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8-PAUL-OHARE-RWANDA

An inspirational record

Journalist PAUL O’HARE spent six years reporting on SCIAF for the Daily Record. Here, he testifies to the fantastic work of the Catholic charity By PAUL O’HARE

I spent more than a decade as the Daily Record’s crime correspondent and covered tragic stories across Scotland. But nothing on these shores came close to the material I brought home from my travels with SCIAF.

From 2011 onwards I visited seven countries with Scotland’s Catholic aid agency and heard harrowing accounts of human suffering. Themes ranged from domestic violence and displacement to genocide and climate change.

The common thread was grinding poverty. The people who shared their experiences, often through tears, continue to inspire me.

 

South Sudan

My journey with SCIAF began in South Sudan, a month before it officially became the world’s newest country.

We visited a leper colony in the capital Juba but I found the most hard-hitting material in the remote communities of Mundri province.

Zelpa Repent told me how she was forced to lie in a pit while heavily pregnant before being lashed 10 times.

Her ‘crime,’ according to tribal chiefs, was refusing to have sex with her husband.

A SCIAF programme of counselling helped Zelpa rebuild her life and she named her daughter Afya, which means forgiveness.

I also met Aggrey Elisipan who was paralysed by polio and used to have to crawl five miles a day to school.

He said: “People were mistreating me and at times they thought I was an animal. From a distance, they mistook me for a monkey and would throw rocks and fire arrows at me.”

Thanks to SCIAF, Aggray was given a £115 tricycle and gained a sense of freedom he never thought possible.

His story was the first that made me realise the real difference donations from Scottish schools and parishes can make in the developing world.

Aggrey said: “The bike has not only transformed my life, it has saved my life.”

 

Columbia

I had to wait three years for my next trip and Colombia 2014 remains the highlight.

In Apartado, in the north of the country, we had to cross a river on horseback before trekking more than two miles to meet members of the displaced Embera tribe.

We wore white polo shirts with the Pastoral Social logo which would identify us as church workers in the event of an encounter with local guerrillas.

On arrival, the children, who were crammed into a tiny classroom, interrupted their lesson to greet us with a traditional song.

Minutes later I sat down for an interview which remains seared in my brain today.

Negaribi Hernando told me how his brother was savagely murdered in 1999.

He recalled: “The guerrillas said he was carrying groceries for the paramilitaries and they threw him on the ground. He was decapitated as they did not want to waste bullets.”

Negaribi also told me how his nephew Luis Alberto, 17, was taken off a bus and shot dead at the side of the road as he travelled home from Medellin to attend his brother’s funeral.

Days earlier Pedro Luis, 20, had been gunned down in front of his mum and five siblings. The heartbroken family buried the brothers on the same day.

Negaribi said: “The funeral Luis was coming home for turned out to be his own.”

Each trip also has its lighter moments which provide welcome respite from the chilling stories.

During a group meeting in a church hall our host gave us a lengthy overview of Colombia’s 50-year civil war.

When he was finished we turned to Javier, our interpreter, who simply said: “There was a big fight.”

Amidst the horror we also found hope.

The following day we witnessed an open-air community play to commemorate a banana plantation massacre.

At the end one of the lead characters held aloft a sign which read: “You can do more with dreams than you can with memories.”

 

Rwanda

Later that year we travelled to Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where I heard stories that truly blew my mind.

I was a student when Rwanda imploded in April 1994 and more than 800,000 people were killed in 100 days.

The slaughter was pre-planned by Hutu extremists in a bid to wipe out the Tutsi minority and it was executed with ruthless efficiency.

Antonia Utamiliza was the first survivor I met and her experiences beggared belief.

She told me how she expected to die when she came face-to-face with the neighbours who murdered her husband and two eldest sons.

The widow’s home had already been torched and her five surviving children were bewildered by the chaos unfolding around them.

Death seemed inevitable but Antonia was spared. One of her neighbours told her: “We don’t want to kill you. We want you to die of sadness because there is nothing left for you.”

Antonia’s misery was compounded in the coming weeks when her five children contracted measles and four died.

She said: “One died on Monday, another one on Wednesday and another one on Friday. Three of them died in one week. I was only left with one daughter.”

Today her only child, Gertrude, 27, is a mum herself to five-year-old Laissa.

She still lives with Antonia and together they run a small fruit and vegetable business which was set up with a loan from SCIAF.

The tiny farm has more than doubled their weekly income and means three generations are now benefiting from money raised in Scotland.

The charity also supported the painful reconciliation process and worked closely with the country’s Justice and Peace Commission.

In a house near the Ntrama memorial, I interviewed Amina Gasengayre who lost loved ones during the genocide.

Towards the end of our conversation a tall, rake-like man wearing a cowboy hat arrived and joined our company.

His opening words left our group dumbfounded: “Let me start by once again asking for her forgiveness. I killed her father-in-law.”

Over the next hour Jean Murangira calmly recalled how he led a killing team in the spring of 1994.

