No Turning Back

By Naimana Faridah

The Majority of families that stay long in the camp without hope for tomorrow are single-mother families. Here is one story I came across when I visited a friend of mine. During one of our conversations my friend congratulated me for winning a prize because of the stories I collect and share. She wanted to know more about the whole program. After I left, she asked if her story could also be shared, and we met again to do that. I agreed to tell her story to the world. Her name is Judith and she wants to share her family story, and here is the story.

Judith came to the camp in 2000 when all her children were very young. She shared with me her life story and here is what she wanted to share:

When I migrated from my home country, I left alone leaving my children with my mum and I had to save my life then, but I also knew that my children’s life was in danger. I had no time to run to my mother’s house because it was far and I knew that was the first place that they could go next but all in all I prayed so hard that God may save my kids.

Leaving them was not easy for me but I knew I had to save myself. Every time I faced mistreatment, abusive words could be said against me, and threats every now and then. This wasn’t only happening to me but also to my kids. They were discriminated and isolated, not allowed to play with other kids, and that’s the moment when I decided to take them to my mother’s place. I remember several times, I could hear them cry if they went out to play with other children. These are the kids from my in-laws family, since it was an extended family. And they suffered discrimination and hatred from the day that their brother married me.

This is how it happened. I am Hutu and I married a Tutsi man. Have you ever seen a movie called “Hotel Rwanda,” about the genocide that happened in those years? Well, this hatred still exists. People from one tribe cannot get married to the other tribe, and if it happens then it comes with some consequences. That is what happened to me. To make matters worse, I was from a Christian family and my husband’s family was Muslim.

Several times my husband’s family had warned him and asked him to divorce me but he didn’t accept this. He thought he could always be there to protect us from his family. They could tell him face to face that they hated me, and they could call me and my children a curse to their family, but he prevented them from hurting us.

My husband was a businessman who travelled across countries selling food stuff. He could spend two or three months on a trip, and those months would be hell for me. I’d been so excited when I got married. I was only fourteen at the time, and I couldn’t’t care less about anyone’s hatred. But with time, and from all the fear of persecution, I decided to take my kids away.

Apparently, I was strong, even as all these things were happening to me. But what came as my nightmare was when my husband travelled for another business trip but this time he took more time than I expected. He sometimes travelled with his brothers and for this trip, he went with them. What made me realize things were different was when his brothers returned and he was nowhere to be seen. When I asked, I was told, “you will never see him again,” and then they left.

I thought maybe he’d been left behind and he would come back. But with passing time, nothing changed, he was nowhere to be found. Sometimes back his family asked him to remarry another woman from their tribe and religion, but he refused and his brothers threatened him that he will one day see what they’ll do to him. We took it as a joke, but finally I realized that their words came true: they had killed their own brother.

It was one month since my husband disappeared and now the threats to me were made openly. They started denying me access to some basic things like gardening, food, and even collecting water from the water source that was in the compound. They could tell me that my days were numbered and even that they’ll make sure that “you and your bastard children follow your husband.”

I didn’t have a phone to reach my family and say what was going on and the kind of torture I was undergoing. Just when I thought they would stop, things took a negative turn on a night when my life was changed forever. It was in the middle of the night and I was fast asleep. There was movement everywhere in the dark, and people were whispering to each other. Before this, during the day, the family had been so good to me, and I was a bit surprised. Believe me, when your enemy approaches you and is unusually good to you, I’m sure you will be very surprised too. That was what had happened that day. They brought me food, they talked so well and smiled at me. They asked me if my kids were fine and if I could bring them over. When I said they are fine, but they won’t be returning, I saw the family looking at each other in a funny way, but I didn’t take it to heart, thinking that maybe they have realized how bad what they were doing was.

We sat and had some time talking before I realized they had come for something. They started asking me if I knew where the documents of the house and the land was. If I knew where my husband’s money and other properties were. I told them I knew nothing, because the truth is I didn’t know. I didn’t bother with such things in my life. I could have cared less, but later I regretted.

They left, and from the looks in their eyes you could see that they were furious. I didn’t think much of it and just closed my door and went back into my house. So when night came, that’s when things didn’t go well for me. As I was saying, I heard people whispering and I thought maybe they were discussing private things at that hour. Since I wasn’t involved in many decisions, I didn’t mind. I tried to sleep but something was telling me things were wrong, that I should wake up and see what is happening outside.

