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My Journey to Report on the Horrors and Hope in the Congo (Part VI)

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Backtracking a bit

Joseph had worked hard to secure a meeting with a well-known Congolese women's rights activist, sending numerous emails prior to our trip requesting an appointment. He finally got a response from her. She wanted to know the specific reasons for my desire to meet.

Many individuals, celebrities, and NGOs, with far more notoriety, influence, and heft than I have passed through Eastern Congo over the last six years. Many of them make big promises to help, leave their business cards, and are never heard from again, so I understood her hesitation. In response I sent off a flurry of e-mails outlining my intentions and expressing my gratitude for the opportunity to sit with her. Finally the meeting was set.

On our second (or third) day in Goma, Joseph and I, along with Kizito and Seven, arrived at her office, and of course... she's wasn't there. Her Deputy Director had no record of the appointment. Joseph asked her to please call the woman. Retreating into another room, the Deputy Director talked to her boss in hushed tones with her hand cupped over the receiver, occasionally glancing at me and Joseph in the waiting room. After she got off the phone she and Joseph exchanged a few tense words in French--Joseph reminding her that we had come all the way from the United States and that it was bad policy to not show up for a meeting. Then I swear I heard the Deputy Director say, (even though I don't speak French), "What can she do?" If those weren't the exact words it was definitely the subtext!

"What can she do?" Her words (real or, imagined) maddened me. She didn't know my history, or my evolution that lead me here, nor my determination and commitment to the Congolese women. How dare she. But more than pissing me off, she reinforced the little-- actually not so little-- gnawing, persistent, voice of doubt, that was asking the same question: "Really, what can you do?" I didn't know the answer. I hate not knowing the answer. So I did what I have done all my life, pushed the ever-present voice of doubt to the side, and made it my mission to prove her (real, or imagined) judgment wrong.

Joseph stood, I picked up my camera and backpack, and we politely excused ourselves from the meeting that never happened.

Synergy

Our next appointment was with Justine Masika Bihamba, a human rights worker who devotes her life to helping women of sexual violence, documenting incidents of rape as well as war crimes in East Congo. She has also bravely confronted the Congolese Judiciary about the culture of impunity. Justine created Synergie de Femmes contre les Violence Sexuelles, a grassroots collective of local women's rights groups that works on initiatives to put an end to the violence against the women of the Eastern DRC.

As a result of her work, Justine's family was attacked, both daughters tied up and beaten, one daughter sexually assaulted by the Congolese military. Both girls now live in Uganda, but Justine refuses to leave and has never wavered in her drive to promote peace and human rights.

Prior to leaving for the Congo, I had a conversation with an authority on Africa/kinda friend of mine about my upcoming trip. I mentioned my idea of trying to mobilize women. My authority on Africa/kinda friend of mine works non-stop and is known for his tireless commitment to bringing peace to conflict zones in Africa. He's also known not to mince words. "Don't go in with any grandiose ideas. They'll think you're nuts," he says with critical impatience. He takes a breath, "Just go in and listen, ask what you can do to help. They'll appreciate that." With a catch in my voice, I bow to his authority. I hate that about myself. I begin to back peddle. "That, that... is my intention," I stumble. "I mean to go and listen. First and foremost, I'm going to listen to their needs and see how I can facilitate their work from the States." "Good," he says.

So as I'm sitting in the room with Justine, I ask if she can explain a little about what Synergie de Femmes does. She politely responds. Joseph translates. Silence. My African authority/kinda friend of mine's voice runs through my mind. "Just listen," I hear him say. I open my mouth--nothing comes out. Uncomfortable silence. I look at Justine. I'm losing her. The tennis match that takes place for the next thirty seconds between the warring voices in my head is ridiculous: Positive Voice, "It's a big a idea, but it's not grandiose." Negative Voice, "It's grandiose." PV, "No it's not. It's a big idea. It's what you think you can do best." NV, "What you can do best? You've never done it before in your life!" PV, "Look, it won't be easy, but shit, nothing you take on ever is." NV, "Good point. No! I mean..."

