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Angolan refugees: 'The one possession I'll take home'

Isabelle, 53, was born in Angola and twice displaced by war, as both a little girl and then a woman in 1992. The mother of six now lives in the DRC's capital and runs a roadside shop selling bread, dried fish and tea. If she were forced to flee again, Isabelle says she would take a key chain with a zebra toy attached. "It would remind me of my small room in Kinshasa," she says.

Edward is unsure of exactly when his family left Angola, but their journey to Zaire is imprinted indelibly in the 73-year-old's memory. "My mother was carrying clothes and a bag of cassava," he recalls. "I kicked a tree when we were walking through the forest, and the toe dried up after and fell off." Today Edward is happy at the prospect of returning home, and says his bare hands would be the thing he would bring back to Angola. "I need these," he says, "just these."

Elizabeth, 72, says the gift of a pastor on the day of her baptism remains her most treasured item. Her Bible is the only possession that remains from her displacement 52 years ago. "In the Bible you can find words which comfort you," says the mother of seven, who has had to cope with the struggles that come with a separated family.

Edward fled Angola when he was 16, after a rocket exploded 1.2 miles from his family home. They took with them a "pidi" jar filled with buffalo meat for the journey ahead, where they encountered the bodies of those less fortunate. Today Edward is an engineer and the jar is the last remnant from that journey to the DRC many years before. "I can tell my children our family's story through this 'pidi' jar," he says. "Hopefully we will take it when we make the return trip to Angola in the future."

Sebastio, 55, was once a soldier, but fled Angola when he discovered a threat against his life. If he were forced to flee once more, a "Billet de Composition Familiale" would be the one item Sebastio would take, a document proving he is a refugee and that his children are Angolan.

A refugee at the age of seven, Sebastian arrived freezing in Zaire. "It was cold, and my father gave me his jacket to keep me warm," he remembers 60 years later. "When I see that suit... I think about Angola. The day I can cross back into Angola, I will have it on me, and I will remember my father. I will wear it because I am now a father myself."

Maria fled Angola in 1962 with her children, the youngest just nine days old at the time. Soldiers had killed her husband in front of her eyes, driving her to escape into the forest, where she lived for seven months, foraging and drinking rainwater. Looking back Maria, 68, says her cross saved her life and those of her children; "with it I am at peace."

Kabamba and his father were cooking an omelet when war arrived at their door. His mother and sisters were working in the fields when men wielding machetes took his father, murdering him inside their house. Kabamba was then forced to sit in the pan of blistering oil, losing consciousness in the process. By the time he awoke he was in the arms of his mother and on the way to Zaire. Twenty-four years later and most of Kabamba's family have returned to Angola, and he will soon follow, carrying the photo of his pregnant girlfriend. "She can't go with me because we aren't married yet, and she can't be listed as a family member," he explains. "In the culture here, you can't marry a pregnant girl. We have to wait until after the birth to begin the marriage process."

Orphaned at the age of 12 and forced to become a child soldier, Antonio, 53, led 150 children -- some as young as six years old -- into combat. "I did what I did in order to stay alive," he says, recalling his harrowing experience. Antonio deserted after two battles and disappeared into the forest, living for over a year off the land and hunting with his gun, before making the crossing into Zaire. His story, he says, is the most important thing he took with him, so that others can learn from it.

If she were forced to flee once more, Lumona, 36, says her portrait, painted by a friend, would be the one object she would take. "I love it because it's art. It's not a photograph," she says. "Someone took the time to draw me. It's beautiful and makes me happy."

Francisco journeyed to Angola in 1977 after being born in exile, only to be forced out in 1992 when war broke out again. A shoemaker, he lost his shop and all his educational documents when he fled. What he did manage to pack was a small pair of pliers and a cobbler's hammer. "With these," he says, "I will never starve."

