Nun survivor of anti-Christian violence in India rises from trauma

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Q & A with Sr. Meena Barwa, Kandhamal violence survivor

Sr. Meena Barwa addresses a press conference on Oct. 24, 2008, in New Delhi. (GSR photo / Dhanunjaya Senapati)

New Delhi, India — Editor's note: Sr. Meena Barwa, a child migrant and member of the Handmaids of Mary, was the victim of rape 10 years ago during anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal, a district in the India state of Odisha. Her court case is largely unresolved. At the recent conference on migrant workers in New Delhi, she told her story of being a young migrant and undergoing persecution to a crowd of some 160 attendees, who afterward fell into complete silence. Following is her address, which she consented to share with Global Sisters Report.

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I share my experience and pilgrimage with gratitude to God.

I recount my suffering and triumph for thousands of girls, women, dalits, tribals who suffer — maybe more than I do.

I am a victim of migration, as many of these people are.

I became a migrant when I was 4 years old when a dam was constructed in my village in Odisha state, eastern India, for irrigation purposes. My family was among some 25 tribal families that had to leave their homes. They were shattered as they scattered to unknown places in search of livelihood, work and education. All went different ways, trusting in the providence, bidding farewell to each other, knowing deep down in their hearts that they would never meet again. It was a plunge into the darkness.

My father bought land in another district, some 200 kilometers (125 miles) away with the little compensation he received. My family had to go to a strange place, taking our cattle and other animals. It took five days on foot to reach the place.

In our new place, people looked at us with suspicion and called us "bideshi" (foreigners). It took years to feel at home there. My grandparents and parents had to struggle to take care of our family. The struggle involved financial, cultural, social, educational and language problems.

My parents struggled to feed and educate their five children, so that we could live as humans in society.

So, now my heart goes out to hundreds of thousands in villages who are forced to go to cities for survival. Their number increases as days go by because of unemployment and displacement in the name of development. Government and corporate firms usurp people's ancestral land to build dams and industries. Religious and ethnic violence also force people to move away from their birthplace.

Most of these people are tribal, dalit and religious minorities. Displacement leads to them losing their identity, dignity and self-respect. They end up in slums in cities where they eke out a living as daily wagers, domestic workers and sex workers.

The plight of the displaced really pains me now, because I became a rootless person for the second time in life during the anti-Christian violence in 2008 in the Kandhamal district of Odisha, eastern India.

I was among those who suffered during the unprecedented attacks on Christians that lasted for months. More than 100 were killed while thousands abandoned their land and houses to protect their lives.

I was abused sexually, and paraded half-naked in the street by forces inimical to Christians. It was a miracle that I survived the ordeal. I escaped death and managed to file a First Information Report, the first step in filing a case with the police.

Then began my real pilgrimage.

The aftermath of violence was more horrifying and difficult to cope with. I have no words to explain the trauma, physical pain and mental disturbances I suffered. I had to move from place to place for my security and safety. I had to live in disguise.

All that broke me down completely. I was separated from my parents and dear ones for five years. I traveled from New Delhi, the Indian capital, to Kanniyakumari at the southernmost tip of mainland India, 1,765 miles south. In six months, I had to take refuge in 15 places, meeting new people but unable to share my agony. My biggest challenge was to hide my identity. In some places, I didn't even know the language.

The nights were often dreadful. Dreams haunted me every night. I woke up dreaming of the attack and heinous act. I was completely devastated. I had to be treated physically, mentally and spiritually. My family and the sisters in the congregation, especially my superiors, too, had sleepless nights.

In 2009, I enrolled for a degree course in law, without revealing my identity to friends and teachers. I lived as one of the girls in a hostel. From time to time, I had to go to Odisha for court proceedings.

The first trial in the court traumatized me again. I could not sleep for days after that. I felt humiliated, offended, accused falsely, intimidated and tortured mentally. I developed an aversion for the court and its process.

Despite such turmoil, I passed my three-year degree course. I stayed in a convent, where, except for the sisters, no one knew my identity.

I do think often about Kandhamal, where I had lived for two years, sharing life with the local people. For four days, starting Aug. 23, 2008, I saw people, including little children and women, running away to the forest. I saw Christian houses in villages going up in flames.

The Kandhamal Christians suffered pain, anxiety and fear, along with loss of life, identity, culture, education, livelihood, property and their ancestral holy lands. The uncertainty and sense of insecurity they underwent and their shattered lives added to my pain.

Many went to different cities for their livelihood and safety, afraid to reveal their identity. A good number settled in slums. The once serene and verdant Kandhamal turned hostile overnight. A pall of gloom replaced its mirth and laughter.

All this did not put me down, but steeled my resolve to do something for people who suffered with me. Nothing much has been done for Kandhamal. I was nagged by thoughts: Who will speak for the Kandhamal people? Who will fight on their behalf for justice, which still eludes them even after 10 years?

Many things have changed in the past decade. I now live a normal life. I realized the need to become stronger than my problems so that I can laugh at them.

People I have met these past 10 years have helped me leave my pain and wounds behind and accept life, God's gift, with gratitude. I count them among my numerous blessings from God. They were angels sent to help me so that I do not wallow in misery but rise again from my trauma and bring hope to many.

The haunting memories of the tragedy have only made me courageous and strong. I now realize that suffering and pain are not negative. They make us more human, humble and understanding. It helps us become hopeful and patient.

Let me share the strategies I made to keep myself happy.

  • I do self-talk to console and comfort myself.
  • I do gardening and refresh myself.
  • I go to the kitchen to cook something I like.
  • I dance alone in my room to relax and make myself happy.
  • I pat my back when I feel that I have done well.
  • I talk to trees, plants, moon, stars, sun and make friends with them.
  • I read books.
  • I read the Bible, and the word of God has become more meaningful for me.

I even recall funny moments and laugh at them.

Yet my suffering continues as the case goes on, even after 10 years.

I live with gratitude to God who allowed me to see death but live again. God has given me a sense of purpose, filled me with optimism and a positive attitude. I have become grateful.

I have experienced God's protection all these years. It has helped me to surrender my life to God completely. God is all good. Yes, he is my strength (Isaiah 12:2).

[Meena Barwa is a member of the Handmaids of Mary, an indigenous congregation of Odisha, an eastern Indian state.]