FEATURE: Congo Paralympians thank UK for asylum

The Guardian, London

Tue, Jul 09, 2013 - Page 19

The joy of Dedeline Mibamba Kimbata is simply expressed: “By giving us refugee status, the British government has given us life.”

Kimbata was one of five athletes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and coaches who competed in the 2012 Paralympics and claimed asylum during the Games. During the competition they spoke publicly about human rights abuses in their country and the lack of equipment provided for them by their government, statements which they say led to threats of violent retribution.

Speaking to the press for the first time since being granted asylum, Kimbata, a 31-year-old wheelchair racer, said that the British government’s decision to allow them to remain had not only potentially saved their lives, but transformed them as well.

“I am still under a lot of stress, but when I have sorted myself out I would like to start training again,” she said.

“I need a coach and a racing chair. My legs were blown off when I stepped on a landmine at the age of 18, but even before the accident happened I dreamed of being a top basketball player,” Kimbata said.

“Facilities for disabled athletes in Congo are extremely poor, but here at last I have opportunities,” she said.

Levy Kitambala Kinzito, 35, a wheelchair basketball player, contracted polio at the age of three, leaving his left leg shorter than his right. He has joined the Sheffield Steelers wheelchair basketball club, the biggest of its kind in the UK. He trains there several times a week and is making good progress.

Both athletes are seeking sponsorship to help them pursue their careers in the UK and are also keen to highlight the plight of disabled athletes in Congo who have almost no resources to help them progress.

“I had to use an ordinary orthopedic wheelchair designed to be pushed by someone else and between five and 10 wheelchair racers would have to share one chair,” she said.

Before the London Games, she and Kinzito had been told that funds had been provided to Congo to give them the equipment they would need to compete in their events, but when they arrived in London, they found that no equipment had been provided.

However, the athletes’ problems really began when they spoke out on the African station Ben TV about their government’s failure to provide equipment. They also condemned human rights abuses in Congo, especially during elections that took place shortly before the London Games started.

“There was a polling station just in front of my house and I saw the military shooting at people who were going to vote,” Kimbata said. “My two year-old-daughter became sick because she was so traumatized by the continual sound of gunshots.”

Discussing the Games, she said: “We were told by Congolese officials that when we reached the Olympic Village [in east London] our equipment would be waiting for us but when we arrived there was nothing. Once we started to speak out about this and the problems in our country things got worse and worse for us.”

“I was told that I had damaged my country’s reputation and that when I returned to N’djili airport in Kinshasa, I would be arrested and killed. Pressure was put on me to speak on a Congolese radio station and retract what I had said, but I refused and ran away when they tried to get me to say these things,” Kimbata said.

“I was very scared, but was determined to tell the truth, it was not only in my interest, but in everyone’s interest. They wanted me to say that the wheelchair donated to me was from the Congolese government, but I refused to lie about this,” she said.

Kinzito claimed that he had also received death threats.

Kimbata and Kinzito both included the allegations that they had received death threats in their asylum claims, which were found to be credible.

Kimbata said she had no intention of claiming asylum when she left Congo to compete in the London Games. Indeed, in doing so she has left behind her young family with whom she desperately hopes to be reunited.

“I have three young children in Congo and I told them I would be home in two months,” she said. “Now I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to go home.”