In the lobby of a London conference center Tuesday, a handful of women held up posters calling actress Angelina Jolie and U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague hypocrites. A few hundred feet away, in another room, Jolie and Hague were hosting a major summit on sexual violence in conflict zones.
The women in the lobby were mostly rape survivors who had immigrated to the U.K. from African countries. Some had been trying for years to obtain refugee status but had been repeatedly denied asylum. They said that U.K. officials hadn’t believed their stories of sexual violence, and a few of them had been detained and threatened with deportation.
“It’s not convenient for William Hague to talk about how the U.K. treats its rape survivors here, now is it?” one woman said to a few curious onlookers and several scowling guards.
Lyly Mangoto Bukolo, a woman from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, sifted through an envelope of documents in her purse and held out a letter from a community health center.
“We people, we come to this country for protection. I was raped, and my daughter was raped. She was 5. She died the same day. I came here, and nobody believed me. They didn’t believe anything like that could happen to someone.”
Bukolo has a court appointment on Wednesday to appeal for refugee status. She says she hopes the testimony about her horrific experience will be finally believed if it comes from a mental health professional. She says she has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
“As you are aware,” the letter from the health center reads, “Miss Bukolo sought asylum in the U.K. after she and her family were viciously attacked in the Congo. She has described how she was repeatedly raped (whilst also witnessing her young daughter being raped and her husband held at gunpoint) in an incident which culminated in the murder of her daughter and husband.
“Miss Bukolo currently experiences flashbacks in relation to the immense, life-threatening traumas she experienced,” the letter continues. “She remains hypervigilant (at times dissociative) and does not feel safe in the world which she now, understandably, perceives to be a dangerous place. She is exhausted and she is unable to tolerate the dark, sleeps very little, and frequently wakes in terror when she does fall asleep.”
Bukolo described her first encounter with the U.K. Home Office in Liverpool, when she first arrived in the country nine years ago.
“My interpreter was a man, I couldn’t speak properly about my problems,” she said. Rape survivors are often re-traumatized when they must narrate their experiences in detail to someone else. “We go into silence. We can’t speak until we have the right time, or someone who will listen. Now I have these ladies, who listen,” Bukolo says, gesturing to the other women in the lobby. Several of them meet regularly as a support group for survivors seeking refugee status.
Bukolo is now homeless. She lives in Derby, England, about a two hours’ drive north of London. She says she does not know if any of her family members still live in Congo, or where in Congo they are living if they do. “I am alone. This is my family now. In Congo I don’t have anybody.”
The placard she hung around her neck reads, “WE ARE ALL AT RISK OF DEATH BY DEPORTATION.”
“Congo is not a safe country,” she says. “They are police? They rape. They are soldiers? They rape. They are men? They rape.”