San Antonio JFON helps a young survivor of torture find freedom and safety in the United States
Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Makala prison was built to accommodate 1,500 prisoners. On the morning Lolie arrived, there were approximately 8,000 men, women, and children inside. There was no room to move. Some inmates slept standing up. Sanitary facilities were nearly non-existent, as were clean water to drink and food to eat. Prisoners were fed a few dozen beans once a day.
But Makala is most infamous for its use of torture. Makala guards do not torture to elicit secrets as much as they torture to elicit pain. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is known as the “rape capital of the world,” and rape as an instrument of torture was an everyday occurrence in Makala while Lolie was there. Women prisoners were raped repeatedly, and so were men.
Lolie had heard the women screaming throughout that first night. Soon it was her turn, and she was alone in a room with two guards.
“I have AIDS,” she announced, keeping her head down. “If you don’t leave me alone, you’ll get it, too.”
She thought she had been clever. She thought this declaration would protect her. But instead it made the guards more vicious.
Lolie was only a maid in the house of opposition leader Ne Muanda Msemi, but when her employer and his supporters were taken by government forces to Makala, she and the rest of the household staff were swept up with them. And it didn’t matter to anyone that she wasn’t a supporter and didn’t know anything about politics.
“It’s time for you to disappear,” one guard snarled at her as he dragged her to the prison pit and threw her in. She hit her head sharply on a hard object on her way down.
The pit was full of muck and human excrement. She didn’t know how long she lay there. Her brain didn’t seem to be working at all. She wondered if this was what it felt like to be dead.
The liberators arrived in the early morning hours, their trucks emblazoned with red banners. Msemi’s supporters were heavily armed; they stormed into the prison and killed the guards at the front gate. Then they began breaking down doors and emptying cells.
“Go on,” they told the women in Lolie’s cell, pointing at them with the barrels of their guns. “You can leave now.”
Lolie joined the thousands of people scrambling to get out. Msemi’s supporters had set fires in the prison, and the smoke was thick and acrid, making it difficult to see clearly. Some prisoners stumbled and were crushed underneath the stampede to the exits; others were killed when a concrete barrier fell on them.
An estimated 80 people would die at Makala that day, the biggest prison break in DRC history.
Lolie heard the whine of bullets passing close to her head. She felt a burning sensation on her leg. She didn’t stop to look. She kept running.
Uncle surveyed his young niece and shook his head. Lolie had always been so meticulous about her appearance; now, even after bathing and scouring her skin, the stench of the prison still clung to her like death. He’d patched up the wound on her leg as best he could, but it seemed like every other inch of her was covered in scabs, welts and bruises.
And there was, he thought, something not right with her head.
“You’re not safe here,” Uncle said. Outside, they could hear the faint rumble of trucks and a blast of gunfire. Lolie jumped in her seat. Uncle put his hand on her shoulder and felt the brittle, bird-like bones.
“We have to get you out,” he told her grimly. “Don’t worry; I’ll find a way.”
An attorney she can trust
The way Lolie’s uncle had found was on a ship sailing to Argentina. Lolie, still disoriented from her head injury, stayed hidden for much of the voyage. For the next 11 months, she traveled through 12 different countries on her trek north, staying in shelters and churches. She was robbed twice and kidnapped once — only released after three days because her kidnappers were convinced she didn’t have any money.
Lolie inquired about the possibility of asylum in several of the countries she passed through in South and Central America; each time, she was denied or discouraged and told to keep moving. She had run out of options by the time she reached the port of entry at El Paso, Texas in March 2018. Bone-weary with exhaustion, she turned herself in to the Border Patrol, and was quickly sent to a detention center.
She was still there—nearly a year later—when Smaranda Draghia, site attorney for San Antonio JFON, first met her. Another attorney had started the difficult and time-consuming asylum process, but had been unable to keep Lolie as a client. Now Lolie’s all-important court date was only a few weeks away.
Lolie was, at first, shy and withdrawn, answering all of Smaranda’s questions with as few words as possible. Gradually, however, Smaranda was able to get Lolie to open up and tell her story.
Her goal had been to become a hairdresser, she told Smaranda, and maybe have her own salon one day. Meanwhile, she had been saving money for classes while working for Msemi and his family. The government forces had laid siege to the house for two weeks before they had attacked and carted everybody—Msemi, his family, his supporters, and household staff—to Makala prison.
“She kept it together pretty well until she had to talk about the prison,” remembers Smaranda. “That’s when she lost it. Her voice, her whole being, shook with the absolute terror of it.”
Lolie, meanwhile, took a steadying breath and considered her present surroundings. At the detention center, there was adequate food, water, showers and toilets. And the guards left her alone.
“It’s not so terrible here,” she said in a quiet tone. “It’s just that I would like to be free. Can you help me?”
“Yes,” replied Smaranda firmly, wanting Lolie to feel confident that she now had an attorney who would not give up on her. Smaranda looked down at her notes and sighed. “But we don’t have a lot of time.”
The first thing Smaranda did was wrestle a continuance from a reluctant judge. She also asked for a psychological evaluation for Lolie, who still exhibited signs of post-traumatic stress. And then Smaranda got to work.
“Fortunately,” says Smaranda, “there is a wealth of documentation on the siege and attack on Msemi’s house and the subsequent prison break at Makala. Furthermore, the appalling conditions and horrific torture found at Makala has been corroborated by countless survivors.”
The judge delayed Lolie’s hearing by one week.
“To me, it seemed like such a straightforward case for asylum,” says Smaranda. “She’d spent two months in Makala prison. She was still considered an enemy of the ruling government. To go back to the DRC meant more torture, or even death. It’s a textbook case for asylum.”
Nevertheless, as Lolie haltingly related the grisly details of her experience, the U.S. attorney aggressively peppered Lolie with seemingly irrelevant questions, trying to trip her up and expose holes in her testimony. He failed.
“Lolie’s story never changed,” says Smaranda, with satisfaction. “She never wavered.”
Lolie’s ordeal had begun in Makala prison in March of 2017; it ended in immigration court nearly two years later, when she was finally granted asylum and could start living as a free woman.
She’s got a long way to go, of course. There are still nightmares, still moments where she is back in the pit of Makala prison, unsure whether she is dead or alive.
But Lolie is safe now, currently living in Maine with a friend who was also a member of Msemi’s domestic staff back in the DRC. She’s beginning to learn English and eager to reclaim her original dream of becoming a hairdresser.
“Yes, I am happy here,” Lolie tells Smaranda. “Thank you for helping me to be free.”