I tried ignoring it, and went on with my sleep but I was uncomfortable. After I heard people moving around outside my house, I saw bright lights coming into my room through the window, and even this I ignored, though I felt there was something wrong.

Then I saw a very big fire flaming up all over the building I peeped through the window and saw that they had lit my house on fire, and they were standing at the exit door with some things in their hands. I don’t know how, but I heard one of them say “today we must finish her.”

Immediately I knew they were fulfilling their promise that they would kill me and my kids one day, and this was the day.

While trembling and panicking, I was praying that God would save me. I looked around the room to see if there was any exit. I couldn’t go to the door that was a suicide mission. But thank God my brain worked so fast that I came to my senses and I thought of the window. My bedroom was at the far end of the rooms and outside it there was just a garden. I didn’t know how I’d escape without being seen or burned, but I said if I don’t I will die. I have either to die from outside or inside here.

I went to the window and tried all that I could but now fire was everywhere because they had poured kerosene all around the house. Even the window was impossible to use because it was too hot, but I would rather die trying. I opened the window, it was small but with my small body size, I could go through. I had to open the window as slow as I could and ensure that no one heard. While opening, I burned my fingers but I didn’t care at that time because that was a little pain compared to the one that I could experience if I didn’t escape. I successfully opened the window and went through. But that didn’t leave me with burnt scares, even up-to-date I still have them. After I successfully escaped, I went through the woods because that was the only escape route from the garden.

I wasn’t able to run to my family because I didn’t want them to be involved and I was protecting my kids. When I reached the roadside it was dark and vehicles were passing. Fortunately enough a car and track passed and the track stopped for me. I look like a child because I have a small body even up to now. People often doubt if my kids are mine, because I look very young.

They asked where I was heading and I told them anywhere. They looked at me and then at each other and they told me to climb in. They drove for a long distance and after all the crying and pain that I was feeling, sleep finally took over and I slept. I woke up and I asked where we were and they said at the border of Burundi and Rwanda. But they stared at me in amazement. And I asked why they looked at me like that and one of them said, “Your face is swollen and you look terrible. You have to clean up but where are you going?” I wanted to talk and narrate to them what had happened but the moment I tried opening my mouth to talk, only tears flowed from me and I wasn’t able to even say a word. They looked at each other and told me that it’s okay if I don’t want to share. They told me I needed time and they would help me.

They stepped out of the car and when I was alone a cried all I could because of the pain, reality, and loneliness I was feeling. I couldn’t believe what had happened to me last night and I didn’t know how much danger I will be facing and how much danger I had left my children in. The people helping me had gone to the nearby bush. I collected myself, and before they came back I had calmed down.

They told me that we would now be crossing the border, heading into a country called Kenya. But it will be impossible to cross the border with me, so they needed to do something else to help. One of them took out a phone and called someone. After the call they told me someone else will come to pick me up at the border. This person would help clean me and find a crossing route for me.

We drove for about thirty more minutes, and then another call was made. They stopped at a busy crossroads, it looked like a small town, and when they stopped a woman and a man came running together to the truck where we had stopped. They greeted each other and talked a bit while all that time I was inside the car. They called me to get out and I hesitated for a moment. I didn’t want to leave the only people that now I “knew” and go again with strangers. But one of them told me this was his family, and he promised they will help me cross the border. They said we will spend two days before crossing, since they will be using the illegal roots.

I accepted the offer since I had no any other option and I had nowhere else to go. I got out of the truck and I followed them. The distance was a bit too far and because of the injuries that I had sustained I was feeling pain, but I had to endure. We walked past several mud houses (constructed with grass roofs and mud walls) that were a bit very old. I think it had just rained some few days because the road was muddy and slippery. I wondered which kind of life these people were living but all in all I had to continue with my escape.

When we reached a certain house, we stopped. They said we had arrived and I looked around the environment and I realized all the people in this area lived in very poor conditions. The houses were not maintained, not even kept clean. It as if they just wake up go to hustle and keep late hours at night and sleep. When I entered the house, there was this awful smell that struck my nose until I coughed. It was a tobacco smell and it was very strong. One of them told me that this was nothing, I will be fine. They directed me where I was going to sleep and I went ahead and checked before I could lay my head down. The mat was on the floor and I didn’t see any mattress or sheets around. I went near it and I laid my hands on the surface and I felt there was a lot of dust. I had to raise it up and dust it. Then I laid it down and I slept.