Justine looks at the floor, taps her fingers on the desk. "From your heart, Cath. Hang in there! Just speak your truth." And so what always happens when I speak from the heart happens-- I cry. (Ugh). "I have this idea, uh, about mobilizing women...possibly sending a delegation to Kinshasa." Joseph translates. Justine looks up. She's interested. "Maybe holding sit-ins or protests simultaneously in Goma and Bukavu," I add with an ever-so-slight degree of confidence. Justine smiles.

Two hours of passionate conversation and number crunching later, me and Justine and Joseph are united on a mission. Justine likes big ideas.

Back in Bukavu, Hope swings

"But we've done protests. We sent a delegation to Kigali to talk to Kagame. He wouldn't see us. No one listens," says Odile. "If we do this it needs to be coordinated with protests in the States," Franny chimes in.

We are visiting the folks at Centre Olame. They like the idea of mobilizing, but they think it needs coordination and focus to work. Odile tells me, "You need to speak to your government..." I think, "Speak with my government. How am I going to do that?" "We'll also need security--A MONUC/UN Peacekeeping presence," Franny adds. The doubting voice smiles a sinister Grinch-like smile. I notice my hands pushing my hair back, nonchalantly covering my ears, readying myself for the berating. Odile tells me, "What your government believes we need and what we, Congolese women, feel we need are different. If you could deliver a list of our requests..." I think of the Raise Hope For The Congo lobby days coming up in Spring. I tell them about it and say, "If Centre Olame and other Congolese women's rights organizations can come up with a list of their needs and sign off on them as one united group, I will give that list to my friend Candice at the Enough Project and perhaps we could deliver it to our representatives." I will also put Centre Olame in touch with Justine at Synergy. CO can work from Bukavu and Synergy from Goma. They love the idea. And two hours later... we are united on a mission.

That evening I lay in bed thinking, "Okay, all I have to do is figure out a way to raise money to send a delegation to Kinshasa, help facilitate security for the protests, and deliver a list of proposals to our government representatives from the Congolese women. That's all I have to do." I don't move from fetal position all night long.

The Siege of Centre Kitumaini - Our last day in Bukavu

We arrive at Centre Kitumaini. I walk into the office. About a dozen women sit in the waiting room--waiting for me. Padjos has set up meetings with representatives of four small local NGOs working with rape survivors. Four meetings. In a row. Right now. My brain swirls.

We meet first with Gracia Ruboneka and Agnes Mukongere of FRAPAC. They have traveled from Mwenga, a village 70 kms away from Bukavu-- over a half-days ride by bus. FRAPAC, like many NGOs, is a multi-pronged organization that deals with a multitude of issues facing rape survivors. They refer cases of sexual violence to Panzi Hospital. After medical treatment when women return to the village, they work on women's social reinsertion by teaching them skills and providing them with small loans to start a business, and also provide psychological counseling. Today they tell a story of trying to heal a community's trauma after witnessing such war atrocities as seeing human beings buried alive. I begin to cry.

Agnes speaks of a recent case that took place in Mwenga last Tuesday. She said armed men attacked a family, shot the husband, raped the wife, and took 2 girls as sex slaves. The husband died while the community was driving him to Bukavu for treatment. One daughter escaped only to find her father dead. I continue to cry.

The second group, Philomene Mwana Muzinzi Nehema and Collette Mwa Matabaro Mapendo, are both rape survivors. They represent the villages of Miti and Katana-- about 40 kms away from Bukavu. They said that last week 30 women and girls had been taken as sex slaves by the Interhamwe (FDLR).

Philomene spoke about a young woman who had been raped but didn't tell anyone, even her husband. From that time on all her pregnancies ended in miscarriage. She finally broke the silence after hearing of Philomene's story. I hug Philomnene and Collette.

After the women leave I crack, "You've misrepresented me," I snap at Joseph. "They think I am capable of more than I am. I can't do this... I can't... do this..." "They've traveled a half a day to see you," Joseph says calmly. The tears continue to roll. "It's the malaria medication," I convince myself. My doctor informed me of the side effects, "nausea and the possibility of a general malaise." I remember thinking at the time, "A 'general malaise,' with my chemistry? In the Congo! Are you kidding me?"