Isabelle, 53, was born in Angola and twice displaced by war, as both a little girl and then a woman in 1992. The mother of six now lives in the DRC's capital and runs a roadside shop selling bread, dried fish and tea. If she were forced to flee again, Isabelle says she would take a key chain with a zebra toy attached. "It would remind me of my small room in Kinshasa," she says.

Edward is unsure of exactly when his family left Angola, but their journey to Zaire is imprinted indelibly in the 73-year-old's memory. "My mother was carrying clothes and a bag of cassava," he recalls. "I kicked a tree when we were walking through the forest, and the toe dried up after and fell off." Today Edward is happy at the prospect of returning home, and says his bare hands would be the thing he would bring back to Angola. "I need these," he says, "just these."

Elizabeth, 72, says the gift of a pastor on the day of her baptism remains her most treasured item. Her Bible is the only possession that remains from her displacement 52 years ago. "In the Bible you can find words which comfort you," says the mother of seven, who has had to cope with the struggles that come with a separated family.

Edward fled Angola when he was 16, after a rocket exploded 1.2 miles from his family home. They took with them a "pidi" jar filled with buffalo meat for the journey ahead, where they encountered the bodies of those less fortunate. Today Edward is an engineer and the jar is the last remnant from that journey to the DRC many years before. "I can tell my children our family's story through this 'pidi' jar," he says. "Hopefully we will take it when we make the return trip to Angola in the future."

Sebastio, 55, was once a soldier, but fled Angola when he discovered a threat against his life. If he were forced to flee once more, a "Billet de Composition Familiale" would be the one item Sebastio would take, a document proving he is a refugee and that his children are Angolan.

A refugee at the age of seven, Sebastian arrived freezing in Zaire. "It was cold, and my father gave me his jacket to keep me warm," he remembers 60 years later. "When I see that suit... I think about Angola. The day I can cross back into Angola, I will have it on me, and I will remember my father. I will wear it because I am now a father myself."

Maria fled Angola in 1962 with her children, the youngest just nine days old at the time. Soldiers had killed her husband in front of her eyes, driving her to escape into the forest, where she lived for seven months, foraging and drinking rainwater. Looking back Maria, 68, says her cross saved her life and those of her children; "with it I am at peace."

Kabamba and his father were cooking an omelet when war arrived at their door. His mother and sisters were working in the fields when men wielding machetes took his father, murdering him inside their house. Kabamba was then forced to sit in the pan of blistering oil, losing consciousness in the process. By the time he awoke he was in the arms of his mother and on the way to Zaire. Twenty-four years later and most of Kabamba's family have returned to Angola, and he will soon follow, carrying the photo of his pregnant girlfriend. "She can't go with me because we aren't married yet, and she can't be listed as a family member," he explains. "In the culture here, you can't marry a pregnant girl. We have to wait until after the birth to begin the marriage process."

Orphaned at the age of 12 and forced to become a child soldier, Antonio, 53, led 150 children -- some as young as six years old -- into combat. "I did what I did in order to stay alive," he says, recalling his harrowing experience. Antonio deserted after two battles and disappeared into the forest, living for over a year off the land and hunting with his gun, before making the crossing into Zaire. His story, he says, is the most important thing he took with him, so that others can learn from it.

If she were forced to flee once more, Lumona, 36, says her portrait, painted by a friend, would be the one object she would take. "I love it because it's art. It's not a photograph," she says. "Someone took the time to draw me. It's beautiful and makes me happy."

Francisco journeyed to Angola in 1977 after being born in exile, only to be forced out in 1992 when war broke out again. A shoemaker, he lost his shop and all his educational documents when he fled. What he did manage to pack was a small pair of pliers and a cobbler's hammer. "With these," he says, "I will never starve."

A jacket. A Bible. A photograph. Perhaps escaping with your bare hands would be enough.

This was the reality once faced by thousands of Angolans. Caught up in a bloody guerrilla war, men and women, families and friends were displaced, leaving their homeland in search of safer climes.

Many refugees traveled to Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to wait things out. The war dragged on, but life moves fast. For some, that journey took place over 50 years ago.

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