What if your childhood friend, someone you grew up with, suddenly came to kill you? Rose Mapendo put this question to a rapt audience at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles last week.
An ambassador of sorts from an unfathomable war, Rose survived the death of her husband, the rape of her daughter and other untold horrors that also befell more than over 8 million of her fellow Congolese. As with many civil wars, the details are confusing and obtuse, but what happened to Rose and her family is horrifically clear.
In 1998, the Rwandan Tutsi army invaded the Democratic Republic of the Congo and a campaign against ethnic Tutsis began. Rose and her family were taken to a death camp. First, her husband was killed. Told her son would be killed next, Rose made a deal no parent should ever have to consider: allow soldiers to violate her oldest daughter in order to let her oldest son live. Both of her children survived. But her daughter was raped and impregnated in a culture where the horror of rape becomes the shame of the victim and her family.
Another decision Rose makes is to name her newborn twins after the head commander, now the president, Joseph Kabila. And in the end, this highly unusual move, interpreted as a sign of deep respect in her culture, may be what saved them all. Kabila sent them to a protection center and in 2000 they fled Africa, to settle in Phoenix, Arizona.
What happens there, when Rose is reunited with a teenage daughter who was left behind, makes up the story line of the film, Pushing the Elephant. But it's really a film about resilience on a level few of us are probably capable of. How do you forgive and move on? The dual forces of Rose's love for her children, and her capacity to use forgiveness as a means to reach out to other refugees, reverberate in every frame. Rose even risks returning to Congo to empower the women there to get involved in politics because she believes this to be a woman's most important role.
For this reason, Rose's film was selected to kick off a series of events sponsored by the Women's Empowerment Foundation. According to co-founders Illana Shoshan and Yael Swerdlow, it is because women pay the biggest price for war that they can lead the world to peace, if empowered to believe they can.
Says Shoshan, "the more women get involved in public life, and the more women advance in the workplace, the general populace will be heard and their needs acted upon. We believe that since women are the caretakers of the life of the community, they are the future of the community. So, our goal is to empower the women through a specifically tailored education program, to show them they do indeed have the choice to create a better life for their children and themselves, and not be afraid to question those who say they cannot."
Perhaps Rose Mapendo but it best when she asked the crowd, "If you can't give hope by sharing your story, why tell your story at all?"