Brave or foolish: Friends weigh in on Neema’s choice to run away

Why did Neema do it? In Tanzania, I spent a lot of time trying to understand more - emotionally and culturally - about the decision Bill Clinton's sister made as a young teen to run away and leave her family.Neema says she regrets the choice to flee the camp after her rape by two older boys - as do her parents. In Mtabila camp, old friends Jean-Paul Rukundo and his wife were sympathetic, but as parents of eight children, they said they couldn't support her decision. Friends Eva Sango and her husband, whom I met in Kanembwa camp awaiting their resettlement overseas, saw the whole thing as a tragedy. But no, the parents of five agreed, Neema shouldn't have run away.Not until near the end of my visit to Kanembwa, when I stole a cool moment on the floor of Eva's mud-brick house, did I hear another story.

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    Sarra Sango, a 16-year-old friend and former schoolmate of Neema's, now living in Kanembwa camp, says she thinks Neema made the right choice to run away from home after her rape at age 13.
    Mary Wiltenburg
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Why did Neema do it? In Tanzania, I spent a lot of time trying to understand more - emotionally and culturally - about the decision Bill Clinton's sister made as a young teen to run away and leave her family.Neema says she regrets the choice to flee the camp after her rape by two older boys - as do her parents. In Mtabila camp, old friends Jean-Paul Rukundo and his wife were sympathetic, but as parents of eight children, they said they couldn't support her decision. Friends Eva Sango and her husband, whom I met in Kanembwa camp awaiting their resettlement overseas, saw the whole thing as a tragedy. But no, the parents of five agreed, Neema shouldn't have run away.Not until near the end of my visit to Kanembwa, when I stole a cool moment on the floor of Eva's mud-brick house, did I hear another story. I had slipped inside with Eva's 16-year-old daughter, Sarra Sango, and her 22-year-old friend, Esther Sabuni. With us was UNHCR resettlement clerk Pablo Joseph, who was translating between us.Both young women had been school friends of Neema's seven years ago, before Neema left the camp. Today, Sarra, who has a gorgeous voice, dreams of being a singer; Esther wants to become a gynecologist.They remembered Neema as a quiet, churchgoing kid who loved playing soccer, and didn't fight with anyone. They were anxious to see pictures of her. When we'd been through the thousand-odd shots in my camera, we got to talking.I asked them if her choice to leave the camp made sense to them. Oh yes, they said."The story was spread in the whole camp. Even at school, people knew this," said Esther. "She was ashamed of being pointed out, that this is the one who was raped," said Sarra. "For myself, I think [her leaving] was the right thing," said Esther, "because if not, she could get in a lot of problems, because a lot of people would be laughing at her. She would not be safe. She would not be even talking to other people because they could use the thing that happened to her as an insult, as gossiping her."Especially for a shy girl like Neema, they said, this would have been hell. Other girls did stay in the UN camp after their rapes, and the stigma was incredible. They'd been in danger before, but after such attacks, it multiplied.We talked about safety: whether Sarra and Esther had felt safe in Mukugwa camp when they lived there with Neema. Absolutely not, they said: no women or girls felt safe. Their current camp, Kanembwa, feels a little safer, Esther said, because it doubles as an army encampment, so armed young men patrol the woods. Sarra didn't seem sure that this was an advantage.Then some chickens, who'd wandered in to the house, started to fight uproariously in the doorway. The baby sister Sarra had been bouncing in her lap began to cry, and we all went outside again, into the afternoon sun. Travel for this project's Africa reporting was funded in part by a grant from The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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