As I enter the dark room, my eyes adjust – a few rows of hospitals beds line the walls; shoes, mats, bags are everywhere – visible signs of women who have grabbed any belongings they could before leaving their homes in search of safety. The sense of confusion and uncertainty is palpable.
These are the women who were forced to give birth on the run. These women in front of me, huddled on hospital beds with their precious bundles in their arms.
Fleeing for their lives whilst nine months pregnant, many have lost their husbands, children or friends and have given birth alone.
A shy smile
I walk over to the far corner of the room, and our health worker introduces me to Kavira. Although she sits uncomfortably on the narrow hospital bed, she looks up and smiles shyly.
Her newborn baby lies asleep next to her, as does her young daughter – wrapped up in hospital sheets.
I kneel down among the bags, introduce myself and we start to chat.
“My story starts in Uganda,” she tells me. “I was a refugee there for 11 years. I decided to return to my village this year in July.
“My husband paid for the transport for me and our children to return to our village. He stayed behind to farm the fields – we had fields of beans that needed harvesting. He was going to follow us. So we left him behind.”
She picks up her baby who has started to cry– are you happy to tell me what happened when you got to the village? I say. “Yes” she replies, and continues her story.
“We got to the village, but when I arrived my family had already left for Goma. I asked the neighbour for the key to my sister’s house and let myself in. I stayed there alone with my children. There were armed people throughout the village. I didn’t understand at first – I thought they were there to protect the community.”
The threat of violence
As she cradles her new baby I ask her softly about the moment she knew they weren’t there to protect them.
“I saw them commit sexual assaults and I became very scared. I saw people injured. They sexually assaulted two pregnant women and one girl who was twelve years old. She was my neighbour – it was in their house. The rebels entered the house and sexually assualted her and her mother. The father fled.”
I look down at her sleeping daughter and baby – the danger they were in seems unimaginable. How did she keep her family safe, I ask? She looks away from her baby and up at me, answering clearly,
“Three soldiers came to my house and wanted to have sex with me. I told them to leave me alone as I was pregnant. They left but I was very scared and I slept at neighbours’ houses in the evening.”
In search of safety
It is clear that Kavira had no choice but to leave – making yet another journey in search of safety for herself and her children. We talk about the options available to her and what she decided to do next.
“I left with my children to a displacement camp. I slept in a school for three weeks with my children. We had very little to eat and not much access to clean water.”
She stops suddenly, “I heard a story of how a young girl was raped and when the mother tried to protect her, they cut the mother’s throat and killed her.” Tears start to fill her eyes.
A family separated
It is clear the risk of sexual violence, injury and death have followed Kavira and her children throughout their journey. I change the topic and we chat about how she arrived here at the health clinic.
“After some weeks the armed groups advanced nearer and I could hear gunfire, so we had to leave. I was on the road trying to get a car to take me to Goma when the soldiers came over – they demanded that I leave my five children behind.
I didn’t know what to do, but I decided to leave with two of my children with a large group of other families and come to Goma.
“I arrived here and on the 1 December I was referred by Save the Children to have an emergency caesarean at the local hospital. I wasn’t scared – it didn’t hurt.”
As we are finishing our conversation, Kavira shifts her baby in her lap and explains, “I have nothing to eat and nowhere to live. The rebels are still there and I can’t go home. I just want to return… and be safe.”