LA PAZ, BOLIVIA – 5-year-old Yulisa* woke up from a horrific nightmare. She was in a dark hole. She was in pain. Hours earlier, her uncle had grabbed her from her room and sexually assaulted her. Then he tried to strangle her and threw her in the hole, leaving her for dead. But Yulisa was alive.
A neighbor found Yulisa at the bottom of the hole, a deep well. He brought a ladder and climbed in to rescue her, carrying her home in his arms to her parents. They were franticly searching for their little girl. Now that they had found her, one nightmare ended – and a new one began, as their daughter told them what had happened to her.
Within three days, Yulisa's mother was at IJM's door, desperate for help. Yulisa still had bruises on her small neck, spots in the shape of a handprint. The family was desperate for someone to help their daughter. They wanted justice, but they knew they could never afford a lawyer with the father's meager earnings as a day laborer. IJM Bolivia eagerly accepted the case.
The case began with a solid start: the police had arrested Yulisa's uncle the same morning of the abuse, based on her mother's call. IJM started building a legal case, and within five months – rapid for Bolivia – the formal charges had been submitted before the court.
It was time for Yulisa herself to tell what had happened to her. Yulisa answered questions about the horrific abuse from the safety of the Gesell Chamber, a colorful room behind a one-way glass mirror where she would not have to face her uncle. Earlier, Yulisa was asked to point out her uncle in a line-up, behind a glass wall. The small girl had to stand on a chair to see out. When she saw him, she froze, barely able to speak. But in the Gesell Chamber, away from her uncle's presence and the pressure of a courtroom, she answered questions from a psychologist. The testimony was recorded as evidence.
The case moved into the formal trial stage, but the obstacles began.
As is standard in Bolivia, the case was heard before a tribunal made up of professional judges and "citizen judges," similar to American jurors. From the beginning, it was clear that one of the judges sympathized with Yulisa's uncle, the suspect. He openly made comments about the insignificance of the case and even called IJM's lawyer to try to persuade her to drop the case.
On the day Yulisa was supposed to testify, her mother made a final plea, begging the court to reconsider so her daughter would not have to dredge up the memories once again, in front of the man who had hurt her so deeply.
The evidence against the uncle mounted. Yulisa's mother faithfully attended every single hearing, always telling her daughter she was going to the market to keep her from reliving the memory. The neighbor who had found the bleeding child in the well testified. Yulisa's father stood before the court, identifying his own brother as the man who sexually abused and tried to kill his little girl.
But then, the judge announced that Yulisa's testimony from the Gesell Chamber would be thrown out, due to a technical filing error by a court employee. When IJM's lawyer told Yulisa's father the news, he started to weep. In order for the trial to move forward, Yulisa would have to testify again, this time, in the courtroom. It was unthinkable.
On the day Yulisa was supposed to testify, her mother made a final plea, begging the court to reconsider so her daughter would not have to dredge up the memories once again, in front of the man who had hurt her so deeply. Amazingly, the judges agreed to the mother's desperate plea. The trial could continue without Yulisa's testimony, but the verdict seemed uncertain.
On April 13, 2012, IJM's lawyer gave her closing arguments. The judges disappeared to deliberate. IJM was sure Yulisa's uncle deserved a conviction, but nothing was certain. After an hour and a half, the judges returned with a unanimous vote: Yulisa's uncle was guilty. He will spend ten years in prison.
Her family was overjoyed and filled with relief. IJM continues to support her family and provide therapy for Yulisa. An IJM social worker says, "When I first met Yulisa, she was so quiet. The therapies, the attentiveness of her mother—it's really made a difference in Yulisa's life."
*A pseudonym has been used for the protection of this IJM client.