Sasha Chanoff, of Somerville, was in his mid-20s when he faced an urgent decision unlike any he'd encountered before -- and more than 100 lives depended on it.
SASHA CHANOFF: My boss called me into his office in Nairobi and handed me a list with 112 names on it. He said, “Sasha, I want you to go into the Congo and get these people out.”
This story takes place in February, 2000, in the Congo. Congo was at war. The extremists who were responsible for the Rwandan genocide had gathered their forces in the Congo. The Congolese president said that all Tutsis in the country were the enemy and need to be hunted down and killed. People were being killed in the streets in terrible ways.
I’d only been in Africa for about six months. My boss is David Derthick at the time, and he was spearheading this U.S. rescue operation.
David said to me, “Above all, you have to stick to this list. You cannot take anybody who’s not on this list. If you try to add more people, you won’t get anybody out.”
David also said that he was sending in his right-hand woman. Her name was Sheikha.
So Sheikha and I flew into the capital of Congo, we rented a car, and we drove out to this safe haven, a two-acre compound with walls about 10 feet high with jagged shards of glass on top. These big black doors swung open and we drove in.
Somebody looked in the car and saw her, and then this whole mob of people rushed around the car and started pushing the car up and down and chanting her name. And I remember David telling me that people would go crazy with relief when they saw us, because they think they’re going to die there.
But I wasn’t prepared for the fact that there were far more people than the 112 on our list.
We set up a table, and we took our list out, and one by one we started calling names of people up.
There was a guy standing off to the side with this sports coat, and when I asked Sheikha who he was, she said, “He’s a génocidaire. He’s one of the killers from Rwanda. There’s a few of them in here, and they’ve probably been sent in to maybe try to assassinate people in this compound or to try to sabotage what we’re doing.”
We registered all the people who were on our list, and as we were trying to leave, a guy from the compound said, “You see that tent over there? You have to go in and look at the people who have just come into this safe haven.” I said, “We can’t take anybody else.” But as I was saying that, I was walking toward the tent. And then Sheikha and I stepped into the tent.
It felt like time stopped.
There was a whole group of young children and three women, who we were found out later were widows, sitting around in the tent. They were bone thin. They had these just hollow stares.
And I remember Sheikha leaning over to a 3-year-old girl who was holding a doll and saying, “Oh, let me see your doll. What’s your doll’s name?” And all of the sudden the doll’s eyes popped open, and we realized that it was some baby that looked more dead than alive.
The guy who had brought us in said, “They were in a prison camp for 16 months, where many of their family members lost their lives and were executed. We don’t know how they survived, but they’re here now, and if you don’t take them, they’ll die.”
Sheikha and I went to the hotel that night, and we started arguing. She said, “Sasha, we have to take these people.” And I said, “I want to as well, but we can’t! We would be risking all of the lives of the people we knew we could get out.”
I’d never been confronted with this kind of urgent life and death dilemma, and we didn’t have very much time to make the decision.
Sheikha finally said, “Sasha, we’re on the ground. We’re humanitarians. If we don't do this, nobody will. This is up to us.”
And I believed her. I decided, we have to try to do this.
So we called David, and he got really upset. He said, “Listen, I’ll tell you exactly what’s going to happen. The Congolese government, you’re gonna have to get their permission, and then at the last minute, even on the plane, they’ll pull your people off, and you won’t get anybody out. That’s what’s happened before, it’ll happen again. You just can’t do it.”
And I said, “I know, David. But we have to try.” And then he took a pause, and he said, “OK.”
That day of the evacuation, people boarded the bus, and an hour later, we pulled into the airport. Our plane was right there, like 50 yards away, and I thought, oh my God, we’re so close.
People started getting off the buses and the widows and orphans came, and the Congolese immigration officials stopped them. Something was happening. I didn’t understand, but I wasn’t allowed to go over there -- and I looked around and I saw Sheikha saying something to the head of Congolese immigration. About a minute later, it felt like an eternity, they finally let those 32 off the bus, and one by one, we all boarded the plane.
I was the last one to get on the plane, and then the plane door shut. The engines came to life. We started going down the runway, and the plane sped up, and we finally lifted off the ground.
MAMY NAJURAMA: My name is Mamy Najurama, I was born in the Congo, and I am one of those 32 people in the tent.
I think I was 14 when I escaped. We were just people waiting to die. It’s like we were walking death among the living.
Right now I live in Phoenix, Arizona. I have a husband and two children, two girls. I never expected to have this kind of life.
If it wasn’t for Sasha, we wouldn’t be here. Because he made the impossible choice.
CHANOFF: That experience opened my eyes to people who were off the radar, who weren’t on any lists. When you find ways to assist others or to serve other people, you’re really acting as a doctor for your own soul.
NAJURAMA: He went beyond. He was there every step. He would call, he would write us letters. I can say Sasha is family. I was always hoping that if I have a boy, I would just name him Sasha. The world needs more people like this.
Chanoff says this rescue mission was a 'crucible moment' in his life that led him to found RefugePoint, an organization devoted to finding and helping the most at-risk refugees.
When did you face an impossible choice?
Who has changed your life?
Kind World is a project of the WBUR iLab, sharing stories of the profound effect that one act can have on our lives.
This episode includes music by Kai Engel and Chris Zabriskie (CC BY-NC 4.0).
This segment aired on November 24, 2015.