My Boyfriend handed me a newspaper and pointed to an article, stating that a group of nuns were accused of abusing little children. Not stating which nuns and where the children`s home is. I gasped; I started feeling dizzy and found it hard to breath.
The women accusing the nuns are taking action.It took me back to my horrible past, vivid and unwanted memories flooded into my mind. It seemed like it happened yesterday, suddenly I was filled with panic and unable to read further.
The description of the place, sounded like the place I grew up in. I was convinced it was the house of Riveria. An orphanage home controlled by nuns and there are not many in our country.
I`d left the home a very damaged girl, carrying with me a lot of pain and emotional baggage .I was depressed and suicidal.There was no –one outside the home that would of understood me .The worst of it all was, the fact that no-one would believe me about the things that happened within those walls, because such things was not supposed to happen at a place like that, run by nuns.
I learned to keep all my feelings inside ,I pushed all my bad memories to the back of my mind .I pretended like those things didn’t happen to me. For some reason, everyone was scared to go against the catholic religion and norms.
In November 2012, 8 months after reading that article in the newspaper, I found the courage to go to a lawyer and try and seek justice.
I found it hard to tell him and the counsellor about what had happened to me , because for so much years , I have bottled it up .As I told them my upbringing , I cried uncontrollably but after several months of seeing them, the lawyer managed to get the whole story and the counsellor helped me heal .
This is how my fight for justice and freedom began.
The arrival at the House of Riveria
I had a sister named Kathy, she was the eldest. We were sitting in our room when she said “shhhh! I can hear mami speaking to someone downstairs, I wonder who it might be?“
I didn’t recognise the voice, we were curious to hear and see who it was, so we stood on the stairs, where mami couldn’t see us. The guy downstairs said “have them ready by 8 tomorrow morning, I’ll pick you up, it’s going to be a long journey to Port Elizabeth.We looked at each other and went back to our rooms. ”we going to Port Elizabeth tomorrow, we haven’t been there yet “I said to my sister. Excitedly we went to bed so that tomorrow can come faster.
The next day
Mami didn’t tell us why we are going ,she just said we should get ready, we are going to Port Elizabeth .As we left our house and drove further away mami was quiet and the atmosphere seemed tense . Because our mami was a loud and talkative person but today she hardly spoke.
Suddenly everything about this trip felt wrong and extremely strange. The trip was long and suddenly we approached a piece of road that looked like an entrance to a village, surrounded by winter fog. It was hard to tell if we had reached our destination, looking through the window, all we could make out was an extremely high brick wall. My sister got out of the car, she was so glad that she could stretch her out. I followed her and got out of the car too but mami was still sitting in the car, speaking intensely to the driver.
Looking up the walls was coiled with bob wire. It seemed like a prison.
Mami got out and handed Kathy a letter and said “hand this to the person that opens the door .She then rang the bell, got into the car and drove off. We watched in fear as the car drove off. My eyes were filled with tears.
With a loud creaky sound a lady opened the door and said “I’m Sister Martha can I help you? “
She was wearing flowing robes, my sister handed her a letter, she took it and said “Il be taking you to the mother of the house, please follow me girls “We entered a high ceiling foyer, with a tall marble statue of the Virgin Mary that loomed over us as we walked through. There was a smell of overcooked vegetables in the air and it was dead quiet. We came to a stop at a huge door, sister Martha knocked loudly.
ENTER! Ordered the lady from inside. The tone of her voice sent shivers down my spine.
After several minutes she looked up and gave us the coldest look ever. Similar to a story book witch.She had that look, like we were contaminated or something.
Sister Martha handed her the letter Kathy gave her .She then started reading it.
“Come closer” she said “I am the superior mother of the house of Riveria and your mother wants you to stay with us and devote your life to god “
Still looking at us coldly, she added” we have a lot of rules and I suggest you learn them quickly girls, because if you break the rules, you will be dealt with severely.’
“They need to bath Sister Martha, Take them now!”
We followed Sister Martha as instructed; we walked down the corridor as she explained that this is an orphanage or a home for unwanted children. I thought to myself, this was indeed a prison, a prison for children, whose only crime was being born. We then turned into a massive bathroom.
Another nun walked in, with an apron on .They turned on the taps .the nun that came in, picked up a large bottle that read, Jeyes fluid and threw it into our bath water. I didn’t know what that was but that brown liquid didn’t smell nice and it felt like it was burning my skin. It didn’t seem to bother the nuns, they kept on scrubbing us, I cried uncontrollably and by the time I got out of the bath, my skin felt raw.
