Story by Tebogo Ramutloa, ICRC Pretoria
When Cecile’s* father died, she was only nine years old. Cecile could not understand why it was then that her aunt separated her from her immediate family, which the father had taken good care of. "It was his wish for all of us to be educated," she recalls. She remembers how her father, while on his hospital bed, instructed her elder brother to finish his studies in Belgium and then to return home to look after his siblings.
In 2009, Cecile fled to South Africa to escape the marriage that had been arranged for her by her aunt. Still in South Africa, she is now 30 years old, and for the first time in 20 years, she has had contact with her elder brother, who is based in the US.
While growing up in her aunt's house, Cecile was prohibited from socializing with her peers. As a result, she never had friends and was shy and introverted.
When Cecile was 15, her aunt ordered her to be a second wife to a stranger who would take care of her. Feeling helpless, she obliged. "He is the one who took my virginity. Even though he treated me kindly, it felt like he was raping me because I did not want him. He was old enough to be my father," Cecile mumbles in a soft, sad voice.
Later on, she was forced to leave school and work in one of her aunt's clothing stores in the city. Her responsibility was to keep the shopkeepers from stealing money. It was at that time that she decided to steal from her aunt's handbag in order to board a flight to South Africa. "I regret stealing her money. I am not a thief. But I had no choice, I had to run away," Cecile tearfully declares.
Life for Cecile became even harder in a foreign country. She spoke French, not English. The money that remained after she had had to pay corrupt individuals in DRC for travelling documents was dwindling. The people she was staying with urged her to take up prostitution. She constantly worried that her aunt would come to South Africa to look for her. Fortunately, her faith in God and her sheer will to survive kept her going.
Cecile did not anticipate the day that she received a call from the ICRC Pretoria delegation asking her whether she knew someone named Baurion. "I had not seen nor spoken to my brother Baurion for 20 years, now someone was asking me over the phone if I knew him. I just froze," explains Cecile.
While Cecile had been enduring hardship in South Africa, her elder brother Baurion in the US had been on a mission to find her. He had told his friends how he was longing to find his sister to fulfil his father's wish to enrol her in school.
He had taken a friend's advice to send a tracing request to the American Red Cross. Upon receiving the tracing request from the American Red Cross, the Restoring Family Links team at the ICRC Pretoria delegation began to search for Cecile, contacting the Congolese community in South Africa.
"The mere mention of my brother's name, and the fear that it could be my aunt tracing me, left me with mixed emotions," admits Cecile. To ascertain if it was indeed her brother who was tracing her, she, too, wrote a Red Cross message, in which she requested proof of identity from Baurion.
"When I saw his picture my heart was filled with sadness. I was sad that I had gone through a lot of hardship while my brother was living a good life. For a moment I blamed him for what I had gone through. I thought, if he had been there he would have protected me," reasons Cecile.
But now she says her life has completely changed for the better since the ICRC and the American Red Cross connected her with her brother, who supports her financially. "He calls me every day and asks me silly questions like do I have a boyfriend," she states, bursting with laughter. She says he tells her every day that he is going to put her through school, as he did with her other two siblings.
Cecile is happy that even though her brother is miles away from her, she feels a sense of belonging, and that helps her deal with the hardships she has experienced.
*Fictitious name used to protect privacy
For more on the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross' Pretoria delegation, please click here.