Inside the Nightmares of Africa's LGBT Refugees

06/26/2015 04:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2016

by Jacob Kushner

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Cynthia, an LGBT activist in Burundi, was thrown in jail and beaten up by police after she gave a radio interview defending the rights of gays and lesbians. Upon her release she fled to Kenya.

Raj, a gay teenager from Kampala, Uganda, was found kissing a boy in his high school locker room and the principal called an all-school assembly to shame him. The principal then ordered teachers to beat him. Afterward Raj's father drove him to jail and asked police there to further punish him. After several days of beatings, the police released Raj and he too fled to Kenya.

Mbonimpa, a gay man who fled Congo's civil wars for Kenya as a boy, was reported to police at Kakuma refugee camp by his own mother. Ineligible for asylum, he's living in Nairobi where he hopes no one will learn of his sexual identity.

Jake Naughton/The GroundTruth Project

Gay Ugandans fleeing a wave of homophobia have been covered widely in the international media. But LGBT people are fleeing countries across East and Central Africa, where religious crusaders are pushing forward anti-gay laws. The most common reason for flight isn't violence by strangers -- although that sometimes occurs -- but threats of violence and estrangement by their own families.

Those who thought Kenya would offer a safe haven -- a place where they could live freely while applying for asylum -- were largely disappointed. And for many, the timing couldn't have been worse. Most LGBT refugees arrived just as the Kenyan government announced an anti-terror security operation called "Operation Usalama Watch" in March 2014, directing all refugees to leave Kenya's cities for the refugee camps.

The following month, police began massive roundups of refugees including 24 gay Ugandans who were arrested and transferred to Kakuma. Some were met with violence.

"We don't have the capacity to protect each and every individual," said Inge De Langhe, who directs resettlements for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Nairobi. She says LGBT in Kenya have little choice but to keep their identity quiet while they await asylum -- or face the consequences.

And the wait can be long: Six to eight months to receive an interview to begin the asylum process, a step that has been expedited for the LGBT refugees. Of the nearly 600,000 refugees in Kenya, foreign countries offer only 5,000 to 6,000 of them resettlement slots each year. The 400 or so LGBT refugees are already getting a disproportionate number of those slots, with 33 resettled so far.

"We've never had a group that receives such support and attention as this group," said de Langhe. And yet, with limited resources the special consideration given to LGBT refugees must come at the expense of other refugees here.

"In Nairobi we have some 50,000 cases -- minors, women who are getting raped. Disabled, elderly refugees," she said. "We had to postpone processing of minors to give priority to [LGBT refugees] -- 12- to 13-year-old children."

"Ugandans still complain," de Langhe said, referring to the LGBT refugees. "But a Somali refugee in Dadaab [refugee camp] will have to wait six, seven years. These Ugandans wait just six, seven months."

At the same time, "by prioritizing them for immediate assistance, we've created a pull factor," said de Langhe, who noted that more LGBT refugees are flocking to Kenya each month.
Over the course of four months, The GroundTruth Project interviewed and stayed in touch with LGBT refugees from Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo and Ethiopia -- all countries where anti-gay ideology is on the rise.

Babafrica -- Rwanda

Babafrica, as he calls himself, was born in the small city of Ruhengeri, Rwanda.

He fled the 1994 genocide for Congo with his family, all Tutsi. Once the violence subsided, Babafrica, his mother and siblings returned to Rwanda. One day in 2007, he returned from school to find his family had disappeared. Neighbors said the military had abducted them.
"So I never went back," he said.

By the time he landed in Kakuma refugee camp in 2008, Babafrica was aware that he was gay. Like many other LGBT refugees there, he lived in fear of being outed. One day in 2009, his nightmare came true: Some neighbors walked in on him having sex with a Congolese man.

"Many people came and surrounded me. They got sticks. Others, they got stones, " he said.
Babafrica and the Congolese man ran off in different directions. The mob followed the Congolese man and Babafrica escaped.

Two years later, he and his partner were caught again. This time the injuries inflicted by a mob of homophobic camp residents was more serious: Babafrica's partner landed in the hospital.

