'Nobody listened to me'

When Helena, a HIV positive victim of war-time rape, sought refuge in Ireland, she encountered callous treatment and a 'culture of disbelief' from Irish officials. By Susan McKay

Helena lives in a room in a hostel in a small Irish town in which she knows nobody. A local doctor prescribes the anti-depressants she needs to get through the days, and the sleeping pills she needs to get through the nights. Helena is waiting for the letter which will determine her future and, quite possibly, whether she lives or dies. She is from an African country in which she has already been raped by up to eight men, beaten up and threatened with death. She has applied for asylum here and fears that if she is deported back to her own country, which has a notoriously bad record on human rights, she will be killed.

Helena is a talented journalist. Not yet 30, she was in charge of one of the main regional bureaus for the state broadcasting service in her country. She won a prestigious award for her investigative work and was a well-known face on television. But her integrity was her undoing. "I reported what was happening. I followed my journalistic instincts. I did stories about the failing infrastructure of the country, about food shortages, about the political opposition, and about the work of non-governmental organizations working to combat Aids," she says. "I did stories you couldn't ignore."

The government didn't like it. First she got threats, then some henchmen of the leading party came to her home and beat her up. She ran away to a neighbouring country but after a few days someone came and told her to go home or be killed. Men met her at the station, bundled her into a car and brought her to a rundown part of town where they raped her. She kept on working, and the abuses went on. Her legs are scarred after she was made to kneel on broken glass during an interrogation. She ran away several times. "Everywhere I went, they found me. I felt I was going to die."

She was an official in the union of journalists, which was fighting government attempts to control the media. Privately, she was also a member of an opposition party. "Newspaper offices were being bombed. Journalists were disappearing, going to prison. The men who were harassing me told me it was my job to support the government. I was afraid to confide in anyone. I did gather my courage to report certain incidents to the police and then I got a phonecall from intelligence agents warning me that the police would never help traitors."

After a story she covered in advance of elections, men came to Helena's newsroom. They brought her away for interrogation and raped her. They said they now had evidence against her. "It was terrible – I can't tell you the things that happened," she says. She ran away to a remote area but was once again found. "They tied my arms and legs and brought me somewhere in a car. I woke up naked in a room. They injected me with something. They told me that within days days I would be killed and no one would ever find my grave. They told me to repent."

Helena escaped through a window. She ran to a road and was rescued by a woman driver. "I was so bruised she didn't even recognize me." After that, she decided she had to flee Africa. "I rang a friend in the UK and she said I should go to Ireland." So, using a fake passport from another African country, she fled to Dublin earlier this year. "At the airport I gave my passport to the immigration official and I said, 'I am seeking asylum.' He banged the table and said 'No.' He said I was to go back. I said I would rather die here. I was so stressed, I was like a robot. I signed papers and I didn't even read them."

She felt the officials who interviewed her were hostile. "I was scared. They were interrogating me rather than listening to me. I thought they were going to send me to prison." That first night she was sent to a hostel where she shared a room with five other women. "All of us were from different countries, all quiet, all worried." She was given medical tests and then brought to the hostel in the west. Soon afterwards, a nurse came and told her bluntly she was HIV positive. "I was so depressed. Everything that had happened to me was coming back. I was alone, just a stranger here. I couldn't do anything. I was crying all the time. I couldn't sleep. I tried but there was no sleep in me." A solicitor referred Helena to the Mayo Rape Crisis Centre, where she is now being counselled by Ruth McNeely. "Ruth is the first person to listen to me," she says.

Some of the stories women fleeing sexual violence have to tell are so extreme that those uninformed about these issues may be inclined to see them as exactly the sort of thing justice minister Michael McDowell had in mind when he spoke derisively of "cock and bull stories".

McNeely feels there is a "culture of disbelief" at the Office of the Refugees Applications Commissioner (ORAC) and among other Irish professionals who come into contact with asylum seekers. "They need to be trained better. They need to understand post-traumatic stress. They need to be better informed about what is going on in the countries from which women are fleeing. These women are very traumatized and small hostilities can just plunge them back into the depths of that.

"Women are trying to cope with horrendous losses in their lives, including the murder of family members – they may not even realize at first the impact of the sexual violence. Women may be trying to protect their children from female genital mutilation, which can be agonizing and sometimes fatal. They may be suffering flashbacks, nightmares, sleeplessness, depression and fear. They may, like Helena, have been infected by HIV as a result of rape. Some are caring for children who were born as a result of rape."

Rape crisis centres are seeing more and more women in these circumstances. They include women working as prostitutes – some because they have fallen into the hands of traffickers while trying to escape a brutal situation at home, some because they leave the asylum-seeking process fearing deportation, and others to supplement the ?19 a week the state expects them to live on while waiting for their status to be decided.