The superior mother walked in and said”put these on”. It was long white socks, a white t-shirt and a blue skirt.
She took away my clothes , I started to cry and demanded that she should give my cloths back .My sister tried to explain to the superior mother that it was a gift from our father that we haven’t seen in a long time . The superior mother then said “there is no personal items in the lords house “her voice got louder with each word.
“Mami will come and get us soon, don’t worry and be brave” Kathy softly said to me.
The sisters said that they will be right back and left. After an hour we heard voices outside the door, it said “they won`t like being separated“.
The two nuns entered the bathroom, one grabbed Kathy`s arm and the other one grabbed on mine and they said lets go.
We walked along more corridors, no one spoke, not the nuns nor the girls that passed us.
It was an unnatural silence and for the first time I felt homesick.
The nun separated me and Kathy, she was in the senior section and I was next to her in the junior section.
There was no point in trying to fight back. All I could do was to obey and try to stay out of trouble.
When Kathy was rewarded for good behaviour she could come and visit me. Luckily I was almost old enough to move to the senior’s side .Just a month to go then I will be by my sister.
I heard some girls speak about a cruel nun that was in charge of the seniors, named Sister Gloria.
The day after my birthday sister Gloria than walked in, to come and get me. I was terrified of her straight away.
Her harsh tone sent chills through me.
“You’ll be in my residence “she said “and I will be watching you “
We walked through the place in silence.
Sister Gloria was the worst of all the nuns in the house, according to my sister and the other girls. She was unattractive, and she had a cruel personality, with heavy eyebrows and never smiled, unless a priest, inspectors or visitors was present.
After dinner it was benediction, we walked quietly in a line, single filed from the dining hall .There was a nun watching every girl genuflect and if you didn’t do it properly, you would get beaten by Sister Gloria.
After benediction we went into the gardens but it was freezing outside and we had to stay there for an hour, the cold air stung my skin, but the nuns did not care.
Then we were called inside to go into our rooms, Sister Gloria said “lights out and no talking and I’m watching you Sara “she add.I froze with fear, why me? What did I do? At night we had to lie on our backs with our hands across our chest, to keep the devil out, if not, you will get beaten.I would know , because the first night I slept here , a girl got beaten up by sister Gloria, because she have not slept in the right position . I thought to myself how I was going to make it through the day without getting on the wrong side of Sister Gloria and the other nuns.
The abusing days
The morning broke and one of the girls came running in and said “sister Gloria is coming “
“What mood is she in” I asked , knowing that if she was in a bad mood , she had it in for me .As she made it very clear on the first day when I moved to the seniors that she hated me .Still nothing would of prepared me for what was going to happen to me next .
She came in, screaming “we have an devil among us, where is she?” she was waving a stick and I prayed that she didn’t mean I was the devil .Sara she shrieked, pointing the stick in my direction “you are the child of the devil, nobody must come near her”
I began to tremble, what did this mean, and what did I do wrong?
“Please sister” I pleaded to her.
She yelled “the devils in you .we will beat him out of you now!”
She leaped at me, the next thing I knew, she was chasing me down the corridors, screaming “the devils in you, demons child “
She finally chased me into a room at the nuns section, where she began to beat me viciously.
The other sisters joined her in beating me. Screaming and praying on me. I got smacked, kicked and punched. They beat me unconsciously; I woke up on a cold floor in a dark room.
My head was aching and I kept on thinking about why they did this? What did this mean? Nothing was explained to me.
It was only later on that I figured it all out. To be able to take Holy Communion, you had to be baptized into the Catholic Church and if you were not baptized you go straight to hell. Either my mother didn’t send them my baptized papers or I wasn’t baptized at all, either way the nuns believed the worst.
I was locked up in a dark room for 3 days, after that I got dragged down to church to get baptized.
By then I started to believe that I was evil, there was no reason not to, after all that has happened.
I got baptized in an exorcism way, they literally drowned me in the holy water. Probably trying to drown the devil out of me.
Sister Gloria didn’t care who saw the wounds on me, unless it was inspection time. That’s the days when she was more careful on where she hits me.
The work of the lord
Kathy and I ached to be free of this cold, damp, ugly and cruel world we are living in. A world controlled by monsters with black and white robs.
By now we have lost all hope of seeing our mother again.
