Freedom the Hard Way : Angola Rebel Flees Marxist Torture, Lands in INS Detention

Times Staff Writer

The Marxist regime in Angola imprisoned Tony Rocha for eight months. The Americans locked him up for 11.

The Marxists, he said, tortured him with ropes and sticks and fire; the Americans with doubts and waiting.

He is a taciturn man of 26, the second generation of his family to take up arms. He hoped to wrench his country from the Communists, as his father once fought to disentangle it first from Portuguese colonial rule and later from the Marxists who eventually killed him.


False ID Card

In January, 1986, as Rocha escaped from Angola with nothing more than a false Haitian ID card and burn scars, President Reagan met in the Oval Office with Rocha’s commander; these Angolans, Reagan had often said, were “freedom fighters.”

But Rocha found he faced two fights for freedom: one in Africa and one in the United States.

“Since my 18th birthday,” Rocha wrote in his plea for political asylum, “I have either been fighting the Communists, been imprisoned by the Communists, or more recently imprisoned by the democratic United States, the people to whom I turned for help.”

For 11 months, from the day he was put ashore in Long Beach as a stowaway until last week, he was held in custody awaiting a decision that usually takes four to six months.

“I thought, ‘How could it take so long?’ I thought my documents were lost, and they were.”

For six of the eleven months, his file was lost, and Rocha was shuttled from one Immigration and Naturalization Service detention center to another.

“Everyone (knew) he’s going to win, and we keep him locked up,” marveled Niels Frenzen, head of the immigration project of public counsel, a Los Angeles County Bar Assn. group of volunteer lawyers.


Of all the time their clients have spent in custody, “Tony Rocha’s has been the longest,” Frenzen said.

Finally, last week--in a coincidence that bemused Rocha--he was granted political asylum on the same day that Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North began testifying about U.S. aid to another group of “freedom fighters.”

“Why,” asked his attorney, Bernard Wolfsdorf--a South African who won political asylum here--”why do you detain a man from August ’86 until July ’87 if the only so-called crime he’s done is apply for political asylum? Why do you pull a man off a Soviet freighter and grant him asylum within 24 hours, but lock this man up for 11 months when he’s got a meritorious case?”

From Wolfsdorf’s office in a shimmering Century City tower, Rocha recounted a trek from Africa to a Salvation Army hostel in Puerto Rico, to stowing away on a Japanese ship that dumped him in Southern California.

He spoke mostly in French, a language that allowed him to pretend to be Haitian. He also speaks Portuguese, two tribal languages, a little English--and now Spanish, which he picked up from his fellow INS detainees.

It has been “bad luck until now,” and “I hope it will change,” he said.

The course of Tony Rochas’ life was set in 1962 when his family fled to Zaire, so his father, a captain in a resistance group called the FNLA, could wage war against Portuguese colonial rule. In 1975, after five centuries, the Portuguese pulled out--and left Angola to complex civil strife.


Three factions struggled for control: one of them Marxist, supported by Soviet arms and Cuban troops; the other two nominally pro-Western, and at least one of those, FNLA, trained for a time by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

When his father was killed in 1978, Rocha signed up, “not only (because of) the death of my father,” he wrote, but “also because of the oppression and destruction the Marxist regime was inflicting on my country.”

Because the FNLA had all but vanished, he joined UNITA, led by Jonas Savimbi, the man Reagan greeted in the Oval Office. Rocha was trained at a South African military base. (Savimbi’s South African backing is one reason many oppose him, and U.S. support has been sporadic).

‘Lived in the Forest’

For nearly seven years, Rocha “lived in the forest,” made combat and sabotage sorties, and was promoted to second lieutenant.

It was on May 5, 1985, picking up ammunition and equipment air-dropped by the South Africans, that he was captured.

“During this time, I was interrogated and tortured by both Marxist Cubans and Marxist Angolan soldiers,” beaten, hung by ropes and burned on his arms and hands. (So intensely did it stay with him that nearly two years later, he kept getting into scuffles with Cubans awaiting political asylum until he was told that these Cubans left Cuba because they, too, were unhappy with Communism.)


After five months, something happened, the kind of coincidence that fiction writers reject as contrived: Rocha recognized a cousin, a prison investigator.

And for three months, the cousin worked secretly to procure Rocha a phony document identifying him as a Haitian, eligible for deportation.

“He pretended to be official; he asked the guard to call me to his office for investigation,” Rocha said.

Once the door closed, they made plans. And in January, 1986, the cousin accompanied Rocha to the airport and they played the captor-captive game to the end.

“I kept my cool,” Rocha said.

He was flown to Paris, then on toward Haiti. But Rocha feared Haiti would return him to Angola. So, in Puerto Rico, he sauntered off the plane with other passengers and sought asylum.

In a Salvation Army hostel, he waited. And waited. No word about his petition from Puerto Rican authorities.


Then, eight months later, Rocha did what Wolfsdorf said was his one mistake--he decided to go to the United States.

Started Out for Maryland

From a map, Rocha chose Maryland because it was so close to Washington. When he saw in a newspaper that a Japanese ship was heading to Maryland, he scouted it for an empty cabin and, with $5 saved from odd jobs, bought bread and water and bananas for the trip.

Three days out to sea, the ship stopped. Confident they were in Maryland, Rocha presented himself. But they were not in Maryland; the ship had stopped for the Panama Canal locks.

“Then the captain said, ‘This ship is going to Japan,’ ” Rocha recalled. “And I said, ‘No. Maryland.’ He said it was an error in the newspaper.”

“The captain was mad,” admitted Rocha, and the ship steamed into Long Beach and dumped Rocha into the arms of immigration officials.

“Much to my surprise,” Rocha wrote, “the procedure (for asylum) in the United States was even worse.”


It is a new peculiarity of immigration law, Frenzen said, that someone caught at a port usually is not allowed to post bail. But one caught inside the country can.

Frenzen saw the law, changed by the Reagan Administration, apply most strikingly to Haitian boat people.

“It’s a question of physical penetration” into the United States, he said. “Was the boat stopped and were they getting off the boat, or had they run 50 feet onto the beach? People caught hiding behind a palm tree” could post bail, but “people caught standing in the water” faced exclusionary proceedings and could not.

Rocha was handed over at dockside.

Rocha spent the months it took to begin his case in detention centers where he learned from his sisters that his mother had died.

Wolfsdorf sent increasingly frantic pleas to the INS, arguing that the delay was “a major travesty,” that the window through which he had to speak to Rocha did not even have an opening to slide through the papers for Rocha to sign.

‘Abdicate Their Responsibilities’

“Virtually any immigration officer would have told you this guy is more likely than not to get political asylum,” considering his history, Frenzen said. But “there was just no one at INS in the L.A. district willing to say, ‘Yeah, this guy is probably gonna get it; let’s let him out till then.’ They abdicate their responsibilities.”


On March 11, Immigration Judge Y. K. Fong “indicated shock and dismay” at the incarceration, Wolfsdorf said, and asked for an explanation. Eventually, the judge asked to see Rocha’s scars, too.

And on July 7, when Rocha walked out, he had $74--earned at $1 a day working in the El Centro detention facility’s library.

“It’s all very well surviving the jungles of Africa,” Wolfsdorf said, “but I’m terrified of him surviving in the jungles of L.A.”

“I still feel troubled,” Rocha said, and “I don’t have a job yet, or a place to live.” He might like to be a truck driver. He might even like to become a U.S. citizen.

But, in truth, he said his chief hope is “to return to Angola, with a new government. . . . It would be better to live there than here.”