When he was referred by the UNHCR to a private organization contracted to help protect refugees, he says one of the aid workers instead instructed him to "change" and "be like other men."
Asked who's to blame for the odyssey of abuse and discrimination he has suffered, Babafrica was adamant that it was a failure of political leadership.

"If you are beating a gay, no one will follow up on your case. Politicians are the ones to blame because they are the ones giving power to these people," he said.
In May, Babafrica completed his asylum process interviews with the US Embassy and is awaiting a resettlement decision.

Cynthia Ndikumana -- Burundi

At age 16, Cynthia Ndikumana fell in love with a girl. Her mother tried to arrange a marriage for her with a boy, but Cynthia refused.

Cynthia became an activist, founded her own LGBT rights NGO, and in 2009 she gave an interview on BBC radio about being a lesbian in Burundi. Her father heard the interview and kicked her out of the house, she said.

Her father wasn't the only one listening.

"The president of the republic heard the interview," says Cynthia. "The president was mad. He said that on television that in Burundi, we don't have that. He said we're going to imprison them for life."

In April 2009, Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza signed a law criminalizing homosexuality for the first time, prescribing two years in prison for those found guilty of homosexual acts.
In 2013, seven Burundi police officers arrived at Cynthia's office and took her to jail.

"They took me to a torture room," she said. "They beat me."

When they finally released her two weeks later, "I realized that in Burundi no one would accept me," Cynthia said.

In October of last year, she fled to Nairobi. As of early June she was waiting for the UN to refer her to one of two embassies -- US or Canada -- to begin the asylum process.

Cynthia, who speaks in French, is heavyset with short hair. She wears a large button down shirt tucked into her jeans.

"When you look at me it's hard to see if I'm a woman or man. So people realize I'm a lesbian," she explains. This January, Cynthia said, she was profiled by Kenyan police, arrested and spent three nights in jail.

Cynthia had hoped to receive asylum from Belgium, where her girlfriend was recently resettled as an LGBT refugee. But refugees have no say in which country accepts them. She says she'll go anywhere -- anywhere but here.

"I want to be able to walk and to live even with my identity, with people seeing who I am," she said.

It's a freedom she's never enjoyed in Africa.

Raj -- Uganda

Born in Kampala to a conservative Christian family, Raj realized he was gay at age 13. One day he was found kissing another boy in his high school locker room.

The next day, the principal called together a school-wide assembly.

"He said, 'these two were found out carrying out homo sex.' He never said he found us kissing -- he said they found us doing gay sex. It wasn't true," said Raj.

"Imagine, in front of all the students. It's a very big school, so big that ... they used microphones and big speakers. The whole (assembly) was about us."

Then, the unthinkable happened. Raj says the principal ordered teachers to punish him and the boy he had kissed.

"They started beating us with a stick," said Raj, who claims he suffered injuries all over his body.
Afterward the principal and teachers spoke with Raj's parents about the incident.

"That was very bad. The worst thing you would wish for in Africa is for your parents to know what you are [if you are gay]. It is worse than the beating," said Raj.

After the meeting, Raj's dad drove Raj to a police station.

"He just paid the police to punish me," said Raj. "I was detained for two nights. They beat you with sticks, on your back, on your butt."

Once the police released him, Raj tried to return home, where he recalls his mom telling him, "'I don't need you here anymore. I regret the day I gave birth to you.' She said 'you're suffering from a devil disease' and that I might infect her young kids, my step brothers,'" Raj recalled. "So of course I couldn't stay."

And so, Raj fled to Kenya. He arrived on Jan. 3, 2015 -- his 20th birthday.

To his disappointment, Raj found Kenyans to be severely homophobic as well.

The police here are bad, he said.

But "in church, it's worse. Many say, 'God created Adam and Eve, God never created Adam and Adam. There are people that should be eliminated from the community.'"

When asked if he'd consider returning to Uganda, he said, "never never never. I remember the thousands of students who knew what I am."

Meanwhile, Raj said he has run out of money, and he has been told by the UNHCR that he must wait until September to be referred to an embassy to begin the asylum process.