The start of my nightmares
“Come with me.” sister Gloria demanded. “Yes sister” I jumped of my feet .we came into a room, with bags of cloths in.
She selected items that she felt was appropriate and said “put these on, and you are going to be on your best behaviour child. You will say nothing bad about the sisters of Riveria .Do you understand?“
“Yes sister” I replied
In my head I was trying to picture, what this family was like as she continued with a list of instructions of my do`s and don’ts.
They were obviously friends of the sisters, so I couldn’t say anything bad. It was pointless going against that .If I have to talk bad about the sisters I would get punished severely.
Another sister walked in and said,”they are here”. Before we walked sister Gloria reminded me again of not embarrass the house.
I picked up my suitcase and followed her downstairs.
Just like that, sister Gloria said,”here she is, if you have any problems with her; send her back “.It felt like I was being sold.
The man took me by the hand and guided me to his car.
As we drove away. He said his name was Tony and they lived 5 hours away from the house of Riveria. We stopped at a petrol garage and a lady that seemed to know him approached. Tony was explaining to her , that he just picked me up from the orphanage home ,she then went to her purse and took out a few coins and said” buy her some sweets “
It seemed like he wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to introduce me in that way and I hated it.
Finally we arrived “here we are “he said.
Pointing to an old looking house on a hill.
He took me by the hand and led me up a path towards the house. Tony’s Brother Ben then opened the door and said “hello you must be tired, would you like some cool drink?’’ He was young and seemed really nice.
He then handed me a plate of home cooked meal ,which a lady made , that didn’t seem to say much, he then said “ eat up , you look like you could do with some meat on your bones“.
Before eating, I blessed the food. Not wanting to bring down the Sisters rules.
“You got very nice manners, the Sisters are doing a good job, with all these orphans, don’t you think so”, said Ben.
I rather said nothing, not wanting to be sent back.
Tony then said lets go inside.
It started getting dark and I wondered when I will see women in the house. Instead all I saw was Ben, Tony and that woman who cleaned all day long.
The thoughts of staying with them scared me. We came into a dark room with two couches and a huge TV.
“Come and sit on my lap” Tony said
He lifted me up and we watched a movie, while Ben was making a fire.
I didn’t ask any questions, but I was dying to know where the women were.
I tried really hard to stay awake but I couldn’t keep my eyes open. It was an overwhelming day for me.
The night of hell
Sometime during the night, I woke up, disturbed by a weird sense of something moving between my legs .I was terrified.
I opened my eyes and it was extremely dark, I then remembered I was by Tony`s house. I didn’t know who it was; all I knew was that it could be Ben or Tony.
Instead I was in bed naked, I was petrified. I pretended to be asleep and rolled over to the edge of the bed ,away from whoever that was ,but for some reason I found myself being lifted and being laid down on top of a man’s stomach .
I wanted to scream out but I couldn’t, I was too frightened to make a sound. Hoping that he would just leave me to sleep he said “Sara its uncle Tony, come on now, come and cuddle.”Still on top of him, he started to rock me roughly, back and forth, against something long and hard between his legs.He then said “that’s it, that’s a good girl, I will tell the sisters you were a very good girl”.He kept on saying it, everything about it felt wrong and to me that was not cuddle.After that he rolled me off him, where I laid quietly, crying to myself. I didn’t want to think about it .He then got up and made a call.
I Looked over and heard him say, thank you Sister she was a good girl, I will make the payments to the house of Riveria tomorrow morning.
I felt sick, everything started making sense to me. Why were there no women around? Why I am staying here for the weekend. I heard his footsteps, returning and I closed my eyes, hoping that he wouldn’t touch me again .Finally he began to snore and I could relax.
I woke up as early as possible to get out of bed. I searched for my cloths and left. I saw the quiet lady, making breakfast and sat in the kitchen by her. Dozing off in the chair, she then woke me up sayings “wake up Sara, here`s some food for you “
At the end of day two, both men had abused me. It was time for me to go back to the home and Tony said by next month he wants me to stay with him again and that he is thinking about adopting me.
Back at the house
When I came back, I was in tears, crying on my bed. My sister walked in, asking me what was wrong, I had to tell her.
She then thought it was a good idea to tell one of the sisters at the house, but no one believed me.For weeks the memories of what had happened, kept spinning around my in head.
I don’t know how some girls found out about what happened, but some came to me, saying that similar things had happened to them.Sister Gloria found out about what happened at Tony`s home, she rushed into the room and said “I believe you are telling stories about uncle Tony .Why have you been telling such filthy lies?”
