Rose started playing football when she was seven. “I play very well,” she says seriously. “It is my profession. Many teams appreciated me.” So much so, a team snapped her up when she was 12. At 14, Rose left her country, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and went to play elsewhere in Africa for a few years, “an international transfer”. Soon she had a career to be proud of.
When Rose tells me her story, she is in her mid-thirties and living as a refugee at a shelter run by JRS for women in Rome, a long way away from the training and football grounds that were her life and passion back in Africa. She is very grave, telling her story slowly and deliberately; careful not to omit any detail she believes to be important.
Rose’s voice remains level as she tells me how, some 10 years ago, she decided to start playing football for a military team. There is no indication in the telling that this career move would turn out to be a point of no return. But change her life it did, within the space of a few years, when Rose started to realize that “many bad things were happening, which I didn’t like”.
The “bad things” disturbing Rose were abuses she heard the army was perpetrating against her – and their – people. “Gradually I changed,” she recalls. “We had to do a lot of pro-government propaganda as part of the team. When we had a game, we had to wear Kabila t-shirts. But I didn’t want to do propaganda for Kabila.”
It was inevitable that Rose’s reluctance to promote the Congolese President, Joseph Kabila, would get her into trouble. Although she was compelled to continue playing football for the army, to finish her contract, she defiantly refused to toe the government line.
Instead, she started to call meetings of her team mates, “so that together we could proclaim that we are Congolese and denounce that many of us are being killed every day.” And they refused to wear the Kabila t-shirts. “For us, it is finished,” they said.
Summoned by the army general who was the president of her team, Rose told him bluntly: “I don’t like what the country is doing. There are many who are crying in the provinces and here in Kinshasa.”
Things turned nasty when Rose finally tried to leave the team and ignored entreaties to stay on. “The General called five soldiers and told them to break my legs so I won’t be able to play anymore. They beat me and beat me and broke my right leg from the knee down. At night, they threw me in the river, and left me for dead. My body was covered with blood. A papa [older man] found me; people came to help and took me to hospital. I was out of my senses for three days.”
What Rose remembers most is not the torture but the death of her father when he heard the news. “My father was sick and in hospital too. When he heard people saying that I was dying and how badly I was injured, he died the same day.”
To this day, Rose cannot reconcile herself to her father’s sudden death. Throughout our conversation, she keeps referring to him with grief and remorse. “My father used to tell me to leave that team. If I had listened to him, he would be alive now. I feel guilty, I feel he died for me.”
Perhaps it is her self-reproach that prevents Rose from seeing how strong she is. After being tortured, she spent eight months in hospital. She changed hospitals to get away from constant army harassment and, when this did not work, went to her mother’s birthplace and concentrated on recuperating. “I started to get better, slowly, slowly. In the morning, I ran; in the evening, I did the traditional treatment,” she says.
Rose recovered to the extent that she could start training once more. She decided to play football professionally again. The welfare of her family was foremost in her troubled mind: “I needed to play because from the age of 14, I have always looked after my family financially, and paid for the studies of my siblings.”
But Rose was not left in peace. The general who had ordered soldiers to break her legs now wanted her back on his team. “The problem grew, until three jeeps of soldiers came to stop me from training one day.” Rose bravely confronted the general who actually apologized for what he had done, “he said he had been angry”, and asked Rose to go back for double or triple her pay.
Not only did Rose refuse, she was as determined as ever to “proclaim the rights of our country”. And so she decided, with some other football players, to join one of many rallies being organized in Kinshasa on 19 January 2015, to protest attempts by Kabila to stay in power beyond his mandate.
What happened in these protests is well documented by human rights and media organisations. The security forces cracked down on demonstrators and, over several days, the police and Republican Guard soldiers shot dead at least 43 people, wounded dozens, and spirited away five others.
Rose was arrested and thrown into a shipping container – she says people were detained in several containers in the area, a practice the Congolese armed forces have been known to resort to.
Remembering her time – thankfully brief – as one of those detainees, Rose becomes increasingly distressed. She sheds her air of controlled calm and is desperate for me to understand the hidden plight of those in the containers. She draws lots of little boxes on a paper – the containers – and jabs them with her pen.
“In there, if there are people crying, no one hears. The soldiers came at night, opened the doors to feed whoever was inside, and then singled out women to rape them or men to shoot them dead. They’d lead people away and we’d hear gunshots – boom, boom, boom.”
Rose managed to escape, a sympathetic soldier helped her, but not before she was gang-raped and tortured with acid by five others. Days later, aided and abetted by others, she left her country and managed to reach Italy safely.
Sitting in Rome just over a year later, Rose looks me straight in the eye: “But don’t you know what is going on in my country? Why don’t you go to see? European countries must come and see what is happening. Who is going to help? Every day, in Congo, there is so much death and so many atrocities. But who can we tell about them?”
What can I tell this incredibly brave woman whose main concern is for her country, and for those she left behind in prison, not for herself? The truth, that I believe that the long-suffering people of DRC are largely doomed to international oblivion?
Weeks after meeting Rose, I cannot shake off her urgent challenge. I remember especially her words: “if there are people crying, no one hears”, because they speak of an ignored suffering that is the fruit of so much injustice and conflict in our world today.
There are too many places where abused omnipotence is still the order of the day, where those in power hold the life of ordinary people in their hands, and can snuff it out whenever they please, no questions asked.
And this is one of the most compelling reasons why hundreds of thousands of people from so many war-torn and oppressive places keep trying to join us in Europe. I’ve lost count of the time I’ve heard refugees say how amazing it is here, because you can actually speak out, and criticize those who hold power, without risking your life.
Rose risked her life more than once to proclaim her people’s rights. Now she is in a safe place and has received protection. But still Rose remains consumed by her traumatic past and finds it difficult to focus on the present. “My life is destroyed,” she assures me. “I don’t sleep at night, I think and think about so many things. Outwardly I may laugh and joke but inside I am dead. People tell me to pray, so I pray: God, why do you allow these things to happen?”
Although Rose cannot locate any hope in her life right now, I did feel a glimmer when I listened to her, because of her determination to fight against oppression, even at such a terrible cost to herself.
The least we can do, when people like Rose turn up on our doorstep, is to take their side, and to learn from them, by listening to what they are trying so hard to tell us through their heroic choices and desperate appeals. And to do whatever we can so that their sacrifices will not be in vain.
– Danielle Vella, JRS Europe