Natah -- Uganda

Natah grew up in Kampala with a Christian mom, a Muslim dad and three siblings. She was an unruly child, and her parents sent her to a Catholic boarding school to set her straight.

During her first year, "I realized I was interested in girls," she said. One day she tried to touch a girl she had been flirting with in the showers. The girl later reported her to administrators, news of the incident spread throughout the school, and one of the nuns called Natah's mom, who defended her.

After the incident, Natah was placed in private counseling, where she was told her actions were "not normal" and "not human," she said.

Eventually Natah's dad confronted her.

"He was like, 'My kid can't dress the way you do. You're supposed to put on [clothes] like a Muslim woman, a Muslim girl.'"

In December 2008, he took Natah out of school even though she only had a year and a half to finish. After two years lingering at home, Natah decided to tell her mom the truth. "One morning I was like, 'Mom, I like girls.'"

"She told me to 'get out of this house before dad comes back, because he will kill you,'" Natah recalled. So she grabbed some things and fled.

For nearly three years she didn't speak with her family.

"In 2013 I really felt homesick," Natah said, and so she decided to return.

"The moment my dad stepped out of the house he just became physically aggressive," Natah said of that Sunday afternoon.

"He said, 'You're not of this family anymore.'" Then, he started hitting her.

"I was protecting myself from being hit, trying to run away," she recalled.

"I had bruises on my face, my neck ... I was bleeding, even I bled from my nose. I tried to escape. Getting out of that gate...God had intervened somehow.'"

Natah vowed never to return. When she began to hear rumors about a Ugandan homosexuality bill that would condemn homosexuals to death, she decided to flee to Nairobi. She was granted an asylum interview with the US Embassy in March but has not heard back since. She is 23.
Natah says sometimes she wishes she'd never left Uganda.

"But when I would remember what my dad did to me I would change my mind," she said. "At least I am around people who know what I am -- the other Ugandans -- I'm free."

Mbonimpa -- Congo

Mbonimpa and his family fled Congo for Kenya in 1992 to escape the civil war there. He spent most of his childhood in and out of Nairobi and a refugee camp.

In high school he realized he was attracted to boys, but it wasn't until last year that his identity as a gay refugee caused him any trouble. In March 2014, Kenya directed all refugees to the camps.

Mbonimpa was forced along with his mother and siblings back to Kakuma, where he began hanging out with the Ugandan LGBT refugees who were arriving there around the same time.

He says other camp residents frequently harassed the group. On one occasion he and a group of Ugandan LGBTs were attacked.

"They started throwing stones at us. They said, 'You Ugandans, get out of this place! We will kill you!' They were men and women too, even children. They chased us. One of us was hit in the head, he was taken to the hospital."

It was around this time that a Somali refugee, gay himself, "started blackmailing me and telling me that if you don't love me I will go and say that you raped me,'" Mbonimpa said.

Mbonimpa refused, and the man made good on his threat, arriving at his house one night and screaming that Mbonimpa was gay and had raped him.

After that, his mother confronted him, asking why he was always hanging out with gay Ugandans and why he never had a girlfriend.

"Are you sure you are not one of them?'" Mbonimpa recalled her asking. "I wished I could tell her, but I could not."

"She said, 'If I had a son who was gay I would feed him to the dogs.'"

He said his mom went to a nearby police station and asked that he be arrested if he were seen hanging out with the Ugandan gays again. Fearing police and disowned by his mother, Mbonimpa fled to Nairobi that same morning.

"I felt bad, I even cried. Because my life was in danger," he said. "I wanted a place where I could be safe.'"

And so, he lives in an 8- by 5-foot room in Nairobi and shares a bed with a straight man who doesn't know he's gay.

Mbonimpa tried applying for asylum but was told he was ineligible because his family had applied previously, when he was a boy, and had been denied.

Mbonimpa hasn't spoken with his family since the day his mother reported him. He is 27.

This story is the second in a series on LGBT rights in East Africa, produced with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Read the first story, "Anti-LGBT groups are making inroads across East Africa."