‘I am not my trauma’: survivors of sexual abuse at a Ugandan girls’ shelter – photo essay

German national Bernhard ‘Bery’ Glaser allegedly took advantage of his ‘rich white foreigner’ status to systematically abuse girls in his care. Photographer DeLovie Kwagala captured the stories of 15 women

Eve was just eight years old and recently orphaned when she was taken to live at a girls’ shelter on Bugala island, in the Ugandan sector of Lake Victoria.

Bery’s Place had been set up in 2006 by Bernhard “Bery” Glaser, a German national living in Uganda, as a refuge for traumatised children and victims of sexual violence. Yet Eve and other girls living there at the time say that Glaser was hiding a dark secret. Taking advantage of his “rich white foreigner” status to entice parents to leave their daughters at the home, Glaser was using Bery’s Place as a cover for routine and systematic sexual and emotional abuse of the children in his care, the girls allege.

Beth, now 14, in a pink dress, taken through a gauze, lived at Bery’s Place from the age of four.
Beth, now 14, lived at Bery’s Place from the age of four. ‘I’m angry at the world,’ she says. ‘Adults are meant to protect us but I don’t understand why they hurt us instead.’
Photograph: DeLovie Kwagala
In bright red dress in undergrowth holding flower to cover face
Mercy, now 17, says: ‘All of us “older” girls from age eight had birth-control implants, often inserted by Bery himself, who assured us he was a medical doctor.’ Photograph: DeLovie Kwagala
  • Beth (left), now 14, lived at Bery’s Place from the age of four. She says: ‘I’m angry at the world. Adults are meant to protect us but I don’t understand why they hurt us instead’. Mercy (right), now 17, says: ‘All of us “older” girls from age eight had birth control implants “protecting us from getting pregnant from boys” and often inserted by Bery himself, who assured us he was a medical doctor’

Survivors claim that they were forced to exchange sexual favours for food and clothes, required to undergo regular gynaecological examinations and were expected to take turns sharing Glaser’s bed. If they refused, they were threatened with homelessness or starvation, according to allegations seen by the Guardian.

Eve, who was taken to Bery’s Place after an agent came to her village looking for “girls to be helped by a rich white man”, endured four years of abuse before she went to the authorities in 2013. When they searched the property, police detectives found sex toys and lubricants, while medical examinations revealed that all the girls had been fitted with intrauterine devices. Yet the child abuse case against Glaser was dropped due to lack of evidence, and the shelter remained open.

Blurry picture, standing in yellow dress by open window
Cathy, 17, asks: ‘Does blaming one person ever reduce the pain? Does it give you any answers as to why they did what they did and particularly why they chose you? These questions drive me crazy every single day.’ Photograph: DeLovie Kwagala
  • Cathy, 17, asks: ‘Does blaming one person ever reduce the pain? Does it give you any answers as to why they did what they did and particularly why they chose you? These questions drive me crazy every single day’

Six years later, in the summer of 2019, Glaser was arrested again on numerous counts of aggravated defilement, human trafficking, indecent assault and operation of an illegal children’s home. He maintained his innocence until he died of cancer in May 2020 while still on trial.

Bery’s Place is believed to have been just one of hundreds of illegally operated children’s shelters and orphanages in Uganda, many of which officials warned may have been serving as covers for sexual abuse and human trafficking. The government announced plans in 2019 to close 500 such centres, dozens of which were found to have been receiving UK funding.

Blurry picture of Blessing holding Immy both sitting on a tiled floor.
Blessing, eight, comforts the youngest survivor, Immy, seven, at the Lily of the Valley shelter. But funding for that shelter ran out, and many girls were returned to the communities that had sent them to Bery’s Place. Photograph: DeLovie Kwagala
  • Blessing, eight, comforts the youngest survivor, Immy, seven, at the Lily of the Valley shelter. But funding for that shelter ran out, and many girls were returned to the communities that had sent them to Bery’s Place’

The trauma of their time at Bery’s Place lives on for many of the young women and girls who were sent there as children, says the Ugandan photographer DeLovie Kwagala, whose haunting photographic series, Surviving Bery: A Girlhood Trauma, documents the legacy of alleged abuse of 15 survivors.

Telling their stories was a watershed moment for DeLovie, a non-binary, self-taught photographer who was sexually abused by a relative as a child, and who has used photography as a means of normalising and fighting for LGBT rights in a country where gay sex is punishable by life imprisonment.

“These girls were going through a lot of emotions that I have felt myself, and one of the first things I asked them to do was to write down their feelings about what had happened, so that we could try to imitate that in the images,” says DeLovie. “Through talking about what happened to them, it’s helped provide me with a lot of my own clarity.”

Curled up in a foetal position on a giant banana leaf on a lawn and looking straight into the lens, her face not hidden
Flower, now 20, was at Bery’s Place for 10 years and does advocacy work to encourage young girls to seek help in situations of abuse and rape. She says: ‘I felt deeply betrayed and abandoned.’ Photograph: DeLovie Kwagala
  • Flower, now 20, was at Bery’s Place for 10 years and currently does advocacy work to encourage young girls to seek help in situations of abuse and rape. She says: ‘I felt deeply betrayed and abandoned’

The girls’ portraits and testimonies of their time at Bery’s Place, captured by DeLovie, chart the struggle that many have had putting their lives back together.

