Sanctuary at last for abused gay father and young son
In Uganda, if you have children or not, being gay can get you killed. Four years ago, Matofu* and his son had to flee for their lives.
After a long, harrowing journey for Matofu and ten-year-old Suphi*, the nightmare did not end when they arrived in a refugee camp in Malawi, where they both experienced further violence. It took two years to find sanctuary as asylum seekers through Malawi UNHCR. But without the advocacy efforts of a local organisation, it may never have happened.
Suphi has been raised by his doting dad since his mother died, when he was just three months. “It was hard to bring him up but I am proud,” says Matofu. “People were telling me, ‘you, an African man, you don’t know how to tie a child on your back, everywhere you go you walk with the child. Abandon him and marry another woman who can give you more children’. How could I do that? He is a human being and I am responsible for the life of this child.”
Matofu is concerned with the usual things a parent prioritises, such as wanting Suphi to get a good education, eat well, have friends to play with, and most importantly stay out of harm’s way. All have been difficult for him to obtain. “He’s experienced too much,” says the father.
The toll of homophobia
Matofu himself also experienced too much as a child. When his father started to suspect he was gay, his mother took him across the border to Kenya to stay with maternal family. Years earlier, her husband’s family had killed another of her sons for being gay, and she wanted to protect Matofu from the same fate. Instead, they murdered her when she returned. “My uncles killed her because she hid me,” Matofu says with a deep intake of breath. He was eight.
In 2015, as an adult Matofu returned to Uganda, but was taken hostage by relatives who were deciding whether to call the police or kill him. It was Suphi, then just six, who rescued him. “Suphi stole the key at night when they were sleeping and unlocked me,” Matofu says. “I sneaked out with my son and we just ran.”
When their search for refuge eventually brought them to Malawi, initially it went from bad to worse. At Dzaleka Refugee Camp, they suffered extraordinary homophobic abuses, including dead dogs piled on their doorstep and faeces thrown through the kitchen window onto their cooking. Matofu has been beaten, stabbed and chased by men with machetes.
The camp, run by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and partners, has a police station onsite. Matofu reported the attacks, along with friend Didier* who has also experienced extremely violent abuse for being gay. Instead of getting support as victims of crime, the police humiliated and taunted them.
Forced to flee refugee camp
Suphi was also physically attacked on two occasions, for being the child of a gay man. “It haunts me so much,” says Matofu. “He’s done nothing. He doesn’t know why he’s rejected or why people want to torture him. If they want to kill, they better come and slaughter me but leave him, he’s innocent – what’s wrong with them!”
He shows the scar on his son’s ear from when a man chased him and split it open with a metal rod. He also shows the pictures of Suphi being brave while getting it stitched, cuddled tightly by his father. That was Boxing Day 2016. The second attack tipped them over the edge. Tears free-fall from the devastated father’s face as he tells how three men dragged Suphi to a graveyard and drugged him, probably with chloroform. He believes they intended to bury Suphi alive. He and Didier heard Suphi scream before the handkerchief was placed over his face and ran in his direction. Matofu believes he saved his child’s life by minutes. That night he packed a bag and he and Suphi were on the road again.
Malawi safe house
By this point, Matofu and Didier had gained a vital contact, Michael Kaiyatsa, advocacy manager at Malawi’s Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR). Michael has carried out research on the extent of homophobia in Dzaleka, and is working to reduce LGBT-related stigma and discrimination within the camp, through radio shows and training with volunteers and staff. The work is supported by a challenge grant from the International HIV/AIDS Alliance’s Rapid Response Fund.
Knowing that Michael was one of the very few people they could trust, Didier alerted him to Matofu and Suphi’s disappearance. Michael responded quickly and managed to negotiate with Plan Malawi, a UNHCR partner, to find a safe house for all three of them.
Initially they struggled. Although they were relieved to be away from the violence of the camp, they were completely reliant on food being brought to them – and it wasn’t enough. Matofu said he felt like he was being given the choice to “die of violence, or die of starvation”.
Struggling to get refugee status
“Mike was our rescue,” he says. CHRR applied for a second emergency grant from the Alliance’s Rapid Response Fund, which allowed the men to buy food and other essentials, such as clothes, blankets, mosquito nets and lightbulbs.
It was July 2017 and the three had been in Malawi for more than two years, but UNHCR had still not granted them refugee status because there was confusion over their rights, as gay people are criminalised in Malawi. Yet without this status they could not be resettled.
CHRR started advocating hard with UNHCR for Matofu, Didier and Suphi to be recognised as refugees. They also brought books for Suphi and were pushing for him to be enrolled at a nearby school. Suphi had missed months of school, stemming back to while he was still in the camp, pretending to go to school but hiding in the forest because of taunting from other children as well as teachers.
In the safe house all Suphi had was a disintegrating football, a Road Dahl book he had read cover-to-cover, Connect 4, and a card game he didn’t have the rules for. Although he was happy he could now play without being hassled, it was also lonely. “I was just alone,” he says. “There was just that ball of mine, but I was getting tired of it because of playing alone.”
Putting pressure on UNHCR
Finally, in February 2018 Matofu, Suphi and Didier were recognised as refugees. Most likely this would never have happened without the dogged advocacy efforts of Michael and his colleagues, whose probing had stirred up international media interest, putting added pressure on UNHCR to address the situation.
As a result, local and regional UNHCR officers became aware of the details of the case, which was further scrutinised, including taking objective, verified evidence into account. In April 2018, Matofu, Suphi and Didier were relocated to Canada. UNHCR has now lived up to its mandate to "protect refugees… and assist in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country”.
Michael says: “The Rapid Response Fund grant helped us to better understand the situation on the ground and design an appropriate intervention.” CHRR will continue to work with UNHCR, and in partnership with other NGOs working in the camp for the safety of all asylum seekers and refugees.
No longer living in fear
Now that Matofu, Suphi and Didier no longer live in fear, they can concentrate on new hopes and dreams.
However, as Oratile Moseki, the Alliance’s senior human rights advisor says: “People should not have to flee their homes and lives, simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. But the reality is that many African countries are facing a constitutional crisis where, morality and not law, has been wielded to deny LGBTI rights. As a result, many LGBTI individuals find themselves without recourse to or protection of the law, stripped not only of the right to sexuality, but also of many other ones, including the right to live in a safe and non-threatening environment in a place of one’s choosing. While resettlement can alleviate suffering it in no way excuses a country’s obligation to honour its constitution and rights that exist inherently.”
Matofu says: “Now we’re in Canada and focused on getting a great life and future. Suphi is longing for school, which he’s about to start. He wants to become a doctor. He’s missing football with friends, which I know he’ll get once he starts school.”
As a religious man, Matofu finds it baffling that the bible is often used as a justification for homophobia. “It’s a misinterpretation of the bible,” he says. “I look forward to becoming a missionary, and helping Africa with the gospel of truth and love. Thanks to all that did anything for our freedom. We did it.”
CHRR has been assisted by a grant from the Rapid Response Fund, which is managed by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance and funded by the Elton John AIDS Foundation. The Fund makes grants to LGBT and MSM organisations so they can carry out urgent work to alleviate the stigma, discrimination and violence that threaten provision, access and uptake of HIV services for MSM and LGBT people.