Last week, Sesiriya Biryeri, was reunited with her daughter Florence Kampi who was sold into slavery in Yemen. With the help of the International Organisation for Migration and the Government, Kampi, now 31, arrived at Entebbe International Airport. Arthur Baguma was there and writes...
Dressed in a gomesi, Sesiriya Biryeri looks worried and tired. She looks around, admiring the new face of the airport. It is her first time here. Her hands are glued to her cheeks and her head is covered with a black head gear.
She has travelled all the way from Jinja with the assurance that finally the battle has been won â€” she will meet her daughter. Even then, Biryeri still has her doubts. Speaking only Lusoga, she talks with barely any motion. She gazes around, keeping a close eye on passengers pushing their baggage, hoping that her eyes will land on her daughter.
It has been a painful life for this 65-year-old mother of three, who occasionally breaks down as she looks at pictures of her daughter.
Aisha (formerly Florence Kampi) was kidnapped at the tender age of five in 1982, and sold into slavery in Yemen. Asked if she knows why she is here, Biryeri looks up in silence. When she finally answers, she says, hesitantly: â€œI will not know why I am here until I see her face.â€
Perhaps Biryeri had reasons not to expect too much, given her past experience in trying to get back her daughter.
Biryeri is not sure if it will not be another day of waiting. â€œMaama dakika taano (five minutes), she will be here,â€ an official from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) re-assures the anxious Biryeyi, who is accompanied by her daughter and son.
But 10 minutes pass and Biryeri cannot see her daughter. A colleague who had gone to help with the check-out is called on phone. The answer: They are still checking out their baggage and in 10 minutes they will come through.
Biryeri does not have a watch and asks the person seated next to her to start counting the minutes. One minute passes, then two and soon it is 15 minutes with no sign of Kampi. Biryeri holds her head and stares at the IOM official in desperation. The official, aware of the old womanâ€™s impatience and anxiety, calls her colleague again. The colleague confirms they had checked out but one bag was missing.
It is not easy to break the news of another five minutesâ€™ waiting to the old woman. Instead, one of the IOM officials holds Biryeri by the hand and walks her towards the arrivalsâ€™ exit. The hall is packed with people waiting to receive their relatives returning from Mecca. After pushing her way through, Biryeri strategically stands opposite the exit. People keep passing by but her daughter is not among them. Another five and later 10 minutes and the old woman plunges into deep thoughts. But her eyes remain glued to the exit of the arrivalsâ€™ lounge.
At 3.15pm, before any of the family members realises what is going on, Biryeri charges like someone possessed by demons, shouting at the top of her voice.
At the entrance is a young woman dressed in a black Arabic tunic with four children in jeans and head gear. Biryeri reaches for the woman, almost throwing her to the ground. The scene turns dramatic. The two dance as they jump up and down, hugging. This goes on for about five minutes.
Some people in the crowd hurl insults at the old woman. Others, out of curiosity, ask and when they find out the reason also join in the celebration. The relatives are overcome by emotion.
Mother and daughter have a lot in common. They both have big droopy eyes enhanced by wide eyebrows and a protruding chin. Their noses are the same size and shape, while the foreheads are oval and wide. Their faces are near identical â€” little wonder the old woman identified her daughter before any one else. â€œEven if we had met in a strange place I would have recognised her. Look at that nose and the chin. It is like looking at myself in the mirror,â€ Biryeri says, in tears.
The children look on, oblivious of what is going on. They pull their mothersâ€™ dress. She bends over and tells them they are home and grandmother is shouting because she is happy to see them. The little ones hold onto their grandmother. It is the first time the children are getting this kind of experience. The youngest, holding a teddy bear runs around. In Yemen, it was confinement and now they are starting a new free life back home.
â€œI had hoped that one day I would be here. But I never thought that the country would be so interested in me that I would find cameras waiting for me. But I thank God for this miraculous homecoming,â€ Kampi tells her sister. As she moves, she is swarmed by a group of curious people. The family then proceeds to Bugembe in Jinja for a re-union dinner.
Thus began Biryeriâ€™s reunion with her daughter who had been sold into slavery 26 years ago. It was an early Christmas gift for Sesiriya and Kampi. The international Organisation for Migration (IOM), with support from the Government, facilitated the return of Kampi and her children from Yemen.
It all started in July 1982 when Biryeri lost her husband John Kirya. At his burial, in Busembatya, Iganga district (now Namutumba). Kampi was kidnapped. As Biryeri was mourning her husband, unknown people whisked her daughter away and the search for her yielded no results.
In 1984, one of the village elders asked Biryeri to pay him to find the child. The desperate woman sold her possessions, including land and a house and raised sh3m. The man took the money and disappeared. After years of a fruitless search, funeral rituals were arranged and Florence Kampi was â€˜buriedâ€™.
After the tragedy, Biryeri moved to Kamuli and got a job at Kamuli Hospital as a cleaner. In 2005, Godi Kikoma, a former workmate brought her a letter he had kept for three years. Kikoma says when he told Biryeri he had been looking for her to pick up a letter from her daughter in Yemen, she collapsed and was admitted to hospital.
She has since sealed the letter in plastic to preserve it. For her, it symbolises everything about her daughter.
The letter, dated 2001, was addressed to Mama Sesiriya. It rekindled the hope of finding her lost child. An interpreter had to read it to her since she is illiterate. She approached Jackson Mulawa, the councillor for Bugembe Town Council, who volunteered to follow up the matter with the authorities. Mulawa is the director of Olga Child Hope, a local NGO.
When he called the number provided in the letter, the receiver was speaking Arabic. When he tried Swahili, the receiver hung up: It was a manâ€™s voice.
Later, with the help of a businessman who speaks Arabic, they called again and were able to get the sad story which had appeared in the letter Biryeri had received. It ended with the words: â€œThis is a short story but if I tell you the whole story it may take a whole book of 48 pages, but mum do not feel dead about my situation.â€
Meanwhile, for over 20 years, Kampiâ€™s fate appeared sealed until love came her way. In what seemed like a movie script, her new-found love planned her escape from the home where she had been held captive in Sana City, Yemen.
At the time, she believed it was her mother who had sold her into slavery. She wanted Biryeri, her mother, to explain why she â€˜soldâ€™ her to a stranger who used her as a domestic servant. In a letter she wrote in 2001, she says a woman she refers to as â€œMotherâ€ took her from Uganda to Yemen to work as a house girl. â€œShe did not give me a chance to study. At my age, I was a housemaid, why did you let this happen? Did you let her take me to Yemen to be her worker? Thank God he sent Hakim, my husband, to take care of me,â€ the handwritten letter says in part.
In Yemen, life was unpredictable for Florence and her four children. â€œLife was proving unbearable. My husband had no job and yet we had four children to look after.
According to Kampi, the woman who kidnapped her owns a lot of property in Yemen. She is a Ugandan-born half-caste and is suspected to have amassed wealth by trafficking children from Africa to the Arab world. In one of the pictures, Florence poses with her in a red dress. The picture is said to have been taken in Yemen.
Like her mother, Florence spent a lot of time fasting and praying that she would reunite with her family. Indeed, the miracle has come to pass.
Biryeri lives in Jinja in a mud house constructed on a tiny plot which her two sons bought her. This is where she will reside with her daughter and four grandchildren.
Both the mother and the daughter are still looking for answers. With this re-union, hopefully they will find them.
An early Christmas present: Bidyeri finds her daughter after 26 years