Max, my ex-husband and good friend, warned me before I left, "Cath, try not to take it all on. Your empathy is your gift. It can also be your downfall. If you want to do this work you have to find a way to protect yourself."

Up until today, I have done well. I have stayed open and present, feeling the horror and hope of the stories I've heard, letting them pass through me, only breaking in my private moments. But today I am spent, and raw, I have taken it all on. The stories don't pass through me any more they now stay with me. How could they not. I begin to comprehend the incomprehensible-- This is REALLY happening. Here. Right now. Every day. Women raped in unimaginable ways. Husbands killed. Daughters stolen.

I start to beat myself up for even considering leaving, but I stop, and I do something I rarely do...forgive myself. Forgive myself for not holding it together. Forgive myself for not being strong. I forgive myself for being where I am. And I stay. I allow myself to be just where I am. And I stay.

The last 2 groups are brought in together. Elodie, the head of civil society spoke of the services they provide in the territories of Walungu and Kabare. Anne spoke for OBA. Both groups take rape survivors, counsel them, give them some crops and small piece of land to farm. Mapendo (OBA) tells us, "We try and educate the children who have lost their parents, but it's a major challenge. Many kids run away to be street children in Bukavu."

I sit and I listen to these amazing women who have been witness to acts which would send most of us into retreat, but who are instead rising up, pulling together to help one another; speaking up against antiquated and barbaric customary law, creating communities of support. I sit in awe of these brave souls. Congolese women are strong, and resilient, and beautiful. They will not stop raising their voices; they will not stop risking their lives; they will not stop traveling long distances in the hope that one middle-aged white woman from Santa Monica might just be the tipping point in stopping this horror. They will talk to anyone who listens until the terror ends. And now so will I. I will talk to anyone that will listen. I will not stop. They are my sisters, my mothers, my daughters, my friends.

That evening I lie in bed. Once again, I skip dinner. Once again, I am reduced to the fetal position. I am turned inside out by this day. "What if I go home and I can't get people to imagine the unimaginable. Even worse, what if they don't care," I think to myself. This is happening now. NOW. Thirty girls were taken. A father shot. A child raped. I cry.

A few minutes later, Harper walks in. Harper McConnell is a 26 year-old whip smart blonde from Manhattan, Kansas. She has lived in the Congo for three years. Harper is a whole story in herself (Really. You can read about her in Nick Kristof's and Sheryl WuDunn's book Half The Sky). She came to the Congo to work for Heal Africa. She was the US Director Of Development there for two years. Harper's presence in Goma and Bukavu bodes well for the future of Eastern Congo. She will definitely be a heroine in on of my screenplays.

Harper sits next to me on the bed. "You okay," she asks. I nod. "I don't know what to do. I don't know where to begin." Harper rubs my leg, smiles knowingly, "You can't know right now."

After Harper leaves I put my hands over my heart. "Breathe, Cath. Breathe." A few moments later I'm on my knees, kneeling at the side of my bed, praying. I am not one who usually prays, and if I do it's rarely on my knees, but I have been brought to my knees in passionate prayer many times over the past year with nowhere else to turn. I pray for faith-- faith that the answer will come to me. I crawl back in bed and I allow myself to rest in the 'not knowing.'

Soon my mind drifts to all the amazing people I've met, people doing extraordinary things for little or no money, motivated only by their own humanity and a desire to see peace. The great paradox of the Congo is that there is so much horror and yet so much hope. Some of the most brutal and some of the most beautiful people exist here.

I think of Paul Ramazani and the GLR/Foundation Ramalevina. They provided Joseph and I with our host letter. They are the reason we were allowed into the country. Foundation Ramalevina works on all fronts of women's issues with little staff (mostly volunteers) and almost no money. They work on the economic restoration of the victims because most of them have lost everything. Ramalevina works with abandoned rape survivors, those who have been taken as sex slaves, those who have no place to stay. Legal rights/empowerment is another aspect the organization focuses on. Reconciliation with Survivor's husbands and their communities is something Ramalevina strives to achieve.