Suddenly she lifted the stick in her hand and started beating me, screaming “you are a liar, this is what we do with liars. “ She then grabbed my arm, dragged me into the bathroom and pushed the whole soap into my mouth. At that moment I felt like killing her.
As time passed I have been at Tony’s home a lot. I had no choice to go.
The regime at the house was too harsh handle .All I thought about was getting out and no longer being beaten and abused by the nuns and the families they send us to.
My dreams for the outside world didn’t go further than that because I had no concept of what life was like without the constant harsh treatment from the nuns.
A shadow hung over me for days. I felt depressed, but then I came up with an escape plan and I was filled with hope.
I spent my days trying to figure my way out. Looking at the routes of the nuns, where the windows and doors were. My main focus was getting beyond these walls.I had no idea of where my sister was. I haven’t seen her in over a over a month .I wondered if she to escaped .Before a girl in my room got adopted by a family , she gave me there address and said “ if you ever manage to get out , look for this place ,I will help you find a place to stay “.
I said thank you and she left .It was obvious that she meant it .By then my plans was figured out .All I hoped was, that I was small enough to get through and that the other girls in our room would help . But I was sure that wouldn’t have been a problem because no one wanted the nuns win.
I then informed the girls in my room about my plans and asked if anyone wants to be part of the escape. A small built girl named Sofia agreed to do it.
I intended to climb through the bathroom window next to our room, which was the only bathroom without burglar bars. It was small, but I’m sure that I would squeeze my way through.
I explained that after the lights went out and there were no nuns around, we will take sheets, tie them together and hope that it will be strong enough to hold us. If we reach the grounds the girls then needs to pull the sheets up.We were planning to leave the following night. So we went to bed early ,to be rested for the big escape.I should have been concerned with my safety, but my head was pre-occupied by thoughts of being free.
The next day came and finally it was bed time. We yawned and pretended to be tired. Then slowly stood up as lights went off, checked if the coast was clear and took the sheets of the beds and started knotting them together.
“Shhhh girls, we never going to escape with the noise you making, you need to be quiet “I said.
Sofia opened the window, while the girls got onto the sinks to secure the rope made out of bed sheets.
I experienced a rush of adrenalin; finally I was going to get away from this place. I squeezed through that tiny gap, I struggled but I wasn’t going to give up .I gave one hard push and there I went through. Scrapping my body on the way, but I didn’t mind.
It was sofia`s turn and she was so small, she slide through the window.When she got on the ground the other girls waved, lifted the sheets and there we went.We then started running, as fast as we could, until we came to a road. A car stopped, a guy rolled down his window and asked “where are you girls going to, could I give you a lift?”“Sure we are on our way to Uithenhage “we added that we came here with a group of guys but they disappeared and left us here .Luckily he didn’t ask us any further questions.We could hardly believe our luck, he seemed to believe us, now we can relax a bit .The car pulled off after a long drive, he then said “here you are, hope you girls have a great day”.We said thank you, and then started asking around if they knew this address shown to them on a piece of paper but no one knew. A group of senior school children walked pass, we then asked them and they said, that the girl that stayed at that address was in their class.
They then offered to take us to her, we went to her house, she gave us some fresh clothes .The people that adopted her was really nice people. We told them about our situation, they said we could stay here until they can find help. I felt like they did enough for us and its time that we move on and seek justice our self .But it was so hard.
Time went pass so quickly.
After reading that article, I made some phone calls and found out that it was the nuns of Riveria .I thought to myself that without the support from other victims, the women accusing the nuns would not be believed. So I too took action against the nuns.
I went to see a counsellor and a lawyer .After several months I realized that the things that happened to me was not my fault.
After 10 horrible months the nuns of Riveria was exposed. It was a difficult fight to win .To long we have suffered in silence. It was time for our story to be heard.
The community at first hated us, for telling such stories about the nuns, but it were true and there are no way the nuns would have won this case.The house of Riveria was shut down after an investigation was placed, many girls opened up to what was going on in the house and for that I was glad.
The nuns were sentenced to life imprisonment. This news travelled worldwide.
Question remained, how could well respected women do this to children. Do we live in a world where we cannot trust anyone anymore? A world were the most respected religious person, could do harm?
My answer remains simple, trust no-one but yourself, anyone is capable of committing vicious crimes, no matter what status you have in life.