Jenny Swannock of the Galway Rape Crisis Centre has worked with 30 women in the past year who came to Ireland after experiencing sexual violence. The centre is seeking funds to set up a project for male asylum seekers, too. "Most of our clients have come from war situations in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Somalia and Liberia. We are very worried that women who have been through extreme abuse are not getting asylum. Of course there has to be a system and procedures, but somehow it seems that sexual violence is not regarded as being as extreme as other sorts of torture."

Aoibheann Barnes, coordinator of the Open Door project at the Catherine McAuley Women's Centre in Dublin, has similar concerns. "There are UN guidelines on dealing with claims of sexual violence but they aren't legally binding, and the "country of origin" reports used as background briefing material for those making these decisions often don't adequately reflect the extent of such crimes," she says. Rape punishes women. It is also a way of humiliating enemy males – the woman may be forced to bear the enemy's child. In many cultures the victim is seen to be shamed. Women may face rejection in their own families and communities.

"There is no evidence of sexual violence, so it depends on the woman's testimony and interviewers may make judgements based on how they think someone should behave, when in reality women react in a whole range of different ways," says Barnes.

"Some interviewers have become exceptionally cynical. Some protect themselves from the horror of what they are hearing by disbelieving it. Sexist attitudes are very prevalent. Many don't understand that the torture of women is done in a different way – that doesn't mean it is less serious. The drive to pull down the numbers is very obvious – last year 1,000 people were turned away when they arrived. We don't know how many were women and children. We've seen growing numbers of women being turned down for asylum."

Worryingly, the ORAC does not compile statistics on applications for asylum based on claims of sexual violence. However, a spokeswoman says she is aware that applications have been granted where sexual violence or female genital mutilation was an issue. "ORAC takes account of international best practise and jurisprudence in defining persecution," she says. Under an EU directive on minimum standards, sexual violence is included as a form of persecution. Last month, representatives of 30 countries gathered in Brussels for the First International Symposium on Sexual Violence in Conflict and Beyond. The symposium heard evidence that while sexual violence in wartime is not new, it appears to be becoming more prevalent. In January this year, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia became the first head of state to refer to such violence in her inaugural address. She told the conference that 14 years of brutal civil war had left "more than half our women population as survivors of gender-based violence". She has introduced new laws and a national plan of action to deal with this legacy, and with ongoing abuses, including "support for women's and girls' economic and social empowerment".

Manuel Carballo, director of the Geneva based International Centre for Migration and Health, says the hardening of European social attitudes towards asylum seekers put victims of gender-based violence at a major disadvantage.

"The threshold of proof is too high, and there is no room for interviewers to "get a feeling" that someone is in danger. But the ability to empathise with the asylum seeker is particularly important when you are dealing with experiences so profoundly painful that many victims find it difficult to speak or even admit they happened."

Ruth McNeely believes that the Irish people would wish these women to be treated more sensitively. "It just isn't alright by me as an Irish citizen that my country is treating people in such a cold and unwelcoming way." Two years ago, Mayo people rallied around to support a Burundi woman who had been subjected to extreme sexual violence but whose application for asylum failed. She was deported to England and is still there, her status as yet undecided. Oliva Ndayishimiye says of the Irish immigration authorities: "Nobody listened to me."

Helena, asked how she feels as she waits to hear if she is to be allowed to stay here, sits in silence for a long time. Then she says: "A lost soul. It is suffering, crying out for help. But no one seems to be holding out their hand."


Systematic rape has been a prominent feature of recent conflicts

Bosnia: During the 1992 to 1995 wars Serbian forces carried out mass rapes. A UN commission estimated 20,000 victims.

Kosova: Since 1989 Serbians have carried out mass rapes. There was an upsurge in the rape of Albanian women refugees since 1999.

Democratic Republic of Congo: Since the 1996 war between rival militias, rape, abduction and sexual slavery have been perpetrated on a massive scale.

Afghanistan: Since 1992 bloody power struggles between Mujaheddin factions brought widespread rape. Reports of trafficking girls increased after the overthrow of the Taliban.

Algeria: Since 1992, women have been raped and sexually enslaved by militias and government forces.

West Africa: Rape and sexual enslavement were widespread during civil wars in Liberia (since 1989), Sierra Leone (1991-1999), Nigeria (since 1993), Senegal (since 1998) and Ivory Coast (since 1999). In 2002, the UN admitted widespread rape of women refugees by UN soldiers and aid workers.

Chechnya: Since 1994 there has been widespread rape of women by Russian soldiers.

Rwanda: During the 1994 genocide up to half a million women and girls were raped. Many died – almost 70 per cent of survivors were left HIV positive.

Zimbabwe: Rape is used by government forces to intimidate political opponents.

Darfur: Last week, Amnesty warned that the Janjawid militias of Darfur were attacking defenceless communities along the border with Chad – and using rape as a "deliberate weapon".