12 February 2013

Kenya: Survivor Recounts Her Trauma Five Years On

With three weeks to the general election, 17-year-old Phylis Madara cringes. Any sign of chaos or rowdy youths takes her back five years ago during the 2007-08 post-election violence.

She was just 13 and in standard seven, too innocent to understand the politics of the day. For the last five years, she has been in and out of hospital after she sustained 75 per cent burns when assailants attacked her and others in January 2008 during the violence.

Determined, calm and composed, she sits on her bed at Kijabe Mission Hospital awaiting her ninth surgery. She recalls the attack, which is no doubt, the most painful incident in her life.

It was at the peak of the PEV, which led to led to 1,500 deaths and about half a million displaced mostly in the Rift Valley.

Phylis, with a group of seven other girls were in a dormitory in a school in Trans Nzoia's Kolongolo village revising for exams when they were attacked.

"We heard noise from outside and within no time, a group of men approached the room we were in, locked it from outside and set it on fire," she recounts.

By the time the villagers came to their rescue, one of them had already died while the others had sustained critical injuries.

They were taken to Kitale District Hospital where Phylis stayed for eight months. "I had sustained 75 per cent burns and I felt my life was over," recalls Phylis, the obvious strain of trauma and anguish etched on her face.

Being the only child of a single mother who died when she was only two years old, Phylis lived with her stepmother who turned her back on her at a time of critical need.

"She never visited me in hospital for the whole period; no one ever did since she was my only family," Phylis says as she struggles to control her tears.

Phylis tells how she cried for the better part of her stay in Kitale District Hospital. "I felt hated and out of place. I could not understand why I was going through the difficulties."

One day in 2009 after a whole year in hospital, good samaritan Rosemary Wekesa was visiting a patient on bed next to Phylis. Wekesa felt drawn to her and noticed that no one ever came to visit Phylis.

"She had been coming for more than a week to visit her sick relative and one day decided to talk to me. I opened up to a stranger who has eventually become more than a mother to me," Phylis says.

Rosemary who was by her bedside at Kijabe during the interview told us how Phylis was looking so out of place at the hospital.

"She had burns everywhere and looked so lonely. I told her about my family and how I ended up in the hospital. She started visiting me on a daily basis and after sometime pleaded with the hospital to release me so I could get specialised treatment,"Phylis said.

Rosemary having been in the business of helping disabled children knew that Phylis needed urgent specialised treatment if she had to fully recover from the horror of the violence.

"I already had some contacts with Cure. They are a non-profit organisation that operates hospitals and programs in 27 countries worldwide including Kenya. They opened their hospital in Kenya in 1998. They have seen over 1.9 million patients, provided over 138,000 life-changing surgeries, and trained over 6,100 medical professionals. They take care of children with extensive burns at Kijabe and they had a clinic just opposite the district hospital in Kitale. So I took Phylis for an assessment," says Rosemary.

Dr Hansens, one of the doctors from Cure saw Phylis and recommended that she be taken to Kijabe for corrective surgery. The initial cost was set at Sh40,000.

Kitale District Hospital waived her one year bills and with her newfound family, Phylis moved to Kijabe hospital. She has been undergoing treatment and has so far had eight corrective surgeries.

Although the burns were healing, Phylis needed urgent plastic and re-constructive surgery. Her legs were burnt to the bone and so were her hands.

Dr Bob Carter was in-charge of Phylis surgeries which entailed comprehensive processes including buying tissue expanders to harvest tissues from other body parts to replace the burnt out skin.

The first surgery was done in April 2009 while the second was done in August of the same year and took six weeks. After the surgery Rosemary decided to take Phylis to her rural home to look for her stepmother and other relations.

"After the first surgery, we went to my step-mother's rural home but found out she had moved away. I had been abandoned," Phylis says.

It was at this point that Rosemary decided to take Phylis and live with her at her rural home in Kitale's Kaplamai village.

Rosemary, a former teacher who houses other disabled children took the responsibility of a parent and enrolled Phylis back to school, following a recommendation from the doctor.

"I went to St. Francis Suwerwa Primary School in 2010, where I was taken to class seven." Though she had been in and out of hospital for two years, Phylis sat her KCPE in 2010 and managed an impressive 278 marks out of a possible 500.

She then joined Suwerwa Secondary School, and is currently in third form. Phylis says Rosemary came to her as a God-sent miracle. "I had lost hope in life but after meeting her, everything got back. She loves me and appreciates me as I am." She says Rosemary has well wishers who pay her school fees, while she ensures that she has shopping.

"She is the family I never had. Her children appreciate me as part of them," she says with a beaming smile. As she sits on the bed staring at the hospital ceiling, she says that she hopes Kenya will never experience another postelection violence. "My life changed because of something I had no idea about." Though she says she has forgiven her attackers, Phylis says the incident still haunts her.

"I am among many Kenyans who ended up with a burden of our leaders." She urges Kenyans to shun animosity as we approach the elections. "If you are not elected just accept and know that God is not yet ready for you," she advises.

Her biggest worry however is her accumulated hospital bill. "Doctors say I require more than Sh200,000 for a reconstructive surgery and I am worried mum may not have such kind of money considering I have some more bills here. She has already spent so much on me."

She believes that she will get through and one day she will be strong enough to become a surgeon and help patients get a second chance in life.

Kijabe Mission hospital has treated hundreds of PEV victims like Phylis especially children including the batch that was burnt at Kiambaa AIC Church in Burnt Forest that were later flown to US.

But the hospital director says they are owed Sh32million by patients despite promises that the government will foot the bills.

"We are a mission hospital and with such huge bills we find that we are strained,the government used to give us reimbursement but stopped in 1996 despite the work we do," says Kijabe Hospital Director Mary Muchendu. The director says President Kibaki had earlier promised the government will clear the bill but nothing has been done.

Last month DPM Uhuru Kenyatta told the hospital that the debt will be settled and even ordered Medical Services assistant minister Kazungu Kambi who attended the function to resolve the debt issue.

Phylis will have a major surgery in May and she hopes the country will be at peace after the March 4 elections. She will be under Orthopaedic surgeon Dr Theuri.

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