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The rescuers

Refugee worker helped save Congolese woman; together they've changed the lives of thousands

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By James F. Smith
Globe Staff / June 18, 2009
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CAMBRIDGE - Call it Sasha’s list.

When Sasha Chanoff made it into the crowded refugee center near the Congolese capital in February 2000, the young rescue team leader carried with him a list of 113 names - the fortunate Tutsi refugees he was authorized to take from the slaughter of Congo’s civil war to a new life in the West.

Inside a steamy tent, Chanoff met Rose Mapendo, a widow, huddled with seven of her children and gripping tiny swathed bundles in each arm - her emaciated baby twins. She had given birth in a prison camp, cutting the umbilical cords with a piece of bamboo and tying the cords with her hair. She had made it to the Kinshasa center five days before the rescue team arrived.

Her name wasn’t on Chanoff’s list.

After several nights of agonizing, he and his two rescue team partners decided to defy orders. They squeezed Rose and her children onto the last rescue flight, and onward to a new home in Phoenix, where they are thriving.

Chanoff, a Marlborough native, and Mapendo have since become a powerful team - helping more than 4,600 other forgotten and threatened refugees to travel to freedom in America - and today, their efforts will be recognized.

Rose Mapendo will be honored in Washington by the United Nations refugee agency’s US office as the “humanitarian of the year,’’ and feted by an audience including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and refugee activist Angelina Jolie.

It is a tribute to Mapendo, certainly, but also to Chanoff, whose Cambridge-based nonprofit, Mapendo International, has engineered relocations from Sudan, Kenya, Burundi, and, recently, helped resettle more than 100 survivors of a massacre in Congo to New England.

“God is faithful,’’ Mapendo said yesterday by telephone from Washington. “Imagine 16 months in death camps without anyone coming close to giving you hope. . . . But then they came and helped us. That is why I can be happy to help other people, because I was helped.’’

The Congo rescue mission, from mid-1999 to February 2000, came at the height of five years of genocidal warfare in Congo that left more than 5 million dead by some counts, mainly from disease and starvation. Known as the Second Congo War, it drew in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.

The Mapendo family was caught up in the start of that conflict in 1998 when they all were arrested at their home in the town of Kananga.

They were Congolese Tutsis, and the Congo government labeled them enemies because Rwanda’s Tutsi-led government had twice invaded eastern Congo.

The family was jailed in what she calls a death camp; her husband was among the many Tutsi men seized and killed in the first days they were held there.

She was pregnant, and eight months later bore her twins on the concrete floor of the dark room she shared with 29 children, keeping silent through the births. “I remember one friend bought a little candle. . . . My kids were scared I would die,’’ she said, still tearful at the nearly decade-old memory.

“I decided in the prison to forgive, because I wanted to die in God’s hands because I knew anyway I was going to die,’’ she said. So she named her children for the camp’s commander.

That officer later sent them to another equally brutal prison near the capital where she recalled, “We would see the blood where someone was killed. Every day there was an end of life.’’

She wasn’t there for long; 32 widows and children were sent to the refugee protection center, she and her children among them.

Five days later, Chanoff, then just 29, arrived from his base in Kenya to lead the final phase of the US-backed mission to rescue about 1,500 threatened Tutsis.

The Clinton administration had arranged the unusual rescue starting in August 1999, and had hired the International Organization for Migration, or IOM, an acclaimed nonprofit refugee group, to handle logistics.

Working with Chanoff was Sheikha Ali, a Kenyan staffer for IOM. She was the first from the rescue team to come across Mapendo’s children. They were, she recalled, “like shadows, walking shadows. They were painfully thin. There was this little girl holding what I thought was a doll. When I got near, I wanted to ask her to let me see her doll, but it was a baby.’’ She went into the tent and met Rose, who was holding the other baby. Both babies were too weak to hold their heads up.

Ali rushed to get Chanoff to come see the family. “Sasha said, ‘remember what we’ve been told.’ But I said, ‘Sasha, you have to see them,’ ’’ Ali said in a phone call from South Africa, where she is now based with IOM.

Chanoff’s list had the 113 approved names, painstakingly compiled in the earlier phases of the rescue mission. Chanoff’s boss, David Derthick, had warned Chanoff that accepting any people not on the list risked sabotaging the whole mission; it had happened before.

Chanoff recalled nights of anguished debate with Ali and the third team member, Davide Terzi, who is now the IOM chief in Ghana, about whether to risk it. In the end it was Terzi, Chanoff said, who made the case: “He asked us, ‘How can we live with ourselves if we don’t do this?’ ’’ Chanoff said. “ ‘We’re here on the ground. If we don’t do this, nobody will.’ ’’

By phone, they made their case to Derthick, who understood and acquiesced. Over the next couple of days, Chanoff used the wads of cash the IOM had given him to bribe Congolese officials. Finally, the group traveled in rented buses to the chaotic Kinshasa airport for the charter flight to Cameroon. With a few more additions, a total of 154 people were on the final list, for 126 seats. To fit them all, 3- and 4-year-olds were listed as being 2 so they could sit on laps.

When the flight took off, Chanoff remembered, “I had kind of thought about this moment weeks earlier, and remember thinking about the list, and thinking this was like a Schindler’s list of sorts. I thought the plane would erupt in cheers and celebrations, but I looked back and people were crying.’’

Rose and her children were relocated to Phoenix. In May, the twins celebrated their 10th birthday. Rose’s parents were found in another refugee camp, and relocated to Phoenix. And then a brother and a sister joined her. She has worked with Chanoff raising money for Mapendo International’s work in Congo, Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia.

A State Department official who works with Mapendo in current refugee operations says “they are filling an important niche for us,’’ by identifying refugees who are in danger but not being protected by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “They are an impressive organization. They are very agile. They have a small staff of young, really responsive people.’’

Chanoff points out that the United States will not reach its ceiling of 80,000 refugees this year, and hasn’t used all the approved spaces in any recent year.

By identifying and documenting refugees, one by one, he is determined to help fill that gap with more families like the Mapendos.

“When you think about how close she came to having her life extinguished, and she didn’t know if her family members had survived, and now they are united, they are together,’’ Chanoff said. “All of these kids are in school. Rose’s family is just beautiful. This is exactly why we founded Mapendo. There are more Roses out there.’’

James F. Smith writes about Boston’s global ties. His blog is at boston.com/worldlyboston. He can be reached at jsmith@globe.com.