Although she has yet to get justice, a young girl in Busia can finally afford a smile. It has been a long time coming, but boy, does it feel great to finally look at life from a different perspective!
This time last year, the world was crumbling around her and everything looked blue. She could not smile and preferred to be left alone to nurse her psychological and physical injuries.
But today, all that gloom is gone and she is now a beaming girl walking the footpaths of Busia, the same paths where those who violated her those many months ago still tread.
On this day last year, the Standard Seven pupil lay in bed at home, desperate and abandoned. She had missed school for close to a week and was uncertain about her future. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since DN2 published her plight on 8 October last year, attracting both local and international attention.
Liz, for that is the name we decided to give the minor as we cannot reveal her identity for legal and ethical reasons, had been attacked on the night of 26 June, 2013, as she left her grandfather’s funeral wake a few kilometres from her village.
She says the six attackers, all of whom she mentions by name, ran after her, gang-raped her, then pushed her into a disused pit latrine to cover up their crime. Then, as villagers ran to answer Liz’s distress call, the attackers vanished into the dark of night.
The villagers rescued her from the pit, but even though that saved her life, it marked the start of a torturous journey that drained her both physically and emotionally.
Liz was critically injured. She could neither stand nor walk and had developed obstetric fistula as a result of the rape. The girl who loved to run around her village could walk no more. Her future, it seemed, was shattered.
And to make matters worse, her parents could neither afford the specialised medical care she needed nor the justice that their daughter so craved. Liz had been raped, critically injured, and left to lick her wounds.
Then DN2 got wind of the story and visited her. A few days after publishing the story, and in the wake of the chorus of condemnation that followed it, one of the suspects was arrested.
Getting the young man was not an easy task, though, and the slow wheels of justice for Liz started to turn only when the Director of Public Prosecutions, Mr Keriako Tobiko, personally intervened. Because of the sensitivity of the matter, Mr Tobiko has moved further and put Liz in the witness protection programme.
The young man who first appeared in a Busia court in December is now out on a Sh15,000 bond, while the organisations that spearheaded the global campaign to bring the suspects to book — Coalition Against Violence, Equality Now, The African Women’s Development and Communication Network (Femnet), global campaign network Avaaz, and local child rights NGO, Reep, marched on the streets of Busia ahead of the first hearing of the case on Monday last week.
The case, in which Liz and her mother testified, was heard in camera, given that she is a minor. It was the first time for the girl to speak out. Her lawyers and mother say they were surprised and impressed by her performance and courage in court.
“She has been very reserved since the attack, which she hardly wants to talk about,” says her mother. “Watching her address the court, I was convinced that she was on her way to full recovery. Her lawyers were very happy and surprised at her eloquence. We were all worried that she would not speak.”
Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, while giving an update of the case after the hearing last week, said that of the seven witnesses lined up, three had testified and that “by consent of all parties”, the case would be heard on 11 to 12 September this year.
During last Monday’s protest, the rights campaigners, who were also protesting “the silence of women undergoing gender and sexual violence”, called on the authorities to “get tough on police, who failed in their duty to protect Liz and arrest the five suspects, who remain at large”.
Further, they expressed surprise by the failure to make the arrests, yet the whereabouts of some of the suspects was an open secret in the village. Some are said to be living in Nairobi with relatives and another in Mombasa, they said.
“Liz’s nightmare exposes how in parts of Kenya, rape is an epidemic that the police is silencing. These reports show that some officers seem to do more to protect the attackers than the girls. Justice for Liz and disciplinary action against the officers in her case is the best way to begin to challenge this crisis,” said Sam Barratt, the campaign director for Avaaz, which has so far collected 1.7 million signatures from people demanding justice for the girl.
When the suspects were first arrested on the morning of 27 June, they were taken to Tingolo AP camp but released after they were made to clear the compound by cutting grass. Later, it emerged that Liz also did not escape the punishment. As her attackers were cutting grass, she was told to clean an administrator’s office “as punishment for being out late at night”.
