In the Crucible of the Congo

Photo of two Tutsi refugees.
Courtesy Show of Force

In early 2000, my son, Sasha, was a young aid worker stationed in Africa. After just six months on the continent, he was sent to the Democratic Republic of Congo to evacuate Tutsi survivors of that nation’s massacres. His colleague on the mission was Sheikha Ali, a Muslim field officer from Kenya, who was more experienced than Sasha in high-stakes rescues.

At the time, the armies of seven African nations were fighting for control of the Congo’s vast mineral wealth. Brutal tribal militias spread terror throughout the country’s eastern provinces, and the minority Tutsi population was being hunted down and killed. “Tutsis are the enemy,” the Congolese strongman regime had proclaimed.

Guilt-ridden over not intervening during the Rwandan genocide, U.S. officials in the Clinton administration organized an operation to help rescue at least some of the Congo’s beleaguered Tutsis. Along with officials from other governments and the International Committee of the Red Cross, they pressured the Congo into setting up a protected compound outside Kinshasa, the capital. Tutsis who could find their way there would be evacuated to special U.N. camps in Benin and Cameroon. From there, those who passed the required interviews and security checks would be resettled in the U.S.

Before long, the Congolese regime realized that evacuation to safe havens and potential resettlement in the U.S. was worth a fortune to non-Tutsis eager to flee the country’s bloody chaos.

Sasha and Sheikha’s organization, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), had evacuated several thousand Tutsis out of the Congo to safety. Eventually, though, in the face of threats, violence and especially the Congolese regime’s blatant corruption in taking money from non-Tutsis and putting them on the flights out, IOM shut down its evacuation effort.

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View a brief video
about the rescue.

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On the last IOM flight out, the regime arbitrarily refused to let 112 men, women and children board the plane, leaving them to the not-so-tender mercies of mobs and death squads. But the U.S. wrested an agreement that allowed IOM to go back in for them. Sasha and Sheikha were the evacuation team for this life-or-death rescue.

The mission would change Sasha’s life forever.

* * * * * *

Sasha and Sheikha landed in Kinshasa with a list of names of the 112 people they would be permitted to evacuate from the compound and fly to a U.N. refugee camp in Cameroon. Just these 112 people, their boss in Nairobi told them; no one else. Otherwise, he said, the Congolese would take Tutsis off the plane and put their own people on. Then the mission would be scrapped, and Sasha and Sheikha would be responsible for 112 deaths.

Sheikha was the boss’ right-hand person. She was cool, levelheaded, capable. She also had a huge heart. The boss knew if she saw someone in desperate straits, she’d do everything in her power to get that person onto the chartered jet. So the boss put the inexperienced Sasha in charge of sticking to the list.

On their first day in the compound, Sasha and Sheikha found and registered the 112 refugees on their list. The evacuation itself was three days away. They needed that time to rent buses to take everyone to the airport, hire armed guards and pay off any government officials who needed paying off.

An officer from the International Committee of the Red Cross, which oversaw the compound, approached Sasha and Sheikha, and pointed to a big tent off to the side. “We just brought in a group of widows and orphans,” he said. “We found them in one of the execution prisons. All their men were killed. They’ve been starved and abused.”

Somehow, these women and children had survived 16 months in the prison. Now, the Red Cross officer said, “they won’t last a week if you don’t get them out of here. Go see them.”

Sasha shook his head. “You know we can’t do this,” he said.

But Sheikha was already walking toward the tent. Inside, it was stifling, and smelled of must and decaying canvas. Groups of ragged, sticklike people sat on the ground. No one said a word. No one moved.

One woman, who held two little bundles of something in her arms, was surrounded by a cluster of skeletal children. Their bellies were distended. Their eyes were vacant and hollow, like the eyes of Jewish concentration-camp survivors.

When Sasha and Sheikha looked more closely at the bundles the woman held, they saw two pinched little faces poking out of rags. The babies’ heads lolled on necks too weak to support them. Sheikha spoke to the woman in Swahili: “Watoto wako wanamiaka ngapi?” How old are your babies?

Miezi tisa,” said the woman, her voice a hoarse whisper. Nine months. Sasha wasn’t sure he had heard correctly. Could these tiny babies be nine months old?

Sasha and Sheikha counted the people in the tent. Three women with children. One teenage boy with a baby strapped to his back. Thirty-two people in all.

The teenager with the baby on his back looked at Sasha when he said hello but didn’t reply. He seemed catatonic. “His name is Daniel,” said a little boy holding his hand. “He doesn’t talk. I can talk for him.”

“Daniel’s taking care of four kids,” the Red Cross officer said. “This one and three others.”

“Daniel,” Sasha said. Then, in French, “Bonjour. Comment tu vas?” Hello. How are you?

No response.

* * * * * *

Later that night in their hotel room, Sasha and Sheikha argued about what to do. Should they take only those on the approved list, and leave the widows and orphans to their fate? Or should they put everyone’s life at risk by trying to take them all?

Sheikha insisted they had to try to take the widows and orphans along. They could figure a way around the government minders and the security thugs. They could fudge the flight manifest. They could bribe the right people.

Sasha wanted to take the widows and orphans as much as Sheikha did, but he focused on the odds. They knew they could get the 112 on the list out alive. If they took a chance on including the 32 widows and orphans, too, they would likely lose everyone.

