A Former Freedom Fighter Makes a Home for Kids Orphaned by AIDS

updated 11/13/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/13/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST

Patrick Chamusso, 56
White River, South Africa

On a chill autumn afternoon in New York City, Patrick Chamusso gently traces a finger over photographs of his wife and children—not just his son and two daughters but also the dozens of AIDS orphans he has embraced as his own. "It's too cold here," he says softly. "I am so homesick. I miss South Africa. Oh my, I miss you people."

That far-away country is the only real home Chamusso has ever known, from the desolate rural streets where he grew up to the forbidding walls of the notorious Robben Island prison, where for a decade he, along with men like Nelson Mandela, was incarcerated and held as an enemy of the apartheid government. Even now, 14 years after his release, as he travels to promote Catch a Fire, the new movie that chronicles the remarkable story of his life, it is still difficult for him to recall those days of unspeakable horror. "Whenever I start talking about it, I go right back to the room where they tortured me," he says. "They did awful, unbelievable things that I cannot begin to tell you about. It is like opening a wound on my heart."

Yet even more inspiring than the tale of Chamusso's survival is the story of what he has done with his hard-won freedom since. Released from Robben Island in 1992 at the fall of apartheid (the country's decades-long system of absolute racial segregation) Chamusso soon learned about a new scourge in his homeland: AIDS. "We had fought so hard for freedom," he says. "And now there was this sickness that was making so many of us prisoners of disease."

Spurred by that crisis, in 1999 Chamusso founded Two Sisters, a modest shelter for orphans in the village of Mganduzweni. There, with meager donations and his $260 monthly pension, he and his wife, Conney Thibedi, 28, struggle to provide shelter, food, care and love to a group of AIDS-affected children that grows by the day. Named for two HIV-positive girls the couple took in who later died, Two Sisters is a full-time home for 15 children who have lost one or both parents. It's a second home for about 110 more who live with relatives or foster families in the village and come to Two Sisters during the day to eat, bathe, play and be taken to school or a nearby medical clinic for treatment. "These are all my children," says Chamusso. "I love them as much as if I was their real father. I love each one as my own."

In an area ravaged by poverty and the AIDS epidemic, the four-room shelter is a rare safety net. Sincedile Malatji, 18, began coming after her father died of AIDS. "There was no food at home," says Malatji, whose mother worked harvesting bark from trees. Chamusso and Conney "gave me clothes to wear and made it a welcoming place," she says. It can also be a sad one. Some of the children have HIV or AIDS themselves, and "whenever a child dies, Patrick measures the child, and because coffins are so expensive to buy, makes one from planks and then buries them," says Conney. "It breaks his heart every time."

Over 40 years ago, Chamusso, abandoned by his own father in boyhood, was himself a poor teenager struggling to scrape by. He was trained as a boilermaker and housepainter and in 1976 won a prized job as a foreman in the Secunda oil refinery. Then, in 1980, members of the resistance African National Congress (ANC) staged a bombing at Secunda in an attempt to disrupt the country's economy. Though innocent, Chamusso was arrested and tortured. "They smashed my teeth and pulled out my fingernails. They tied my hands behind my back and used a machine to lift me off the ground. Day after day they said, 'Confess, confess!' But I didn't know the truth," he says quietly. "I didn't know anything."

Months later, Chamusso was released—a changed man: "I thought, if they can beat an innocent man like this, they can do anything to anyone." Radicalized by his experience, he trained to become an ANC freedom fighter. "Now, I thought, even if I am arrested and killed, I would have suffered and died for a reason," he says. In 1982, after planting several bombs at the Secunda refinery in a sabotage attempt, he was found guilty of terrorism and sentenced to 24 years in prison. "I dreamed of vengeance," he says. "But the older prisoners said, 'No, we must show them that we are not what they think we are.' Forgiveness was the biggest lesson I learned on Robben Island." Ten years later, Chamusso was released: "Being on that boat leaving the island was the most beautiful day of my life."

His joy faded when, emerging from isolation, he first learned about the little-understood disease that was sweeping his country (see box). Determined, he took a course in health care, educated himself about AIDS's treatment and transmission and began providing home-based care for the sick. "So many people were being shunned and left in the street to die," he says. "There were orphans everywhere. No one would help the children whose parents had died."

Chamusso did. Battling overwhelming ignorance and fear, he built the house that now serves as Two Sisters. Today, even as he struggles to raise the money needed "for so many things: fresh eggs for the children, medicine, schoolbooks," he seems a man focused on forgiveness—and the future. His grand dream is to build a soccer field for his kids in a country where that sport is almost a religion. "Sometimes, I ask the children, 'Do you want to play as well as Beckham?'" he says. "And they reply, 'No, we want to play better than him. We want to be the best players in the world.'"

"Black kids in South Africa dreaming of being the best in the world at something—and not being afraid to say it out loud," muses Chamusso, as if that were some sort of miracle. "For me, that is true victory. It is everything I fought for."

Know a hero? Send suggestions to HEROESAMONGUS@PEOPLEMAG.COM. Please include your name, phone number and return e-mail address. HOW TO HELP: For more information about Two Sisters, visit www.twosisters.org.za

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