Liz, her mother, and siblings have also had to leave their home and move to another county because of security concerns. Her mother made reports to local police in Butula following threats from some villagers and relatives of some of the accused after she refused to drop the case.
I met Liz at the Gynocare Fistula Centre in Eldoret on 21 September, 2013. She cut a miserable figure and appeared uncomfortable in the presence of visitors, especially men. Every now and then, she would break down and cry. It was one of the most difficult interviews I have done in my many years as a journalist.
Twice, I had to ask my colleague — photographer Jared Nyataya — and doctors Hillary Mabeya and Florentina Koech to leave the room as I conducted the interview in the presence of her mother.
The Standard Seven pupil had been taken to the hospital about a week before the interview, suffering from what Dr Mabeya described as double fistula caused by the alleged rape. She could neither stand nor walk because of a serious injury to the spine, which Dr Koech was preparing to start treatment on.
He could not do so immediately because the fistula, which had left Liz with a loose bladder and poor control of her bowel movement, had to be dealt with first.
CLEARED MEDICAL BILLS
On the day the story was published and for weeks afterwards, the Daily Nation news desk was inundated with telephone calls and e-mails from local and international readers requesting to help Liz in whichever way they could.
Consequently, the Nation Media Group initiated a campaign to help the distraught teenager get medical treatment and rehabilitation.
The campaign, dubbed Stand Up For Liz, Help Her Walk Again, realised Sh890,000 towards her medical kitty. About a month later, a team from Nation visited Liz and her mother at Gynocare Fistula Hospital and paid her outstanding medical bill of Sh560,000. The rest of the money is to be used to pay her school fees and general upkeep.
Liz, we learnt on the day we cleared her medical bills, was doing well in her physiotherapy classes. She was so eager to get out of the wheelchair that her mother and hospital administration had to keep a close eye on her. She had twice fallen over as she tried to discard the wheelchair and walk on crutches.
But our excitement soon turned into anxiety. The nurse who had gone for her from the ward returned to the room and whispered to the doctors. Dr Koech rushed to the ward.
From a distance, we could hear the girl’s loud cries and pleas to the doctor. She did not want any visitors and wanted to be left alone to heal without interference from “strangers and outsiders”.
“All they come to do here is look at me and take my photos, yet they have refused to arrest my tormentors,” she wailed. Needless to say, as her visitors, we were devastated. However, Dr Koech convinced her that we were different from the strangers she had encountered.
The doctors suggested that we sit in the hospital’s garden, where a group of in-patients — all suffering from obstetric fistula and aged between 15 and 79 years — were relaxing. Liz slowly studied our faces and, on recognising me, slowly stretched out her hand in greeting. We were friends, after all!
It has been a long time since then; a whole year of determined efforts to stand again. And so, earlier this month, we decided to see Liz again, to find out how she was doing, to find closure to a story that has irritated Kenya as much as it has brought out the best in its people.
Liz, we are happy to report, can now not only stand on her own, she can also walk.
Three weeks ago, her doctors said she could go back to a normal routine.
Even though she is not as sprightly as she was before the attack, she is regaining her strength and says her primary focus now is to catch up on the school time she lost while she was bedridden.
“Every time I pray, I ask God to help clear those events from my head,” she told me last week. “I have fought the trauma, even though every now and then, whenever I look back at the year gone, I wish all that has happened was just a bad dream, that I would wake up one day and shake it all off.”
Liz knows she has made those incredible strides because of the care she has received. She says she wants to thank everyone who sent her messages of goodwill, the doctors at Gynocare, and the hundreds who sent whatever they could to help her offset her medical bills.
Her mother says that as soon as the doctors declared that Liz was fit to return to school, there were suggestions that she join an informal school, given that she had lost precious time and would find it difficult to catch up.
“But she refused and has insisted she must pick up from where she left off,” her mother says. “She says she must complete school, get a certificate, and pursue her dream of becoming a doctor.”
As she celebrates her 17th birthday on October 21, Liz says her eyes are fixed on her future. She knows that future would have turned into a mirage were it not for the generosity of you, you, and you. And for that, she says: Thank you very much!