There was pain in her eyes. The overly light skinned, perhaps in her early 30s, sat head in her palms inside the boardroom at the gender ministry, her gaze seemingly distant and devoid.
Beneath the maroon veil that covered her head, her folded skin revealed a woman who life hasn’t been kind to. As she started to speak, a tear welled in her left eye. She pulled out an equally scruffy handkerchief and wiped away the tear, before she continued to speak.
The worn-down woman — now known as Asiya Mbabazi — was already in her 30s when she moved to Saudi Arabia to also try and make it work and perhaps leave behind a life of a housemaid she had known almost her entire life.
But the horror, the mistreatment, and level of dehumanization that the young woman was subjected to in the Arab country left her questioning humanity and how it could be so cruel.
Mbabazi is part of the seven girls who arrived at Entebbe International Airport Monday night after government rescued them from the Saudi Arabia ‘slavery’ where they had been detained for months subjected to torture, discrimination, rape, and work without pay.
Pius Bigirimana, the gender ministry permanent secretary, said government had rescued the seven out of the 24 girls and young women who were reportedly held hostage in the Riyadh city of Saudi Arabia. He said government was finalizing “ticket and travel issues to bring home the remaining 17.”
At their reception at the gender ministry, the young women, majority of who looked in their 19s and 20s, were reticent to talk to the press — they looked timid, and all had their heads covered in veils.
Asiya Mbabazi said she went to Saudi Arabia on May 14, 2015 (she had been in the Arab country for close to eight months) after a one Halima arranged her travel details: her flight tickets, the airline she would use and the home in Saudi Arabia where she would housemaid and her monthly stipend.
“We travelled in a bus (to the airport); it was full, all of us young women and some girls. We passed the security checks and boarded a plane. It was my first time on a plane. But when we landed (in Saudi Arabia), all of us were separated. We had to go to our respective employers,” narrated Mbabazi at the gender ministry.
“It was tough from the very beginning. (Saudi Arabians) are like Indians. When a man becomes of age and wants to marry, he does not build his own house, separate from his fathers. No. Instead, he marries the girl from his father’s home and if they have to build another house, they build it on top of his fathers.”
“So, I was taken to work for one employer. But he had lots of sons, who also had wives in the same building. And I was required to work for everyone. This one calls you. The other calls you. You can’t sit. You can’t have rest. I would go to bed after 2am and wake up about 4am.”
“They are very segregative. You can’t cook food and they eat it. When you pass by them sitting, they refer to you as smelling. They want you to keep in the stables, where they slaughter their camels, doing all sorts of things. The only food they give you are the leftovers, after they have eaten.”
“When I couldn’t take it anymore because they were not paying me the 50,000 (Saudi Arabia currency) I had signed a contract for, I planned to escape. That was when another man, masquerading as a Good Samaritan promised to take me to another place. But he ended up forcing himself onto me. It was hard.”
Bigirimana said following various media reports of misuse of Ugandan girls in Saudi Arabia, government working with the foreign affairs ministry and the Uganda ambassador to the Arab country (name ) started to investigate the rumors.
“We worked with the ambassador (Ugandan ambassador to Saudi Arabia) to verify the reports. He has really helped. He moved everywhere, because there are many cities in Saudi Arabia. When he learned of the 24 and the appalling state they were in, we started processing their rescue. We are glad seven are here. They are all fine, except one who has flue and some cough.”
“Some of the workers go (to the Arab countries) for greener pastures. Some take themselves. And others are recruited by agencies. But most of the agencies are unlicensed. They lie to our girls that they are taking them to work. But, in reality they are selling them,” said Pius Bigirimana.
Last week, government issued ban on exportation of labour to the Arab Country, pending investigation into the ‘slavery’ claims. However human rights activists are calling on the immigration department to be “more stringent”, saying many girls below 18 exit the country in their watch.