Two Families, One Crime, Boundless Pain

Being in prison can be challenging for not only the inmate but their family as well.  For some imprisonment earns them a label “outcast” and even after release in some cases, re-establishing one’s true identity in society without being judged is a struggle. Besides, while in prison, their socio-economic status takes a blow as many are unwilling to employ former prisoners, making their lives more miserable.

Fred and his wife Asia are Congolese refugees living in Nakivale refugee settlement in Kityaza village.

In its routine work to facilitate asylum seekers and refugees access justice, HIJRA first met and interviewed Fred in January 2017 in Mbarara Prison during a prison monitoring visit and all he could say was “I am innocent, my children are suffering”. Asked about the wife’s whereabouts, Fred’s eyes welled up as he said, “here”. The team moved to the women’s section in the prison where Asia was found, looking healthy and very neat in a well ironed prison uniform. Happy to be receiving visitors, Asia through tears narrated the story of how two lovebirds (their son and a deceased girl) ended in a death and a normal family behind bars leaving their children with no one to look after them.

It was June 4, 2017 when the couple was arrested. The crime, murder of a Rwandese girl from Kityaza. The summary of the case indicated that their son had a relationship with the deceased and the parents did not approve of the relationship so they conspired to have the girl killed, cut her into pieces and threw her body in a sack in a pond in Kityaza.  The son was their eldest child and the main suspect in the case but he disappeared leaving Fred and Asia to suffer for the crime.

Speaking about her other children, Asia was inconsolable saying “I don’t know, they have no one to look after them”.

 Back in the settlement, HIJRA followed up on the 04 children up in their home in Kityaza. 14 year old Josephine, a senior one student at Nakivale Secondary School had stepped up and was now the bread winner of the family.

How was she doing it, she was only a child herself? Josephine explained that she started by selling matooke(Bananas) from the family’s plantation and when that run out she rented out part of their plot to get some money.

She was lucky to get into secondary school on a partial scholarship. “Sometimes when I have no money for school fees, I go kneel before the headmaster and cry, they sometimes allow me do some work around the school just to keep in school. I want to study, I want to change my family’s life but it’s too hard”, said Josephine.

In June 2017, HIJRA during the monthly prison visit arranged for the children to visit their parents in Mbarara prison. Josephine who had been chased away from school for fees at that time did not make it. She was selling fish at Lake Nakivale. Fred cried when he saw his children. All the children but Didier cried. Didier is the youngest. He calmly told the father they had brought him a gift, 01 sachet of 12 donuts for him to eat while in prison which made Fred cry the more.

When are you coming back, don’t you love us anymore?” asked Lorence in Swahili. Lorence is Fred’s youngest daughter and with that question, there was no dry eye in the room, not even among the prison wardens.

Asia was overwhelmed with joy at the sight of her children. She talked to the team for a while carrying her crying daughter on her laps.

Josephine was later on referred to Windle International an Education Partner in the refugee settlement for education support. Life had become much harder for the children for whom temporary foster caregivers were still being sought.  03 families had rejected the children once they connected their parents’ story to them. It was very difficult for the children who did not want to be split. It was challenging for HIJRA as well as most caregivers were willing to take one or two and not all four.

HIJRA in conjunction with UNHCR and Office of the Prime Minister agreed to have the children moved to another village since their house was also in a very bad state and in dire need of renovation. The team identified a house in Kabazana to which the children were relocated after a village meeting in which the community was encouraged to support the children.

On the other hand, HIJRA continued supporting the two parents in prison which saw Fred and Asia appear before Mbarara High court on March, 5th 2018 and their case dismissed for insufficient evidence to sustain prosecution. This saw the two released from Mbarara prison to return home to their children.

The reunion of parents and children was heartwarming and the family rented a house in Kashojwa where they are currently staying with their children though they would want to repair their house and return to Kityaza. Fred, Asia and the children have exhibited a spirit of resilience, the power of family and are optimistic looking forward. They engage in odd jobs like fetching water for other families for a small fee and also have resumed cultivation to sustain their family. 60 year old Fred says having lost time with his children, he will work through his old age to keep them in school and have a better life.

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