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The scars that brought us to Ireland: Asylum seekers on the violence that made them flee

Three refugees who have fled their home countries due to political persecution share their stories.

In the last incident that led me to leave Zimbabwe and come here, we were taken to a farm. We were tortured to the extent that I was unconscious. I have scars and bruises all over my body. We were beaten with sticks. I believe that I was also sexually assaulted …I was unconscious, I don’t even know how I got home … I agreed with my mother that I should leave the country before they killed me. That’s the reason I came to Ireland.

Anna* has lived in a direct provision centre in Ireland since 2008. She fled from Zimbabwe after being arrested and beaten on several occasions.

017 Scars on Anna's hands Source: Órla Ryan/TheJournal.ie

Anna was actively involved in the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) political group and said she was targeted by members of the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF).

She left her three children behind. They are now being cared for by her elderly mother: “A 75-year-old controlling teenagers is not easy.”

For her own safety and that of her family, one of Anna’s relatives arranged for her to come to Ireland. They felt it was a safe destination as there is no direct flight from Zimbabwe to here.

“It’s not a choice [which country you go to], you just want somewhere where you’ll be safe.

It was very difficult leaving my family. I had a very good job. Leaving everything, it wasn’t easy for me. It was very, very difficult to make that decision but it was a matter of life or death. If I stayed they would have killed me.

She said that the ZANU party do not know where she is, but often assume that when people go abroad it is to campaign for funds for the MDC.

“It’s difficult to live without your family. As a parent it’s not easy – it’s very, very difficult. I don’t have anybody I can call family. My family all depended on me, I was the breadwinner. It’s just heartbreaking to be honest.”

025 Scar on Anna's leg Source: Órla Ryan/TheJournal.ie

Her mother and children have moved away from the village in which they grew up due to intimidation from the ZANU-PF. Anna said that none of her children want to get involved in politics after seeing how it affected her.

Despite how it has impacted on her life, she said that it was never an option to leave the MDC: “You’ve got to be committed.”

The ZANU-PF, headed by Robert Mugabe, has controlled Zimbabwe since it gained independence in 1980. In 2008 it brokered a fraught coalition deal with the MDC. However, in last year’s disputed election Mugabe’s party regained parliamentary control.

Anna has struggled to adjust to life without her children and is now seeing a psychologist.

“Living without a family, doing nothing – it’s so depressing.”

She is currently awaiting to hear the result of an appeal for her application for asylum.

Rwandan Genocide

Harry* has lived in Ireland since 2007.

I left Rwanda 20 years ago. I was a refugee in the Congo. I was not in a wheelchair in the Congo, I was shot and tortured there and became paralysed.

Since his arrival, Harry has completed a BA in Development Studies and an LLM in International Human Rights Law. The Christian Brothers helped fund the former, while a group of Irish friends raised money so that Harry could get his master’s degree.

His asylum application has been delayed for years in the High Court.

During the Rwandan Genocide, Harry was one of the many Hutu refugees who fled to the neighbouring Congo. It was there that he said he was tortured and shot by the Rwandan army.

The first incident was when I was shot in late 1996 – Rwandan refugees were fired on en masse in refugee camps. That time they were killing Hutu refugees. They shot me in the leg, luckily I was able to keep moving. Some people were shot dead.

Harry Harry Source: Órla Ryan/TheJournal.ie

Harry knows that if he ever returned to Rwanda he would be labelled a ‘genocide denier’. He is one of a growing number of people who have spoken out against the official version of what happened during the 100-day slaughter of close to one million people.

Such views were explored earlier this year in the BBC’s controversial documentary Rwanda’s Untold Story, which suggests that more Hutus than Tutsis were killed in 1994. It also questions the role Rwanda’s Tutsi president Paul Kagame played in the genocide.

The Rwanda Government has since accused the broadcaster of “genocide denial” and demanded an apology.

Harry told us:

In the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, both tribes were killed – the Hutus were killed, the Tutsis were killed. The current version is that the Hutus killed the Tutsis only. People should accept the truth of what happened – both sides killed each other and committed crimes.

“It’s very difficult to be away from my family – I have been away for 20 years now. When I left, the last born of my family was six years old, now she’s 26.”

Having completed his master’s degree, he now has little to do with his days.

“I have nothing much to do everyday. It’s so difficult. I try to make myself busy – I volunteer, I go swimming.”

Harry has been receiving therapy to deal with the psychological impact of the torture he experienced in the Congo. He hopes to one day work in advocacy.

He has been following the recent debate on reform of the Direct Provision system with great interest.

I know there is a debate about ending Direct Provision or changing it, I will talk about change because I don’t see it being stopped.

People should be allowed to work. They have strengths, they have a background or qualifications in an area. They are just kept here for years, depending on the taxpayers when they could be working or studying.

People should have access to adequate education which will allow them in the future to get involved in society. They want to work, they want to contribute. Doing nothing damages them psychologically.

Harry said that residents in DP centres are currently “imprisoned” and called on the Government to grant amnesty for those already in the system.

‘I want to contribute’

Thomas* fled from Burundi with his partner and two children after he was arrested and beaten up for switching allegiance from the CNDD ruling party to the Opposition party Front for Democracy in Burundi (FRODEBU).

When speaking to us, he repeatedly stressed how grateful he is to the Irish Government for providing his family with safety and shelter.

“I really appreciate what the State have done. They have provided me with what I wanted: security, shelter, everything. I’ve been here for almost seven years now. I really think that it’s time for me to pay them back.

For what the Government have done for me, I have nothing to show them how much I appreciate it. I want to pay them back, I want to contribute … I’m 36 years old with two legs, two arms, I really think that this is the right time for me to contribute to the community.
I really appreciate [what Ireland has done for me] and I’ll always be appreciative. I want to work, that’s all I’m asking. Other than that? Nothing much.

*All of the interviewees’ names have been changed to protect their anonymity. They now live in various Direct Provision centres throughout Ireland.

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About the author:

Órla Ryan

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