He admitted personally carrying out two murders but acknowledged he was complicit in many more.

Jean, who spent seven years in jail, said: “We were like animals. People were crazy at that time.”

That encounter with a serial killer remains the most astonishing interview of my career.

 

DR Congo

Jean and thousands of his compatriots with blood on their hands sought sanctuary in the DRC.

Two years later it became engulfed in a civil war which has claimed more than six million lives through fighting, disease and malnutrition.

The DRC is also notorious for its epidemic levels of sexual violence.

One study found more than 400,000 women were raped from 2006-2007— the equivalent of 48 per hour.

In an empty church in South Kivu province I was introduced to young mothers who became pregnant after being attacked.

In the eyes of the law their children didn’t exist but, thanks to SCIAF, they can now get a birth certificate which gives them access to healthcare and education.

Riziki Denise was one of 10 women attacked by M23 rebels in the village of Minova in March 2012.

She said: “I screamed for them to leave me but they threatened to kill me if I didn’t keep quiet.”

Riziki has to cope with flashbacks and food shortages but the SCIAF-funded project has given her some optimism for the future.

“If my child was not registered he would not be normal,” she said. “I want to thank people in Scotland. What they are doing is felt here. They are helping us to get out of this very bad situation.”

Before leaving I asked if she had a message for men who rape women.

“They are killers,” Riziki replied. “They destroy lives.”

 

Ethiopia

In 2015 I travelled to Ethiopia, a country I first heard of at primary school as a result of the famine which inspired Band Aid. Today food shortages and child malnutrition remain a problem, especially in rural areas.

In a feeding centre run by nuns in Hosanna we met mothers whose children were saved by SCIAF donations.

Munria Zien arrived days earlier with her four-year-old son, Adild, after a 40-mile journey by bus, horse and cart.

By the time she reached the clinic, Munria admitted: “The child was listless, there was no movement, response or anything. His eyes were closed and he couldn’t open his mouth. He was like a dead body.”

Before we left Adild was given one of his four daily doses of milk.

It was a joyous sight as he grabbed the green plastic mug with both hands and his face disappeared behind it.

As he guzzled the contents, Sr Celine, the clinic director, joked: “The dead body is drinking! This is magic milk.”

During this trip I also met the remarkable Fr Paddy Moran, a Spiritan missionary from Dublin.

He single-handedly transformed the focus of Arba Minch Prison—where a third of the 2,400 inmates are killers— from punishment to rehabilitation.

To illustrate the point he gave us a guided tour, with no security.

Along the way we stopped to watch a man carving an ornamental coffee set.

Fr Paddy crouched down took the chisel off the prisoner, held it aloft and said: “This is real trust. Show this in a Scottish prison and the commander would drop dead.”

A few minutes later we found ourselves in a dimly-lit cell, 20ft by 155ft, which was home to 155 inmates.

They get some respite from watching football and they all chip in to ensure they have the full sports package.

We were told they are passionate about English and Spanish teams.

When a member of our group asked if they followed Scottish football, SCO editor Ian Dunn quipped: “They suffer enough.”

 

Malawi and Zambia

My final trip, earlier this year, was to Malawi and Zambia.

We were joined by Deacon Blue star Ricky Ross, who became a great ambassador for the Wee Box campaign.

The main focus was the impact of climate change on poor farming communities.

Too much rain can cause flash floods and too little can lead to severe dry spells and even drought. The most memorable interview, as often happens on these trips, came on our final day when I met farmer Beardsley Masole.

Named after English football legend Peter, he recalled a dry spell which left him dizzy with hunger and too weak to feed his family.

He said: “At that time I thought I would be the poorest person forever.”

Today, thanks to a SCIAF-backed organic farming project, he grows multiple crops, a variety of fruit and vegetables and keeps his own cows, pigs and bees.

He has also been able to build a brick house, complete with tin roof and a solar panel, which gives his five kids the light they need to do their homework at night.

But the most striking symbol of Beardsley’s success is the new custom-built raised shelter for his 20 goats.

It is bigger than the nearby mud hut he used to call home. The meeting left a deep impression on the man behind hits such as Dignity and Real Gone Kid.

“Beardsley’s story is amazing,” Ricky Ross said. “It shows the impact donations in Scotland can make to people’s lives.”

Travelling with SCIAF provided some of the most challenging yet memorable moments of my time at the Daily Record.

Each trip gave me a renewed sense of perspective and made me count my blessings. I also cannot speak highly enough about the professionalism and dedication of SCIAF’s staff and its partners on the ground worldwide

But, more than anything, my assignments convinced me that money raised through the Lenten Wee Box appeal really does make a difference.

One brief exchange in the DRC perhaps best sums up SCIAF’s impact.

After a long afternoon of interviews we were preparing to leave a community centre in Bukavu.

As we said goodbye a survivor of sexual violence thanked us for visiting.

She then told us: “We were at zero and you helped us take our first steps. If you forget us, we fall down.”

– To support SCIAF, visit: www.sciaf.org.uk or call 0141 354 5555.

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