John Onoje’s Army of One
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this is one of the strangest and most harrowing tales of globalization we’ve ever read.
John Onoje is describing the last time he was beaten up, when three tracksuited teens stroll up to him. “Whatever happened, happened. Let it go,” the taller, spottier one says, smiling, before high-fiving his pals and walking off.
“He’s the guy who did this,” says Onoje, fingering a huge scar on his chin and pulling up a grainy video on his phone: It’s the same three boys, in the same place we’re at now, Ştefan cel Mare Park, cornering him. “Hey, nigger! Nigger!” they scream in the video, pushing and punching him to the ground.
“I told the police what they said, but they told me it wasn’t a registered offensive word,” Onoje says, gazing downward. “This is normal for me.”
John Onoje fled civil war in Sierra Leone 15 years ago and ended up in Moldova. Labeled the country’s ‘only black man,’ Onoje has been a refugee, a newspaper vendor and, now, a leading voice for EU membership. It’s improbable, from start to finish. However, Onoje’s European dream isn’t born of lofty ideals but everyday violence. EU membership is his ticket from regular beatings — or worse — since, with an EU passport, he could leave the country.
Moldova’s a small spit of land between Romania and Ukraine. A corrupt and desperately poor place, Moldova may be powerless to prevent Russian annexation, should Vladimir Putin decide to reclaim another former Soviet satellite. Moscow has started squeezing by outlawing Moldovan wine exports.
Rattled, the government has stepped up EU courtship. Likewise has Onoje, who believes that a West-leaning outlook would free Moldova from Russian “tyranny.” Many, though, would rather see a return to Russian rule. The country is divided.
And that makes Onoje’s quest rather urgent.
In 1999, Onoje — studious and a daily churchgoer — was earning a master’s in business administration in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, to add to his physics undergrad degree.
Eight years into the country’s civil war, a shell hit Onoje’s family home. His mom and dad died instantly. “That was the end of Freetown for me,” he says.
With help from friends at Médecins Sans Frontières, Onoje boarded a ship bound for Europe, and three weeks later arrived in Chișinău, Moldova’s crumbling capital. “I didn’t know anything about Moldova,” he says.
Within a few years, Moldova would know about him.
In 2001 Onoje obtained refugee status and eked out a living hawking newspapers at Chișinău’s central bus station, a choking mess of street vendors and second-hand smoke. Waking at seven, he’d visit the printers and work all day, every day. On the nights he had a roof to sleep under, Onoje headed straight to bed. Going out for a drink? Too dangerous. “If I go out, they’d kill me,” he says.
After four years, Onoje moved from newspapers to tea and coffee, which he still sells at a giant open-air market beside the bus station. He can make 100 leu ($7) on a good day, and buys a bed at a local Catholic mission. His passport application languished for years, which he blames on the red tape of the communist government under then-President Vladimir Voronin. “That was the worst thing,” he says. “Plus, I was getting beaten so much — oh, how many times I went to the hospital.” He rolls up the sleeves of his velvet blazer. Nicks and scars everywhere.
Onoje finally got Moldovan citizenship in 2011. And that December, he ran for president under the banner of the National Liberal Party (PNL), which favors reunification with Romania. He lost.
He made Voronin furious, though. As Onoje mounted a soapbox in Ştefan cel Mare Park, Voronin told supporters just a few yards away that the PNL had “brought here a negro, who’d just climbed down from a tree. And now he’s doing politics for them.” Social Democrat leader Victor Șelin urged Onoje’s citizenship be revoked.
“After that, people attacked me every day,” Onoje says. The worst beating came a year later, when three men forced Onoje into a public toilet in broad daylight. He tried to call the cops. “Don’t bother,” one said. “We are the police.”
After the fall of communism, Moldova’s agrarian economy slumped, and the nation today is a fragmented hash of ethno-linguistic groups. About a quarter of its 3.6 million people speak Russian natively. Half a million of those live in Transnistria, a closed-off pseudo-state that has enjoyed de facto independence since a civil war froze in 1992.
Most are upset that the current regime is courting EU membership. Moldova’s prime minister, Iurie Leancă, claims it will make the economy more “predictable.”
On a Sunday afternoon in Ştefan cel Mare Park, kids breakdance on cardboard beside flat-capped pensioners who drink home brew from two-liter bottles. Next door, swanky bars sell cocktails to government suits. Soviet-era trolleybuses roll next to $100,000 Mercedes down the chiasmic main avenue, past the Parliamentary Palace.
And there in the park stands Onoje, speaking to a crowd of around four — two of whom seem lost — and filmed by Oleg Brega, a local journalist who befriended Onoje during his 2011 presidency run. Brega even took him in for a fortnight when the tea trade ran dry. Onoje isn’t Moldova’s only black man, Brega tells me: “We have a lot of mixed-race people — Roma, Asians from Pakistan, Tajikistan, others — but John is the most visible.” Brega doesn’t share all of Onoje’s views, but says his courage is inspiring. “He doesn’t represent his people, or Moldovans, or Romanians. None of them have the bravery he does,” he says.
As sunlight crackles through the trees, Onoje runs through his spiel: Moldova is lost without Europe, he says. And without Romania, there is no Europe at all.
The second time we speak, it’s Onoje’s 55th birthday. He has no plans for revelry. When the Moldova-EU accord is signed, says Onoje, then he’ll have a drink.
He’s not sure why he has stayed in Moldova: Perhaps it’s the fight. But now a middle-aged man, all he really wants is to find someone he can settle down with. “I could never get married here,” he sighs. “The racists wouldn’t let me. They don’t want to see black and white mix. And besides, what is love? I don’t even have freedom. You can only have love if you’re free.
“I am not happy,” he adds. “But I’ll be happy when they sign that paper in a few weeks. Maybe I’ll go out that night, have a drink and enjoy my freedom.”
But for now, Moldova’s Only Black Man is trapped.