Nono Mukwayanzo was 17 when he began volunteering for the Network of Civic Education of the Congo, a coalition of non-governmental organizations promoting civic education and participation in Kinshasa, the capital. That year, 2006, was supposed to be a time of promise for the Democratic Republic of Congo. The country’s first multiparty elections were held after decades of sham elections and civil war that left millions dead.
Mukwayanzo, now 24 and living in Portland, had never experienced independent elections in his lifetime and wanted to devote himself to his country’s cause. The elections “were very important since we were going to enter into a new democratic era which would permit us young ones to live in a democratic state,” he said. It doesn’t matter where you live. People want to live in peace and be treated with respect. Some, even, are willing to risk their lives for it.
Joseph Kabila was declared president following the 2006 election amid protests of voting fraud. So in November 2006, Mukwayanzo was part of a group sent by the civic organization to question l’Abbé Apollinaire Malu Malu, president of the independent electoral commission that oversaw the elections. When asked whether the ballot boxes had been stuffed, the official would only say Kabila had won, Mukwayanzo said.
Mukwayanzo, who was studying economic sciences at Université Protestante au Congo, knew that as a political activist he was always in danger. “I knew it, but we had to do something. Things had to change in my country,” he said. “We pretend to be in the democratic era, but it’s a different story. People are dying. People are afraid to talk.”
So on Nov. 7, 2008, he participated in a peaceful protest organized by clergy, to demand fundamental democratic liberties for the people of the east. Congrès national pour la défense du peuple, a political militia that split from the government, was terrorizing and massacring people in one of the worst humanitarian disasters since the country’s civil war.
During the march, on Lumumba Boulevard, a soldier yelled at Mukwayanzo to stop, then bashed him on the head, causing him to black out. He woke up in Kin Mazière jail, he said. For three days he had no food. He was kept in a dark room with his hands tied behind his back. He could hear when people approached to beat him with objects he couldn’t see.
He weeped and implored God’s mercy in his mother tongue: “Nzambi tata kwa luzolo,” which means, “My God, may your will be done. Do not abandon me.” One of the policemen on guard heard him and recognized they were from the same village. Miraculously, he organized an escape the following day around 2 p.m. Once outside, Mukwayanzo said he lay in a corner of the street, while the same policeman called his mother and said she could collect him in exchange for $500.
He was so bloodied, he couldn’t see. It took months to heal physically.
His dreams were shaken again with the assassination of human rights leader Floribert Chebeya Bahizire in June 2010. Bahizire had been an inspiration for Mukwayanzo, working as head of La Voix des Sans-Voix (Voice of the Voiceless) to document human rights abuses across Congo, including corruption in the military. Hundreds, including Mukwayanzo, mourned his death at a funeral march June 26, 2010.
While he and his friends marched, they chanted songs denouncing the killing. Mukwayanzo took photos for his civic organization. Policemen told them they needed to go home, but they didn’t want to. They weren’t doing anything wrong. That’s when they started to beat him. His friends, he said, saved his life, pulling him away from the clubbing and bringing him to the closest health center.
His family was distraught. If a leading activist could be killed, Mukwayanzo could be killed, too. So he came to Atlanta, and then enrolled at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, where he’s now a freshman. He has applied for asylum. He fears for his family members, who have been threatened and have their daily movements monitored. He got word his father was kidnapped and tortured. He doesn’t know whether he’s alive or dead.
“Portland is a welcoming place. You feel at home. There are friendly people. Some of them speak French,” he said. “Some people, they might have nothing to eat, nothing to hope for the future, but here, the system, they give them hope. They give them food.” Maine, he said, recognizes that if people have “the basics they need right now,” they can excel and contribute.
“Why not in my country?” he said.
He wants to learn here. This weekend he’s attending a peace leadership training with West Point graduate and Iraq War veteran Paul K. Chappell, organized by the group Waging Peace/Maine, at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center in Belfast. He wants to study how to solve conflict without violence, how to be a good leader, and how to spread peace.
Whether he returns to Congo or stays in the U.S., he said, he will wage peace.