A Ugandan women who fled her country following a forced exorcism faces deportation from the UK after immigration officials rejected her asylum application citing doubts about her sexuality.
Judith Twiith Twikirize comes from Kyamuhunga, a village in rural Uganda. She told VICE News that as a child she was more interested in things boys liked, which resulted in her grandmother sending her to the local witch doctor.
"They put me in the witch doctor's house all the night," Twikirize recalled. "They cut me everywhere — all my joints. When they cut you you can't move that day. But the next day you go to school. I had to cover myself, I had to wear a long dress because I didn't want anyone to know."
Twikirize said that after her grandmother realized that Twikirize identifies as gay, her family sold some of their land in order to pay for her to travel to the UK. Uganda is an especially dangerous place for LGBT people to live, and hate crime attacks are common.
"She knew any time they would attack me and kill me," Twikirize said. "I didn't want to leave her, but she told me I had to go. It was the only way."
Twikirize arrived in the UK in April 2009, and overstayed her initial visa, which ran out in October of the same year. She applied for asylum, but the Home Office rejected her initial application, citing several inconsistencies in her paperwork, including Twikirize's inability to prove her age. Though her passport says 1981, Twikirize claims she was born in 1990. She said a travel agent in Uganda — who specializes in helping gay people escape the country — falsified her birth year to aid her application.
"He told me let's make your age increase, and at the time I would accept whatever he said," Twikirize said.
In a letter sent October 27, 2014, the UK's Home Office said she have failed to prove there were "substantial grounds for believing that you face a real risk of suffering serious harm on return."
'[Ugandans] don't believe that someone can be born as gay or lesbian or bisexual. They believe there are some kind of spiritual demons inside of you.'
The Home Office accepted that Twikirize may have been taken to a witch doctor, "subjected to bleeding, and you may have been attacked by school students," but said that was not necessarily because of her sexuality.
The Home Office decision also pointed to the fact that Twikirize primarily seemed to rely on men to secure her departure from Uganda, and to help her live in London after arriving in the UK.
"When I came in the country I didn't know anything about asylum and how it works," Twikirize told VICE News. "Mostly I knew asylum was about politics and religion, so I wasn't sure that asylum would protect me as a gay person. I didn't know there were groups who could help me."
Twikirize admitted that she has worked illegally in London, and said she has survived off the kindness of people she has met. "The UK is welcoming," she said. "It's not like my community because people are not homophobic. Some Ugandans that come here are still homophobic, but the UK community is understanding and you feel free. You're like a human being. You don't feel like someone is going to attack you any time or you don't feel like there's death any time, it's always safe."
Abbey Kiwanuka, a UK-based activist with the Out and Proud Diamond Group, has helped support Twikirize. He fled Uganda in 2003, and met Twikirize at the end of last year. He guided her through the asylum process, and has been instrumental in setting up a petition to protest against her deportation.
Kiwanuka told VICE News that he went through an exorcism too, which he said is accepted practice in the Uganda for anyone suspected of being homosexual. "It can be worse for women though, because they can be subjected to corrective rape," he said.
"[Ugandans] don't believe that someone can be born as gay or lesbian or bisexual," Kiwanuka said. "They believe there are some kind of spiritual demons inside of you. It's because of the preachers who are preaching about it, and in Uganda almost 90 percent of people are religious. If they hear anything from a religious leader they believe it."
Kiwanuka helps other LGBT Ugandans in the UK, but he speculated that the system for asylum seekers is getting worse. "It's becoming more and more hard to get asylum," he said. "They say 'Okay, we believe you are gay and from Uganda, but can you not go back and pretend you are not gay?'"
Kiwanuka said he would love to return to his homeland, but can't because of the current anti-gay climate there.
"My dream is to change people's hearts," he said. "We know the politicians know the truth but they are using gay people as scapegoats for the problems of the country. Particularly the poor people — we need to convince them that we are human beings like they are."
Asked about the likelihood of Twikirize facing persecution if she's forced to return to Uganda, Kiwanuka's answer was simple: "100 percent."
Earlier this year, Uganda briefly adopted an anti-gay law that would have seen LGBT people — and the activists that support them — imprisoned for life in some cases. The law was repealed, but Uganda's parliament is currently debating new anti-gay legislation. Activists, including Kiwanuka, say the situation for LGBT people in the country is steadily getting worse.
As Kiwanuka noted, much of the anti-gay sentiment comes from the country's religious figures, who wield tremendous power. They have been outspoken about the importance of taking strong action against gay people in order to "save school-going children who are at risk of being recruited." The Ugandan media has enthusiastically joined in in the vitriol, printing the photographs and names of "homos" — a move that has encouraged violence and attacks, and in 2011 led to the murder of local activist David Kato.
People who flee societies that are actively aggressive towards LGBT people face a new range of obstacles. Many European states have been heavily criticized for "overstepping boundaries" when setting requirements aimed at making asylum seekers prove their sexuality. On Tuesday, the European Court of Justice ruled that refugees claiming asylum should not have to undergo tests to prove their sexual orientation.
Europe's highest court also stated that member states cannot conclude that a claim of homosexuality lacks credibility because of a persons "reticence in revealing intimate aspects of his life. The court said assessments based on "stereotyped notions associated with homosexuals" are not enough to accurately decide someone's sexual orientation.
The UK Home Office issued a brief statement to VICE News when asked about Twikirize's case.
"The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection and we consider every claim on its individual merits," the statement said. "We believe that those with no right to be in the UK should return to their home country and we will help those who wish to leave voluntarily. However, when they refuse to do so we will take steps to enforce their removal at the earliest opportunity."
Twikirize, meanwhile, said she is terrified of returning to her homeland.
"There will be no life for me," she said. "If you are gay in Uganda you will be persecuted. It's not guaranteed how you'll be persecuted, because different people have different ways, but most people are fleeing."
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd