Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Traumatised as Children Refugees to Make History at Rio Games; CONGOLESE JUDOKAS WERE SEPARATED FROM FAMILIES IN FIVE-YEAR CIVILWAR BUT ARE PART OF A 10-STRONG OLYMPIC TEAM COMPETING UNDER IOC FLAG

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Traumatised as Children Refugees to Make History at Rio Games; CONGOLESE JUDOKAS WERE SEPARATED FROM FAMILIES IN FIVE-YEAR CIVILWAR BUT ARE PART OF A 10-STRONG OLYMPIC TEAM COMPETING UNDER IOC FLAG

Article excerpt

Byline: Matt Majendie Sports Correspondent

ONE moment Yolande Bukasa Mabika was with her mother in Bukavu, the next she was alone and running.

Memories of the trauma of being separated from her mother at the age of 10 remain vague, likewise of being whisked away in a military plane to Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the ensuing days. For Popole Misenga, tragedy struck when he was just nine, his mother killed in a five-year civil war in the country, which left five million dead and many more displaced.

At 65 million, there are now more refugees globally than the population of the United Kingdom.

Mabika and Misenga are merely two but represent that ever-burgeoning population in the 10-athlete team of refugees that will compete under the International Olympic Committee flag for the first time at the Games. For both, the journey to Rio has been tortuous.

"I was separated from my mum when I was 10," says Mabika. "I only remember I was going out of school one day and then we got separated."

With no family to support her, she was forced to drop out of school before being airlifted with other refugee children to the capital.

"I was nine," recalls Misenga of the last day he laid eyes on his family. "My father went to work, my sister was at school and my mum got killed. I ran for days in the woods and was eventually rescued by Unicef."

It was as child refugees that they were introduced to judo for the first time. Such are the hardships, it is a sporting bond they have both loved and loathed at different junctures.

Of his time in the DR Congo team, Misenga says simply: "Things were difficult -- they just wanted to win medals and, if we failed, we would suffer."

Mabika continues: "If we didn't win, they would put you in small rooms for seven to 10 days without proper food. You could only have some coffee and a small bit of bread."

The mistreatment continued unabated but the pair could fight, certainly well enough to qualify for the 2013 World Championships in Rio de Janeiro.

On arrival in Brazil, they had their passports confiscated by the team manager to negate the threat of absconding but they were deprived of enough food to be able to properly compete.

"I was starving," says Mabika. "I couldn't compete that way, I was weak. I just thought, 'This is my opportunity to stay in this country' so I ran away."

She returned, albeit briefly, to get Misenga to come with her and the pair then walked the streets for days, unable to speak the language but trying to track down other Africans in the massive South American metropolis. …

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