Starting Over

By Stephanie Bowen - July 21, 2009

Nakivale Refugee Settlement, Mbarra, Uganda – After a morning of meetings with camp officials and our NGO partners, I went to meet with a group of men who are part of an education campaign International Medical Corps is running for combating sexual and gender-based violence. These men had once beaten their wives or raped women and girls. Now they are working with us to educate other men and women in their villages about the problem. One way we’re doing this is through dramatic reenactments.

They performed a drama about a young girl whose father had a drinking and gambling problem and married her off at a young age to one of his drinking buddies as payment for the debt. He regularly sold the family’s food from the farm to sustain his alcohol and gambling habit and was often violent with his wife and daughters. The drama then showed International Medical Corps community educators coming to the village and teaching about the dangers of drinking, gambling and violence. At this point the daughter was pregnant and back at home because her husband beat her severely. Through a gradual process of education, the father stopped drinking and eventually became a community educator himself. It was a very colorful performance, as the large group of actors, made up of men and women, opened with a traditional dance to a rhythmic drum beat.

After the performance the group sat down to answer questions. One man told of how the performances have made an impact in his village, helping to reduce drinking, gambling and various forms of violence that accompany those behaviors. One woman compared International Medical Corps to a mother who takes proper care of her children. After the group discussion was over, another woman came forward to share her story of rape.

Mariette is from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her husband owned and operated a mattress store and they, along with their 10 children, led a good life with a nice home and plenty to eat. One night in 2007 rebels raided their village, forcing her, her husband and two of her daughters, to seek shelter in the local church along with many others from the community. The rebels tied up the men and raped the women, including Mariette and her daughters, who were 18 and 16. They then untied the men and made them carry all of their belongings into the bush. Once there, the men were extremely fatigued. The rebels cruelly suggested they could ease the pain by shooting them in the legs. Fearing for their lives, everyone scattered.

In all of the chaos Mariette became separated from her two daughters. She spent two days in the bush, where she met a 16-year-old girl and her five-year-old sister. Mariette does not remember how far they walked, but the journey was long and exhausting before they were offered a ride to the Uganda border where they hoped someone would take them into Kampala.  They hitched a ride in the back of a truck, however when they arrived in the city they were dropped on a street corner not knowing where they would go.

A woman passing by helped them get to a church where a pastor housed and fed them for three days. The pastor sent them off to the Uganda police with 30,000 Ugandan shillings (about $15). The police referred them to the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), who referred them to InterAid, which is an organization that links refugees to different NGOs who are assisting refugees. But InterAid did not have room right then and asked them to come back in a week. Throughout the wait, Mariette and her new friends slept on the police station’s veranda. She still did not know what happened to her husband or daughters, let alone the rest of her children.

They were ultimately moved to the Nakivale refugee settlement which houses approximately 50,000 refugees from 10 countries including Rwanda, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Each refugee or family, upon registration, receives a plot of land, plastic sheeting to help shelter them from the elements, and basic cooking utensils. Unlike  many refugee camps we see in other countries, residents build their own houses of mud and sticks.

Once in the settlement, the 16-year-old girl Mariette befriended was raped. In trying to get justice for the girl, Mariette ran into repeated resistance. It turned out that the perpetrator bribed the police and other authorities to ignore the case. They tried to bribe Mariette to keep her quiet but she did not want money – only justice. “What if the girl had HIV,” asked Mariette?

The police eventually arrested the perpetrator, but he was released after three days. Throughout her fight, Mariette was accused of being a bad refugee and grew distrustful of everyone. The stress led to anxiety and high blood pressure.

When International Medical Corps began doing baseline assessments in the settlement, they discovered Mariette and learned of her story. At first, Mariette was unable to discuss what happened to her, and the first three sessions with International Medical Corps’ psychosocial facilitator, Betty, were spent in silence. Eventually she started to open up and recount her story.  Knowing her role went beyond listening, Betty became an advocate for Mariette, facilitating visits to the clinic and other services she was reluctant to access because of her distrust.

Mariette visits Betty every day to say hello, and our staff has become part of her family. Due to a lack of funding, the International Medical Corps program closed for nearly a year. During that time, Mariette was left  with nobody to comfort or advocate for her. New funding has brought Betty back and Mariette is grateful.

Mariette eventually was reunited with her husband, her two daughters who were with her that fateful night, and six other children. Two of her children are still missing. Now the family waits to hear if they have been granted repatriation to Australia.

Marriette’s struggles are far from over. The day we met her, her youngest daughter was stricken with severe malaria and the treatment she received was not effective. Mariette could not afford to go to the hospital for the medication her daughter needed for recovery. Betty is on the case and confident she will be able to get Mariette the help she needs.

As we were talking with Mariette, I was struck by the thought that in an instant her whole life changed, all that she and her husband had worked for was taken away. I felt humbled by her strength and grateful that International Medical Corps was able to offer her comfort and assistance in starting her life anew. Mariette says we would not recognize her from photographs before the ambush, but I suspect her eyes had the same spark of determination we saw in her that day.

FROM RELIEF TO SELF-RELIANCE

For 30 years, International Medical Corps has worked to relieve the suffering of those impacted by war, natural disaster and disease by delivering vital health care services that focus on training, helping devastated populations return to self-reliance.

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