I think of the growing number of legal teams sprouting up, providing these desperately needed legal services to survivors of sexual violence. Because of the heavy stigma of rape, community rejection, child custody, and land rights, are all challenges facing survivors. It's crucial the women be educated on their rights. The majority of rape survivors do not have access to any legal services. They do not realize laws exist which protect their rights and that they even have any basic, inherent right to justice at all.

There is Kerry Gough who is helping HEAL AFRICA put together its Gender and Justice Program-- a collaborative effort with Universtite' Libre, a Congolese university. Together the partners will develop a legal aid clinic which will train Congolese law students to educate women about their rights under both formal and customary law and represent them in both justice systems. Not only will the aid provide access to the legal system for survivors of rape, but it will also build up the rule of law in Eastern Congo.

There is Senghor Bagalwa and Claude Maon of Advocates Sans Frontieres (ASF) and Mireille Ntambuka of Dynamique Des Femmes Juristes. Both organizations go into the villages and educate the greater community about gender justice issues, and more broadly, reinforce the truth of each person's right to justice and dignity.

There is Brandy Walker at Panzi Hospital who is focusing on land rights issues. She told me a story about a number of corrupt magistrates being fired by President Kabilia - a good sign. But since, there has been a huge back log in cases as the new magistrates find their way through the system, working hard at being meticulous, not wanting to make one mistake in an effort to make prosecutions stick.

There is Sekombi Katondolo who started YoleAfrica, a center for art and music that serves as a positive alternative to the street, a place where kids can come and express themselves through music, painting, photography, dance, and writing.

There is Murhabazi Namegabe of BVES who takes orphaned children off the streets of Bukavu and houses them, feeds them, educates them, and offers them psychological counseling.

And Major Honorine Munyole Police Nationale Congolese - who is often called the 'one woman special victims unit.' For years she operated out of a wooden shack with just one other person on her staff.

And Christine Karumba of Women For Women International. Women For Women provides housing, rehabilitation, skills and leadership training.

That night I go down to dinner. The restaurant at Lodge Coco is full and resembles Rick's Café in the movie Casablanca--A hub for expats, NGO workers, political figures, human's rights advocates. Dr. Mukwege is there. The Vice-Governor is there. The tables are full of people, full of people who are trying to find a way to peace in the Congo.

I sit across from Harper. Joseph joins and we share a beer. I look around the restaurant and am filled with hope... hope in the possibility that people are starting to listen.

That night I had a dream.

A mother and her seven year-old daughter sleep soundly, peacefully in their beds. That night terror creeps into their village and raises its fist to their door. But just as terror is about to knock something shifts, perhaps enough consciousness raised that a sinister energy is alchemize, and terror turns and retreats from the door.

The next morning the mother gets up and fixes breakfast. The daughter gets dressed. The mother shoos her daughter out the door to get her to school on time. After, the mother sticks her hands in the earth, plants some seeds, tills the garden, and fetches the water.
The daughter sits in class twirling her hair, daydreaming about the end of the school day so she can play.

After the daily chores the mother takes a bus to her part-time job so she can pay to go to school on the weekends in Goma or Bukavu.

That evening the daughter jumps rope with a friend in the yard. The mother returns from work, weary. She calls to her daughter to come in and do her homework before dinner. The daughter balks at her request. The mother snaps at her daughter. The daughter throws down the jump rope, stomps inside, and opens her schoolbooks.

At the dinner table they eat silently.

Before bed the mother sits next to her daughter and brushes her hair. She tucks her in, and kisses her goodnight. Her daughter softens.

Late into the night, the mother studies by candlelight. She rubs her tired eyes, finally shuts her books, and turns in herself.

Both mother and daughter experience fleeting moments of joy during the grind that comes with the routine of the average day... and both sleep soundly through the night never knowing the terror that was just outside their door.

Never, never, never knowing the terror that was just outside their door.

Things You Can Do To Help:

  • Support International Violence Against Women's Act
  • Commit To Buying Conflict Free Products
  • Support Congo Conflict Minerals Act
  • Support the Conflict Minerals Trade Act
  • Call The White House (202-456-1111) and tell the President he needs to politically engage more on the Congo; to put pressure on the Rwandan and Ugandan governments to come to a diplomatic solution in stopping the war in the Congo.

Catherine Corpeny - www.catherinecorpeny.com