Abused from Ethiopia to England: My story as a raped refugee
By Saron October 25, 2012
A journalist and activist, Saron speaks here about her ordeal as a refugee, which began in 2001, when she reported on a demonstration that turned violent. Saron, whose name has been changed for to protect her safety, initially wrote about her escape from politically fueled rape in Ethiopia and her subsequent struggles in the UK for a report by Women for Refugee Women, a UK-based organization that works to ensure that women and children seeking asylum are treated with justice and dignity.
As the organization’s founder, Natasha Walter, describes in her piece for WMC’s Women Under Siege, Saron is just one of many women who flee sexualized violence around the world only to find that they are rejected by the UK’s asylum system. The following is excerpted from her account.
The day my life changed I was 23 years old. I come from Ethiopia. I always loved writing, and as soon as I finished high school I started to work at a newspaper. In 2001, I was reporting a student demonstration. The police came and started shooting people. Everybody was running, people fell, horrible things to see. Forty students died that day. I reported what I saw in the newspaper. In the evening, the government television said the demonstration had dispersed peacefully. Then the police came to my workplace to arrest me. I asked why; they told me I had lied.
The prison was hell. A tiny room, a slit for a window. You did not have a mattress, or a quilt. You slept on a rough floor. Toilet once a day; no tissue, no water to wash. Insects jumped from one person to another. I got a kidney infection and my body was covered with a rash. Some prisoners were very violent. They just wanted trouble, an excuse to fight. Most of the time I sat in the corner, silent. The interrogation continued day after day. I was in prison for about four months.
When I was released I became more actively involved with the political organization the Oromo Liberation Front [an outlawed separatist group]. I couldn’t let it go. One day in August 2002 it was a nice, sunny evening, just after five o’clock. I had taken a minibus from my workplace. I was running late to meet some people from the organization. I had some leaflets in my bag. … As soon as they found the leaflets they took me to the police station. This time the detention was worse.
The photographer, herself a refugee who sought asylum in the UK, said the woman on the right is homeless and has been in the UK for six years; the group is heading to a refugee drop-in center, she said. (N. Yeman)
Day after day they interrogated me. After four or five months a police officer came to the cell and took me to his office. He started asking questions. He knew the name of my organization, but he did not know who I had been working with, or where we’d been based. He had fair skin color and big eyes. His eyebrows were thick. He smelled dirty, horrible. It was very hot; I think it was midday. But I didn’t have a watch.
He started touching me; I tried to move away. He said he could do whatever he wanted. He told me to stop pushing him away. I started to cry, and he became even angrier. He began to slap me. I struggled with him, I tried to grab his hand. He became more and more violent. He said even if I shouted nobody could help me, so I’d better keep quiet. But I didn’t keep quiet. He hit my face and my nose started bleeding. I felt dizzy. He bit my breast. My breast also started to bleed. After that I felt faint. I couldn’t resist any more. He did what he did. He raped me.
Afterwards they took me to the hospital. All the time there was a prison officer with me. Then my sister came. She told me that my father had given her the money to arrange everything. First she bribed the nurse. The nurse showed me a way out, a staff exit, and told me a time to go when the prison officer was on his break. I took a taxi with the money my sister had given me to my auntie’s house. I didn’t know where I would be going next.
The escort came one night and took me to Northern Ethiopia, by car. After that we travelled on foot to the border through the desert. We travelled by night, with a torch. There were huge plantations of sunflowers—you could not even see to the edge of them. It took us five days to cross it. Wherever we found a river, we took water. I thought, “If I die here nobody will know about it.”
After five days we came to the border with Sudan. We crossed at night. We stayed in Khartoum for two weeks or so and then one day a white man came and told me to come with him to the airport. So I left Africa without saying goodbye to my father or my mother.
When I arrived in London the escort walked off the plane with me and then he left me in a corridor, he said, wait here. … I didn’t have any papers; the escort had them all. [Security] questioned me, are you seeking asylum, so I said yes. I slept there on the chair that night and the next day they sent me to a hostel in west London. It was full of strangers, all of them asylum seekers. I realized that this was where I had to make my new life.
I came because I had to. I would never have chosen to leave my family, everything I love about my country, the sunshine, the music, the food that tastes good in your mouth. When they refused me asylum the money stopped and I didn’t have a place to live.
Where did I sleep? Rough. I think I went mad. I got confused. I was crying all the time. I had no legal paper to work or stay in the country. I was destitute. I was completely without friends. If you sleep rough, as a woman, men abuse you. They offer you a safe place, a warm place, but then it is like what the policeman did to me in prison.
I slept in King’s Cross. When it got too cold I slept on the buses. One day I saw a sign, healthcare for the homeless, and I walked in. The doctor there was a good man. He was shocked when he saw me. I was sick, I was cold, I hadn’t washed. He sent me to hospital. The doctor there found me a counselor and she found me a lawyer. I started going to sign again [reporting to the country’s Border Agency every week, as all asylum seekers in the UK are required to do]. One day, they took my papers in through the window and checked them on the computer. Then they told me to sit in a corner. Almost two hours later, an officer came and called my name. They took me into a small room and took my picture, searched my pockets, shoes, everything. I had to take off almost all my clothes. I was standing almost naked in a cold room. … I asked if I could make a call. They said, “This is not prison, this is immigration detention. If you were in prison you could call.”
[They took me to] Yarl’s Wood Detention Center. … I was afraid of the security guards. The white shirts and the black trousers reminded me of violence. I felt nobody was safe in that place. I stayed in bed. I couldn’t wash, couldn’t move, couldn’t eat. When I had not eaten for some days a doctor came to my room. He looked shocked. He said, “She must go to hospital, she’s dehydrated.” An hour later, the ambulance came. I was so weak I couldn’t stand, but they still sent two security guards with me. The hospital doctor asked me what had happened. But the security guards were sitting right by me. I couldn’t tell him anything. He kept asking, but I just kept my mouth shut. Everything I did or said, the guards would write down. Day and night they stayed by my bed. Watching me. Even when I used the toilet they came with me, and told me to leave the door open. After 11 days, the Home Office wrote to the hospital and told me I would be released. I took the train ticket they gave me and went back to London, I went back to the streets.
When I was detained the third time, I was taken all the way to the airport. I had been trying to commit suicide so they had kept me in a room alone, where they could watch me. Then one day, they said, “Get your clothes ready, you’re going home tomorrow.” … They came early in the morning. Two men, big men, huge. And two women. Four people, just for me. They said, “Miss Saron, we have been told you are a dangerous woman. so if you don’t go peacefully, you’ll get hurt. You’re going today, whether you like it or not.”
I couldn’t stop crying all the way. They were just chatting among themselves. When we were near the airport the escort got a call. He laughed. “You are so lucky, you’re going back.” My lawyer put through a judicial review for me. Now I do have leave to remain, but I can’t forget what I went through for all those years.
I used to be so full of hope. Even when I came to this country I thought I would survive and make a good life for myself. It wasn’t what happened to me in my home country, which broke me. It was what happened to me here. That was what broke my spirit.