At the age of 17, Cesar Kimbirima was conscripted into the Angolan army without his consent or that of his parents. His country of birth was experiencing a long-running civil war with local insurgents and boys who were tall and muscular were grabbed and made to join the army.
“The army got me in the street,” Kimbirima told the BBC. “That’s the way it used to be. If you were big, tall, they just grabbed you and made you join. Without your father’s consent, without anything.” He added: “As a kid back then, we always used to say ‘If they get me, that’s it’. Because we knew it was going on. So when you get caught, you have no choice.”
He told the BBC that conscripted soldiers could not run from camp because if they did, they would be killed. At the same time, the Angolan army did not have enough resources to care for its soldiers. According to him, conscripts were given six months’ training and one meal a day. And when they are sent on a mission, they might get two packets of biscuits, one can of condensed milk, and a water container expected to last them for a month.
“We learned how to survive,” he recalled. “If you get a plastic bag, wrap it around the leaves, and seal the end, the tree will sweat. And when it starts dripping, that’s water.”
While in camp to protect villages in the civil war, Kimbirima, then 18, was shot in the leg by right-wing forces. And shot twice in two separate events before the attack that nearly killed him, according to the BBC.
“Normally they [the opposition forces] came in the middle of the night,” he said. “This time, they came around 8 pm. We heard a noise. One of my colleagues started to run, so they started shooting. So we shot back. And then I felt really cold.”
Kimbirima was shot through the mouth and fell unconscious. He woke up in a hospital bed and was treated for two to three days. He subsequently stayed in a coma for five months and when he was discharged, he was told he could not walk again.
The Angolan army did not want a soldier who could not walk and so they discharged him when he was 26. With a pair of clutches, Kimbirima left the hospital to face the world. He had no savings and had a family to feed.
Kimbirima was fortunate to meet some American soldiers who were on the United Nations peacekeeping mission. He was given accommodation at a center for injured soldiers where he met several wounded soldiers like him.
The American soldiers promised to help him leave the country. He and his partner and his young daughter were given flights to the UK where upon arrival, they were taken to the asylum processing center in Croydon, south London. Kimbirima and his family were first housed in hotels and hostels before they were given council flats.
In 2004, he started working in the Wetherspoons kitchen after he was given a special dispensation by the Home Office. He had then learned catering. By 2014, Kimbirima had become manager of the Brockley Barge Wetherspoons in south London. Two of his four children work at the pub.