Kampala, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT & URN | In the summer of 2015, Dutch mother Marije Slijkerman would never have imagined that in the very near future she would be making frequent trips to Uganda, an African country she had never been to. That she would be meeting there with ministers, army generals, security officials, local leaders and even the President of the country.
But then her only daughter, Sophia, went missing.
Sophia, a bright and ambitious Dutch medical student, then 21 years old, came to Uganda to work as an intern in Rubaga Hospital in Kampala. After eight weeks she finished her internship and went on a trip through the country with two fellow students. On October 28th, 2015, the sixth day of that trip, she went missing from the Students Education Centre in Murchison Falls National Park.
A nightmare began for her family.
The circumstances surrounding her disappearance are not clear at all. It is said that she went to the latrines and was never seen again.
Some 40 hours later a puzzling trail of scattered items was found near the Nile river bank. Amongst them a pair of knickers, high up in a tree, one shoe, several torn pieces of a pair of trousers, some tied to wood, a small African purse and an expensive pair of sunglasses. It was clearly staged, leaving more questions than answers.
No complete garments were found and, to this day, Sophia herself has not been found.
Local authorities were quick to call it a fatal accident and halted investigations after less than a week. That this investigation left a lot to desire has now clearly been seen by prominent authorities in Uganda. In 2019 the Department of Public Prosecutions requested a fresh investigation into Sophia’s disappearance, not ruling out anything, including crime.
This investigation really took off after Marije spoke with President Yoweri Museveni. Unfortunately, soon after, setbacks occurred; the pandemic, lockdowns and elections taking security forces’ attention elsewhere. This year a lot of transfers within the police, supervision of the investigation changed four times in nine months.
Seated in an interview room at Uganda Radio Network (URN), Marije Slijkerman’s eyes are full of tears when she speaks about Sophia. To this date, she is in a state of shock and disbelief, but also has a strong feeling that one day her daughter will be found.
“Well we have her photographs, we always have candles burning for her. At night we use those with batteries because we do not want her to be alone at night. During day we have real candles…she is very present in our house. Besides the website, there have been news articles both in the Netherlands and in Uganda, and Dutch TV is interested in doing a portrait of Sophia. Media attention is very important, and I am seeking that here too. To make sure Sophia is not forgotten,” she said.
Marije says that for her and for Sophia’s father and brothers, it felt as if a bomb exploded in their lives, that day in October in 2015, and they are still sitting among the pieces.
“We miss her. My husband misses his daughter. We also have two sons. They miss their big sister, when we have dinner with the four us, there is always the empty chair. There is this voice missing….we do not hear it anymore. We want to have it back,” Marije says.
Lives fallen apart.
She says that words like ‘pleasure’ or ‘joy’ have become quite meaningless to her, since her daughter disappeared. She feels like she’s been in an emotional roller coaster all this time. She does, however, try her very best to be a good mother to her two sons, both students.
Marije knows she is not alone and she feels connected to all those parents whose child disappeared without any clue as to what happened.
As she explains, it is a pain that has no end. Time does not make it more bearable, on the contrary, it gets harder. The pain and the hope; it is always there. Hope, always fighting with despair and fear. Fear that this could be a life sentence.
That question, constantly circling in your mind, is she alive, if so, where?
What happened to our beautiful and intelligent Sophia?’
What if she is kept in captivation somewhere, how is she treated?
Marije tries hard not to think about that too much. She is afraid it might drive her crazy.
She believes that losing a child must be the hardest thing, but, she says: “If a child is knocked dead by a car, you will never get over it, but at least you know that child will never come home again, you can say your final farewell, you can try to process it, find some form of closure. When your child is missing you have nothing. No closure whatsoever.”
And no child is as present as a missing child.
“A missing child is something you cannot compare to anything else. Losing a child is the worst that can happen to parents. Knowing what happened gives you some kind of closure and you can try to live with that. Not knowing what happened…. if they are alive or not, it is torture. It eats at you daily. And if she is alive, why is she not able to contact us? I try not to think about that too much, because it could drive one crazy,” she told URN.
According to Marije, Sophia is a bright girl who thrived and scored highly in Science subjects like Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry. At university she passed her medical exams effortlessly. She believes you must always do your very best. People she worked with at Rubaga have referred to her as a born doctor.
Sophia planned to spend 17 days on a trip all over Uganda after finishing her internship. She was due back home on November 10th, 2015. Just in time to attend the bachelor graduation ceremony at the University of Amsterdam. But she did not come home.
Her mother is now on her 18th trip to Uganda. As she says: “My first trip was voluntary, I wanted to come here, to see my daughter in a white coat in an African hospital. I have now made 17 trips because I háve to, it is not a choice. But it is never easy to come back here. For me Uganda is the country that took our girl away from us and won’t reveal where she is.”
She says, as a mother, she does not have the feeling that her daughter is gone, but she does worry about the circumstances Sophia may be in.
— The Independent (@UGIndependent) November 20, 2019
Sophia’s mum feels that as long as nothing is sure, everything is possible although an attack by an wild animal can be ruled out. Nothing points in that direction; no signs of a struggle, no blood traces and most of all, no remains. An accidental drowning seems unlikely; Sophia is a good swimmer.
Marije has been aware from the start that it is possible they may never know what happened to Sophia. But they don’t know that, life is unpredictable and doing nothing is out of the question. She is working hard to make sure Sophia is not forgotten. She publishes articles, does interviews and maintains a staunch belief in miracles.
“But I am not giving up. I keep coming back, knocking on doors, ringing on bells, meeting people, trying to make sure that Sophia is not forgotten. She cannot and may not be forgotten. We keep praying that one day we shall find out what happened to her and where she is…and hope to have her home again. I am now on my 18th trip to Uganda, it is starting to take a big toll on us mentally, physically and financially. I have no choice. Giving up is absolutely no option,” she said.
Marije says a real lead has not been found up to now. The lack of continuity in the investigations does not help. Officers being transferred, new ones coming on board, having to familiarize themselves again with everything. So much time is lost. Painful and frustrating.
A lot can still be done and should be done. A DNA-investigation of the items found along the river bank shows there is male DNA on them, for example.
The hope remains that one day Sophia will be found and her family can start living again.
“Hope springs eternal, they say, hope literally keeps me alive”, Marije says.
No matter how hard, as long as is necessary Marije will keep coming back to Uganda, to search, to lobby, to knock on doors, write articles, to remind the country of that lovely young woman that disappeared here. She has no choice; that lovely young woman is her only daughter and a mother cannot desert her child.
CONTACTS: www.findsophia.org and email@example.com