The next day I woke up at around 6:00 am and I found no one. I went out and looked around but there was no one. I went into one of the rooms and I found water and a bucket. I went ahead and cleaned myself and went back to the room that I was assigned. I wondered where had all these people gone but by around 7:00 am. The two returned carrying a shopping bag with them. They asked if I was well, and I said yes. They told me there was water on the other side of the house and I told them I saw it. They both laughed and handed me a shopping bag that contained some food and before I opened it a very pleasant smell came from inside and immediately my stomach started groaning. I opened the bag and there I found rolex (chapatti and eggs) and I immediately started eating.

They were just standing there looking at me in amusement, but I didn’t care because I was so hungry at that time. They stood for a while and then they left. When I was done, I went back to sleep because I could not move around since I wasn’t familiar with the place and also I was still not yet safe.

Now came the day that they would take me across the border and we woke up at 4:00 am and off we went. We went through some bush area with a very narrow road and it was so dark that I could only follow their lead. It was a very long journey because I remember it was 8:00 am in the morning when we found the truck waiting, and when I saw them smiling back at me. I felt a ray of hope for me. They greeted me and thanked my two hosts and they gave them some money. I didn’t know how much it was, but I didn’t care since they deserved it.

The journey began again and they told me that our destination will be in Kenya. I’d never heard or even knew about Kenya. I wondered what the place will be like because during one of the conversations they told me they heard and knew of people who migrate and were taken care of and given protection. This was my first time hearing of the UNHCR and how they welcome and protect people. When I heard that, I knew I was in safe hands and I breathed deeply.

I stayed calm for all the journey and finally I heard them telling me that we had reached our goal. They told me that I have to give them time so that they may call a friend of theirs who knows where the office of UNHCR was and he would take me over. After almost 30 minutes had passed a woman came in and joined us. I heard them tell her that she has to take me to the office of UNHCR and she accepted. I got off the truck and before I left I thanked them and went away with this woman. We went through different streets and we finally reached a very big tall building in the city of Nairobi. I wondered how tall these buildings were. I was looking at them from bottom to top and my neck felt some pain.

We stopped at a building and I saw her talking to a security person and I saw them nodding. She came back and said that I have to go to the security and I will be asked some questions in order to be helped. I accepted and went towards the gate. I was asked to go inside one of the offices and I found an officer. She was a very good looking woman and she looked so beautiful and so caring. She asked me to sit and I sat. She started asking me some question and I answered them all. After a period of about three hours in the office answering questions, the interview came to an end. I was told that I will be transported to a safe house and after two days I will be called for more interviews. The car came and took me to a certain place and when I reached there I was given a room with some bedding, food, and water. I heard people calling this place “transit.”

After two days the car came and picked me up and we headed to the office again. I met the same woman who I had spoken to last time and we began the interview again, but this time it didn’t take long. Towards the end, she told me that I will be taken to “the camp” in few days and that’s where I will be staying and getting help. They took me back to transit and I stayed there for almost a week.

It was very early in the morning, I think around 4:30 am, when they came knocking on our doors, informing us that our group going to Kakuma and we should wake up and prepare and in ten minutes board the bus. I woke up and washed my face, dressed, and headed to the assembly area where the bus was. Soon everyone had arrived and they started calling our names as we board. When everyone had boarded, the bus started and the journey began.

In my heart I felt at peace, but I also hurt since I didn’t know how my family and children that I left before running away were doing. But I had no option and thus I said to myself, no turning back at this point. I only asked God to protect them and have mercy on my persecutors.

When we reached the camp, Kakuma, we were taken to a reception center and I stayed for three months before I was given mat, blanket, saucepan and two jerricans to go into the community. I was allocated a room for myself and that’s how I began a new life in the camp in the year 2000. I have been in Kakuma camp ever since. This is how I ended up being a refugee.

Hearing her share her story until she finished and how she ended up in the camp, I felt so bad for Judith and I wondered how she was doing after all these years. I wanted to ask if she finally met with her children and if the entire family was reunited at the end. But I didn’t want to stir up the wounds that had only partially healed. When she finished I shed tears of sorrow and she asked me why I was crying, and I wasn’t even able to answer her. I thanked her for sharing, and I promised I would ensure that her story would be heard by many people across the globe.

5 April, 2023