There is Beth, 14, who was taken to the shelter at four and whose veiled image accompanies the heartbreaking admonishment: “Adults are meant to protect us, but I don’t understand why they hurt us instead.”

Farida, photographed through a peephole in her bright blue dress, is today just 19 but has tried to take her own life several times as a result of the abuse: “Do you ever feel like you are suffocating under layers and layers of debris and your body feels numbed by the minute … with sharp daggers constantly poking at your soul? That’s how I have felt every day for the last 12 years of my life.”

Silhouette seen in profile in mirror
Eve, now 19, was brought to Bery’s by an agent at the age of eight, having been living with her aunt after her parents died. The agent roamed villages looking for ‘girls to be helped by a rich white man’. Photograph: DeLovie Kwagala/Delovie Kwagala
Sitting in blue dress in profile looking straight ahead, seen through peephole
Farida, now 19, who cannot contain her tears while telling her story, reminds herself that she needs to talk about it in the hope of saving other girls by persuading them to speak up. Photograph: DeLovie Kwagala
  • Eve (left), now 19, was brought to Bery’s Place by an agent at the age of eight, having been living with her aunt after her parents died. The agent roamed the villages looking for ‘girls to be helped by a rich white man’. Farida (right), now 19, who cannot contain her tears while narrating her story, reminds herself that she needs to tell it in the hope of saving other girls by persuading them to speak up

Curled up in the foetal position on a banana leaf and looking straight into the lens, Flower, now 20, describes feeling as though she is “missing the skin that’s meant to cover my heart”.

Many of those who testified against Glaser were vilified by local media and threatened by some in the community, says DeLovie.

“This guy was treated like a king by the village, because he was giving out money and medication to the locals, so when the case came out they protected him. Even the newspapers told the story from Bery’s perspective. They didn’t speak to the girls involved, they just questioned why they were coming forward and whether they were doing it for money.”

pink dress hanging neatly from tree
Beth, now 14, lived at Bery’s from when she was four. She says: ‘He might have taken my innocence but l like to find small things that make me happy. This dress brings me a lot of joy and it’s a gift.’
Photograph: DeLovie Kwagala
  • Beth, now 14, lived at Bery’s from when she was four. She says: ‘He might have taken my innocence but l like to find small things that make me happy. This dress brings me a lot of joy and it’s a gift’

Eve says her allegations in 2013 were ignored, and resulted in her being criticised by other girls at the shelter as well as the wider public, who accused her of “throwing a sick, innocent man in jail”, and later of “killing him”.

“When they arrested Bery, he threatened all the other girls to turn against us and say we were lying, and proceeded to bribe his way out until the case was dismissed with no further investigation,” says Eve, now 19. “We became the outcasts, and everyone hated us.”

The 15 survivors whom DeLovie featured had all been moved out of Bery’s Place and were living in a shelter run by a children’s rights advocate, Namusoke Asia Mbajja. But after funding for the new shelter ran out, many of the girls were forced back into the communities that had sent them to Bery’s Place years earlier.

Standing in long blue patterned dress, in darkened room so her face is not seen
Lillian, 22, recently graduated from university. She said she endured threats from the ‘Justice for Bery’ supporters, who accused her and others of ‘throwing a sick, innocent man in jail’ then ‘killing him’. Photograph: DeLovie Kwagala
Girl's hands together on dark wood table
Eliona, now 18, says: ‘It’s really sad that back at Bery’s, no one confided in each other as we all thought we were the only one this was happening to, and we were too embarrassed. Everyone suffered alone.’ Photograph: DeLovie Kwagala
  • Lillian (left), 22, recently graduated from university. She said she endured threats from the ‘Justice for Bery’ supporters, who accused her and others of ‘throwing a sick, innocent man in jail’ then ‘killing him’. Eliona (right), now 18, says: ‘It’s really sad that back at Bery’s, no one confided in each other as we all thought we were the only one this was happening to, and we were too embarrassed. Everyone suffered alone’

Whether those families feel any guilt for what the girls have gone through is difficult to ascertain, says DeLovie: “In Uganda, it’s not considered acceptable if someone is ‘helping’ you and you complain about what the person does to you. One girl told me her mum was angry that she had pursued justice against Bery because he had taken her in. Parents don’t take any accountability here, and they don’t apologise for their wrongdoings. It follows a Ugandan proverb that ‘the eyes of the old person see best’.”

Yet amid the trauma there are glimmers of new life.

DeLovie points to two young women, Lillian and Flower, both of whom went on to university and have since become advocates for sexual abuse survivors.

“Every day I feel empowered knowing that I am not my trauma,” says Flower today. “My experience doesn’t define who I am. It gives me perspective on how to channel it into strength to inspire other girls and women to continue striving forward.”

Hand holding tiny flowers neatly arranged to sit at finger joints
Photographer DeLovie Kwagala writes: ‘As we were winding up the day’s shoot, Mercy, 17, presented me with these flowers with the biggest smile. It truly made me hopeful.’ Photograph: DeLovie Kwagala
  • Photographer DeLovie Kwagala writes: ‘As we were winding up the day’s shoot, Mercy, 17, presented me with these flowers with the biggest smile. It truly made me hopeful’

Some names have been changed to protect identities

  • In the UK, Rape Crisis (rapecrisis.org.uk), a national organisation offering support and counselling for those affected by rape and sexual abuse, can be contacted on 0808 802 9999. A list of numbers for organisations in other countries can be found here. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org

Contributor

Kate Hodal

The GuardianTramp

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