Seeking asylum: 'Rap video earned me a death sentence'

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Media captionJoseph Gnagbo fled to Wales when his life was threatened in Ivory Coast

The stories of five people who fled persecution in their own countries and found sanctuary in Wales are being told via a virtual reality exhibition in Cardiff. Joseph Gnagbo escaped his Ivory Coast home when it became the centre of a war zone. Here is his story.

When Joseph Gnagbo and fellow activists recorded a rap video warning against forces challenging their country's president in Ivory Coast, they had no fears about performing it in public..

Abidjan, the largest city in the West African nation, was surrounded by French-backed rebel forces in 2010, but inside the city supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo felt safe to protest and make their feelings known.

As Joseph performed his rap Attention Vigilance, a song which urged his fellow Ivorians to resist the coup, many in the crowds cheered. Others, however, stood silent, observing and remembering faces.

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Image caption Violence flared up in Ivory Coast following the disputed election of 2010

When the rebel forces took over Abidjan, those same people began to point out Joseph's most vocal supporters. Joseph went from being a public figure to moving from house to house, keeping a low profile and watching out of windows for armed men.

"You felt that death was around the corner at that time," he recalls. "The rebels targeted the police and security forces first and many of them were killed. Then people like us who had been vocal were next."

Twice armed men came for him, once to his house but luckily he was out. They then waited for him at a public gathering but Joseph saw them from a distance and hid among the crowd. Random violence was as much a danger as targeted raids.

"There was lots of bombing," said Joseph. "You would be inside and the walls would shake and you would think the whole house is going to come down.

"You could be in the streets and hear bullets going passed you - even if you had just gone out for food. I had a bullet hit a wall very close to me when I was doing that."

Image copyright Joseph Gnagbo
Image caption Joseph - as a young boy in Ivory Coast - says without freedom he cannot be happy

Family members killed

Joseph says one of the worst moments was when rebel soldiers went looking for his uncle. When they found he was not home, they shot and killed his 15-year-old daughter. His uncle fled into the countryside, where he died due to lack of medical treatment.

Eventually Joseph decided to leave Abidjan, where life had become cheap - 3,000 people died in the violence that followed the disputed election.

He first went to Morocco and lived there for six years, but when that country and Ivory Coast began to strengthen their political and military ties, it seemed the danger Joseph had left in his homeland had followed him north.

Image caption Joseph has embraced life in his new home and has learnt Welsh

In 2017 he left Morocco to seek asylum the UK, and ended up in Wales, a country he knew little about but quickly fell in love with.

"I knew about the beautiful dragon on the flag, but not much else," Joseph said.

"When I first arrived, it was a very sunny day, and the country looked green and lovely. I was surprised when the forecast said it was going to snow the next day but it did. So I went from sunny weather to being almost buried in the snow - but I got used to it."

Inspired by Welsh anthem

Having got to grips with the weather, Joseph discovered Wales had a language of its own and decided to learn it.

"I thought, ok, I am going to stay here so I will learn it. I have always had a passion for languages and I've made lots of friends thanks to speaking Welsh," he said.

Embracing the language meant watching his first rugby international at the Principality Stadium took on extra significance.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Learning Welsh made singing the national anthem at a rugby match poignant for Joseph

"Initially I didn't understand the national anthem but when I learned the language and was told the history of Welsh and how people had to fight for it, something rose up in me. I became quite emotional when I heard the anthem in the stadium, so much that I couldn't sing."

Joseph now works with Cymdeithas yr Iaith, the Welsh language society, and also as a carer. Life still has its challenges - his young children are in Ivory Coast and he does not know if they will be able to join him in Wales - but living in a country where he can share his views without looking over his shoulder has made the sacrifices worthwhile.

"To be able to live in a country where there is no war, it's something that many people take for granted. I feel peace, how good it is to be in a peaceful place and to be free.

"No freedom means no happiness. I can't be happy if I am not free."

The Freedom 360 exhibition with the Welsh National Opera will run from 7 to 30 June at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff. Visitors will be able to experience the stories of persecuted people from across the world who have found sanctuary in Wales.

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