It was a moral dilemma from hell.

Sheikha remembers it this way: That night at the hotel, I was fighting with Sasha about taking them. When it got to be too overwhelming, I would rush to the bathroom, and cry and cry.

I understood that Sasha had to respect our orders. Even though he felt what I was feeling, he had strict instructions. So, what was going to persuade him?

I said to him, “If this is not for them, then who is this for? What are we here for? Are we humanitarians? Or are we not?”

Sheikha’s bottom line was compassion. You do everything you can for those in need. You do not give up, even if it means you yourself might go down with the ship. If they walked away from lives they could have saved, Sheikha reminded Sasha, they would be filled with regret and guilt.

“Are we humanitarians? Or are we not?” That question got to Sasha. It crushed every defense he had. He thought about what his own instincts were, what the bottom line of his own nature was. Not what their boss’ orders were. Not how to formulate some rational moral calculus that weighed this quantity of lives saved against that quantity.

That’s what dawned on Sasha as the hours wore on. “OK,” he told Sheikha finally. “Let’s figure out a way to take them.”

* * * * * *

Sasha and Sheikha’s crisis involved life and death. Although few of us face problems of this magnitude, we all face critical decisions at times — in our families, schools, social circles, businesses, political lives or religious lives.

When we face these decisions, we can forge ahead, turning a blind eye to the human side of what we think needs to be done. We can rationalize. We can compartmentalize (“This is what I had to do; it doesn’t affect who I really am”). The easiest response is to completely disregard the decision’s moral dimension.

But falling back on rationales — “I don’t have a choice,” “He expects me to,” “We could lose everything” — never brings meaningful growth or change.

The day Sasha discovered the 32 widows and orphans, he found himself in a moral crucible, which tested him as he’d never been tested before. His nightlong debate with Sheikha allowed him to see that his instincts for empathy and compassion were fundamental to him, more compelling than the orders of an experienced boss, stronger even than logic.

Writers and philosophers have pointed out that our instinct for empathy is almost always at war with what we perceive to be necessities. Even when it is unacknowledged or relegated, our sense of empathy persists, with all its potentially transformative power intact.

In his classic work, “The Moral Sense,” the distinguished sociologist James Q. Wilson wrote:

Mankind’s moral sense is not a strong beacon light, radiating outward to illuminate in sharp outline all that it touches. It is, rather, a small candle flame, casting vague and multiple shadows, flickering and sputtering in the strong winds of power and passion, greed and ideology. But brought close to the heart and cupped in one’s hands, it dispels the darkness and warms the soul.

Moral decisions require action, and moral actions are usually not one-off. They become part of how we face the world. They open us, not only to who we are but to what we are. This makes us, whether we intend it or not, consequential in the lives of others. If we ignore this truth, we run the risk of reinforcing a lesser, shallower sense of our own self-worth.

The Congo rescue opened Sasha’s eyes. More and more, he began to see people whose lives were at terrible risk, who had fallen off the grid of humanitarian assistance. He saw refugees infected with HIV/AIDS who had nowhere to turn, genocide survivors fleeing for their lives, orphaned girls resisting being sold off into unwanted marriages.

* * * * * *

On the day of the evacuation, Sasha and Sheikha got everyone — the 112 on their original list, and the 32 widows and orphans — onto buses, which covered the distance to the airport without incident and pulled up on the tarmac 50 yards from a waiting chartered jet.

Soldiers surrounded the buses. The 112 refugees were allowed to walk up the plane’s gangway. But the 32 women and children were stopped.

Sasha tried to go to them. A soldier shoved him back with his AK-47. He turned to see Sheikha walking toward the Congolese immigration chief. “I was dying inside,” she said later. “I was ready to fight.”

“Why are you holding them back?” Sheikha demanded of the government official. “They’re just women and children, babies. You can’t keep them here!”

There was something overwhelming in her Sheikha’s intensity. The immigration chief hesitated a moment, then turned toward the knot of soldiers at the bus and made a quick gesture. The soldiers parted, and the women and children started moving toward the open door of the jet.

When the plane took off, Sasha expected to hear cheers. Instead, people were weeping and praying for those they had lost or left behind.

The widows and orphans from that evacuation were resettled in the U.S. Many are now married and raising their own families; some are still in school. All are American citizens. Daniel, the traumatized teenager who couldn’t talk, went on to college and graduate school. A nationally ranked long-distance runner, he became a track coach and a motivational speaker.

Sheikha has continued to rise within IOM’s ranks. She has undertaken emergency operations around the world, including in Nepal and South Africa.

In 2005, after spending years as a refugee worker in Africa, Sasha founded RefugePoint, which partners with the U.N. Refugee Agency, the U.S. and other countries, and has staff on the ground throughout Africa and elsewhere.

RefugePoint’s mission is to protect the lives of those overlooked or forgotten by the world’s aid networks, people who are not on anyone’s list.

David Chanoff has written 19 books and numerous articles for The American Scholar, The New York Times, The Washington Quarterly, the American Journal of Education, and The Washington Post. This article is adapted from “From Crisis to Calling: Finding Your Moral Center in the Toughest Decisions,” by David Chanoff and Sasha Chanoff (Berrett-Koehler, 2016).