africans don’t have clean water, good schools, health care and transportation,” he insists.
Charles paid a horrendous price for exposing election fraud and government corruption. He was tortured and brutalized for two weeks, forced to kneel on broken bottles and barbed wire in a horrible cell with little ventilation. He was placed under house arrest but then got in trouble for violating the house arrest order—he left his city to stop the forced marriage of a 15-year-old girl to a 70 year-old man. The girl had come to him for protection.
This was when Charles decided he had to escape Cameroon to save his life, leaving his wife and five children behind. He crossed the U.S. Mexican border illegally and ended up being detained in Eloy, Arizona for seven months. Shortly after being released Charles came to Washington DC and found TASSC.
“TASSC was everything to me when I first came to Washington,” he explains. “It felt like home, everyone was so kind and helped me with whatever I needed. They sent me to Dr. Kate Sugarman, an amazing doctor who treats survivors like me with dignity. She documented all my injuries from the torture, and wrote a powerful document that supported my asylum claim. In December 2015, two staff members from TASSC—Andrea and Kelsey—came with me to my interview at the U.S. immigration court in Baltimore. The judge granted me asylum, then Andrea and Kelsey took me out to lunch to celebrate along with my niece. I will never forget that they were there for me on that day.
Andrea trained me to become a human rights defender and gave me so many opportunities. It was because of TASSC that I spoke on the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the United States Congress, was invited to San Diego, California to tell my story to hundreds of activists and appeared on Univision. I spoke to medical professionals and students at Catholic University and the College of New Jersey. Best of all, I got to meet and take a photo with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon as part of a TASSC delegation.”
The first jobs Charles had in Washington were tough and he earned very little money, sometimes less than $10 an hour. “I stocked food in a store, moved furniture out of people’s houses, did whatever I could for whatever people would pay me,” he says. ”One time I worked all day in a warehouse and never got paid the $90 they owed me. But no matter what happened, TASSC was always there to counsel me, to tell me things would get better. A kind word from Sister Denise meant so much to me when my family was so far away in Africa.”
After more than two years apart...
TASSC survivor, Charles (center), reunites wtih his family at Dulles Airport in May 2017.
After Charles was granted asylum, he found a six-month job helping to transport people with mental disabilities. But then he found his current job working on a payroll with a health provider. “I felt so much better,” Charles explains, “working in an office with important responsibilities and not much stress. I really started to think I was making it in America.”
But his best day came in May 2017, when my wife Evelyn told me the US embassy in Yaounde, Cameroon has just granted visas to her and my five children. It was 2:00 am at his home in Maryland—he started jumping and dancing in his house and preparing for them to come. He found an apartment for his family, registered his children in school, and started thinking about his next step.
Now that he is settled, Charles wants to continue defending human rights in Cameroon at TASSC events, while staying touch with his village in Africa—he is still tribal chief. “TASSC sent me so many places,” he says. “It projected my image to the world, back to my people in Cameroon. My village knows that I visited Congress, met Ban Ki-Moon and told people about the oppression of Anglophones in Cameroon. And all of this happened because of TASSC.”
Warning, Contains Graphic images and Descriptions of Torture. Viewer Discretion Advised.
"One beautiful morning, I was sitting with writers and poets at a coffee shop. Suddenly a group of men showed up. They looked like gang members.
And they said to me "we invite you to have coffee... just 10 minutes." And I was a journalist. In Lebanon I wrote a report about the desert prisons in Egypt, Syria and Iraq.
Because of that, the Syrian Intelligence kidnapped me and took me from Beirut to Damascus. I was tortured for 100 days..."
Warning, Contains Graphic images and Descriptions of Torture. Viewer Discretion Advised.
"In my case, they knew I was teaching. So I was persecuted. We could not longer sleep at our home. We fled to the mountains, we slept in a cave by the river so they wouldn't kill my family.
So my Christmas was spent away from my children, 8 months pregnant. I was kidnapped for 2 weeks of torture. They didn't give me food or water for weeks. But they put food and water in front of me as psychological torture.
All my concentration was on my unborn child..."