Rwandan exile fights for children she left behind

One of the last memories Flaviah Titti has of being with her daughter, then 12 years old, is when they were both raped by Rwandan soldiers.

But Ms Titti's decade-long battle to be reunited with Comfort, now 21, and her two sons neared an end yesterday as a judge overturned a ruling that denied her eldest son a visa.

After her husband was arrested and killed by Rwandan officials in 2002, Ms Titti was advised that it would be safest for her children if she disappeared. Leaving them in the care of a friend, she was smuggled to the UK. But when that friend was arrested, she lost track of her family for several years and feared they were dead before they were discovered living in poverty and squalor.

Now, nine years after arriving in Britain, Ms Titti has been granted refugee status and is battling to gain visas for her three children.

At an appeal hearing before the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal on 30 June, she pleaded the case to be reunited with her 18-year-old son Josh, who was refused a visa last year.

Yesterday a judge finally granted him permission to join her in Britain. She hopes the ruling will speed along the case for Comfort and Albert, 16, to be granted visas.

"I was forced to flee here by a war that was not of my making," she said. "At times I thought I would never see my children again."

Ms Titti moved from her native Uganda to Rwanda when she married John Bugingo, an army captain serving the Bizimungu government. Her troubles began when Mr Bugingo found himself in opposition with the new President. In May 2002, soldiers arrived at their home and arrested him. He was never seen again.

"The soldiers stayed in the house. They raped me. They raped my daughter in front of me. They beat my boys," she said.

A friend took them in and arranged for her to be smuggled out of the country and eventually to Britain.

Meanwhile her children disappeared and, for two years, she believed they were dead, until a friend tracked them down to a remote part of Rwanda. "They were not going to school, they didn't have enough to eat. They were dirty and miserable," she said.

On Christmas Day 2005, she finally managed to speak to them by telephone – the call lasted just a couple of minutes on a phone card given to her at the Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre.

The past six years have been a fight against the asylum system that claimed Ms Titti could return to Uganda, despite the authorities there refusing her entry as a Rwandan citizen. "Every day when I walk in the street I look at other children," she said. "I wonder whether my daughter looks like that now. Do my boys look like that? Their voices have changed. They are big now. They talk sense, not like children. That keeps me strong, keeps me fighting."

She has used her time in Britain helping other mothers in the same situation as her, co-founding the All-African Women's Group Mothers' Campaign, and has been successful in reuniting several families.

Ms Titti added: "Now my heart goes out to other mothers tortured as I was by grief and guilt because they were forced to leave their children behind when they fled here. I am horrified that legal aid cuts mean that mothers coming behind me fighting for the right to be with their children will not be entitled to a lawyer. Imagine, families will be torn apart and permanently separated because they won't be able to fight for their rights in court. What respect for family does that represent? What kind of 'Big Society' is that?"