Nehara’s tears and triumphs

I never thought my tears would stop. I have cried for years and months and days, unable to understand why there were so many trials in my young life. My tears cease only when I work. I have suffered so much that for me, suffering symbolises life. Yet, as the darkest night discovers its own light, I too have discovered mine.

I am a poor woman, and you cannot imagine how poor I am. I come from the Trincomalee District; to be precise, from Muttur. I came from a humble home where poverty was a way of life. Fate was truly unkind, piling up misfortunes one after the other on my young life.

The two things that underlined our miserable existence were poverty and the war. Constantly hungry and in fearing for our safety, I still dreamed that someday life might give me a change. Just once.

We were so poor that we hardly could afford two meals a day. Then, fate struck an unfortunate blow and both my parents were killed in the 2004 tsunami. I was so devastated. The tsunami also brought my schooling to an end. I had just sat the GCE O/L examination. But now, I was required to pick up after my dead mother.

After the tsunami, we fell from the frying pan to the fire. We had no bread winner. I had two brothers and I was determined somehow to toil and educate them. I wanted to be their substitute mother. We did not have money to eat. Still, I wanted my brothers to go to school and study. I still wanted them to have a better life than I was going to have. I had big dreams.

To earn a living, I took up small job at a nearby place. It also helped me to keep an eye on my brothers and to be available for them if they ever needed me. I simply lived for them and my only wish was to see them through their education and make them stand on their feet.

One day, my aunt –my mother’s elder sister – came to see me. She kept saying that I should consider getting married and have a life of my own. She said that it was imprudent to focus on my siblings alone but that I should make a life of my own. I refused. I kept telling her that I wanted no marriage and my brothers were my life. The only future I wanted was with them.

But she insisted and soon, other family members joined in. Finally, I agreed to get married. My cousin, who has worked in the Middle East for nearly 15 years, was introduced to me as my future husband. He was in Sri Lanka at the time and was due to return to the Middle East in six months.

I was not overjoyed but I thought I should follow their advice. It seemed like a practical thing to do, especially as my relatives kept saying that I could help my family better with the support of a husband.

About three months later, we were legally married. Three days in to the marriage, my new husband had a severe headache. He was bathed in sweat and was in pain. He had his own medicine and swallowed some pills, assuring me that it was nothing serious. In the next few days, his headaches increased and no matter how much I begged, he would not agree to see a doctor. He kept saying that it was due to the intense work he did.

Pregnant

I was three months pregnant when my husband returned to the host country to resume work. He was in touch with me for a couple of months and suddenly there was deafening silence. I could not reach him. I kept calling but his number was always switched off. I felt desperate to reach him so I informed his mother, who kept pacifying me that he must be busy at work. He never called.

When my child was born, I tried to contact him again. I just wanted to him to know that we were parents to this lovely son. I kept trying to reach him though my heart said that he no longer wanted me.

Once again, I was alone with nobody to help. I used to weep for hours and ask myself as to why fate was so unkind to me. Once again, I was forced to pick up the threads of my life.

This time, with a kid.

I didn’t wish to bother my brothers who were already having a life of their own. I equally divided the one asset I had – a small plot of land in Muttur – my parting gifts to my brothers. I was still 16 years of age – still underage to do a lot of things in life. My misery knew no end.

“I travelled with my infant son to Kandy and sought help to go overseas. I wanted a passport and I was determined to trace my husband. I wanted him to see our innocent son and to become a family, at last.

But my story is stranger than fiction and more tragic than many you may know of. I was determined to locate my husband and if not, to find work overseas to support my child. My relatives were not forthcoming, so I selected someone else who took pity on my ruined young life and offered to take care of my son. Due to my youth, I knew I was not eligible for a work permit. Fortunately, I had a cousin, also named Nehara. She was much older to me. I took her certificates and made a set of documents, to be handed over to my recruitment agency.

By then, I was beginning to feel giddy and sweat more than usual. Anyway, I was required to get some medical tests and the reports were to reach the agency. I was eagerly waiting for their call. This was to be my last chance to resume life.

Finally, I had a call from Colombo. I was overjoyed about the prospect of finally being able to fly. But when I reached them, what they had to tell me broke my heart.

Nothing could reverse the pain that I suffered that day.

I swore upon my son, wept and wailed that I was no woman who changed partners. I wept as if my heart would break. How can one woman bear so much of pain?

So many trials and no peace?
Does misfortune only trail me?
I was told that I was HIV positive.
HIV positive?
Me?
No, never, I said.

I said that I have never had casual relationships and the only man I knew and that too briefly, was my husband. Even in my misery, I could see the innocent eyes of my son. I had to be there for him; take care of him. So I asked them what the next steps were. How I could protect my son.

The next day, I repeated my blood test. Yes, I was HIV positive.

For a woman like me, what does that mean? It meant the end of the world. But my little son needed at least his mother.

I met my doctors and showed the medication my husband had with him. I don’t know whether he knew he was infected or not. Perhaps he was simply given the medication without an explanation.

Another six months later, a friend of my husband sent a letter saying that my husband had died. There was no explanation as to the cause of his death. When we checked with the authorities, we were told that his body was sealed and was not being sent back home.

By this time, I had nowhere to go; nobody to turn to. I was sleeping on the road and could not even give a bit of water to my son. I stopped lactating, fearing for his health.

My mother- in- law did not make it easy. She repeatedly accused me of being responsible for bringing misfortune upon her son and called me a cursed woman. She even accused me of giving birth to another man’s child. All my protests and pleas fell on deaf ears.

To her, I was wrong; I was unfortunate; I was immoral.

Mother’s duty

How can I stay in such a hostile environment with not even a kind word? I suffered the kind of humiliation many women never experience. Whenever my courage failed, I would tell myself that I had a son and a duty to perform.

While travelling to Kandy in search of work, (because looking for work in my own village was not helping the situation), the police picked me and kept me in the police custody for three days. I kept trying to convince them that I was not a sex worker but a distraught mother struggling to bring up my child somehow. It was also the fasting period and I fainted when I was produced in court. Finally, I was set free as police had no evidence.

It was thereafter that the organisation named Sri Lanka Plus came to my rescue. With their help and encouragement, I was determined to go back to Kandy and resume life with a small job. Whatever that worked.

The organisation had some unique people. They consistently encouraged me to undergo counselling and strengthen myself to prepare for the future challenges.

In Nainamadu, at a special clinic, I underwent training on living with HIV. All participants were eager to know how we could face this new challenge. I had the most wonderful doctors helping me understand how to cope with my HIV status.

The first few days’ medication proved difficult. I used to sweat, get cramps and feel faintish. I was still trying to accept the fact that I should be on medication for the rest of my life. The local Mosque thought I should remarry, now that I was back in Kandy, had a small job and began renting out a small place. I was told I needed to be taken care of.

But I knew my truth. I also wanted no other man in my life. My only goal in life was to raise my son – without HIV.

Today, thanks to the support I have received, my child is a Year II student at an international school. I continue to work and volunteer my time for the organisation that gave me a new lease in life.

When I started, I had nothing. But now I feel I have something.

When I share my story – though a sad unfortunate one – I feel a weight being lifted off me. And I know there is a message for others. I often tell women not to marry unknown men, especially when they come from elsewhere and you have no way of checking their past. I tell them that medical screening is must before taking the plunge. I invite them to take precautions and not to ruin their lives because they failed to ask some critical questions. I tell them to be courageous.

My child is now in school. That’s what matters the most to me. I get free medicine from the government hospital and I have some of the nicest doctors treating me. Eight years after discovering that I was HIV positive, I have a future. We as a family have a future. I feel fortunate.

Of course, I still cry. Often I feel I have been tested too many times. But I also smile. I smile the most when people empathize. I smile when they show me they care. I smile when I feel that my message might change their lives forever. At such times, I even feel blessed.

Nehara, who is also a peer educator, was a speaker at a workshop titled ‘HIV and the Migrants of Sri Lanka’ held on 13 January 2016. It was organised by the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and UNAIDS.

The program was designed to encourage journalists to understand facts about HIV and to discuss ways of combating stigma.

(Originally published in the Sunday Observer, Sri Lanka).

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