Resilience has taken on new meaning in Congo.
In the U.S., we use the word resilience to describe someone who has made something of their life after a hard childhood, or managed to recover after a deep personal loss, or has endured a difficult situation. All of these scenarios can be painful and deeply troubling, but in Congo, the word resilience means something else entirely.
Today, I heard a story so horrific that it is hard to write the words. Katrina* was raped by members of an armed group after her husband was killed. She was then forced to eat his genitals while her two young daughters were raped. Her family abandoned her, calling her a "sorceress" and blaming her for the attacks. She was left alone to care for her two daughters who became pregnant as a result of the rapes. Katrina’s story is beyond my comprehension. Despite the unimaginable pain she endured, Katrina decided to speak out and become an advocate for women. As a result, she was raped two more times by the rebel group, who wanted to silence her.
Today she appeared at a conference for youth organized by our amazing partners, Pastor Camille and Esther Ntoto of Un Jour Nouveau. She stood in front of 220 young people from the region to share her story and put a personal face on the atrocities that women have endured and continue to endure. It was powerfully moving to see what happened next. Two young men, one from her village and another from the tribe of the armed group that raped her, came forward. They apologized to her on behalf of their communities. The youth at the conference were speechless. One can only imagine that the lives of these young men and those of the other participants at the conference were transformed by being in her presence. Where did she find the fortitude and inner strength to share such a story in front of hundreds of strangers?
This is one of the worst stories I have ever heard, but it is by no means the only one. The rebels know that women are the center of the community. They learned long ago that if you damage them, you can tear the community apart, destabilize the area, and gain a stronghold.
Everywhere we go, we meet women who were raped, impregnated, and badly injured. Brigitte was raped at 16 years old and left pregnant and alone; now she is committed to completing school so that she can become a lawyer to fight for the rights of all young women in Congo. Bora saw her parents killed and later was captured and held as a "wife" by the FDLR rebels; she found her way to a program that Jewish World Watch supports and will soon start school again. She is determined to see that her child's future is a safe one.
The conflict has left millions of women damaged -- but not destroyed. And what is so inspiring and hopeful is that these women have the resilience to find a way to make a better life for themselves and their children. But they cannot do it alone.
There are truly wonderful organizations in Congo -- many of which I have written about -- that are providing these young women with the inspiration, support and resources that they need to rebuild their lives. They are supporting these women with educational opportunities, leadership training, and job skills. And more and more, similar programs are sprouting up to work with men. They target the general public and demobilized soldiers, who are reentering society after years of living in an environment of unbelievable violence and lawlessness. One of the programs that we support, also developed by Camille and Esther Ntoto, is Sons of Congo. The program’s curriculum teaches men to honor and protect women, helping them to develop a new understanding about how they treat those of the opposite sex. Without men’s programs like these, Congolese society will never change.
However, in the end, it is the young Congolese women who embody and exemplify a new meaning of the word resilience. It is this resilience that is helping to heal and transform the culture of Congo.
*Name changed for her safety
JWW Board Member Diana Buckhantz is traveling with four other JWW delegates in Congo's eastern provinces to work with survivors of the country's decades-long conflict, which has claimed nearly six millions lives. They will meet with JWW's partners on the ground, with whom JWW works to create innovative programs and projects that change lives and transform communities.