I can't quite remember the exact moment when I became obsessed with writing a play about the seemingly endless war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but I knew that I wanted to somehow tell the stories of the Congolese women caught in the cross-fire. The war's an ugly, messy, incomprehensible puzzle, punctuated by spurts of unfathomable violence and many false endings. It's often been said that it's the most deadly conflict since World War II, and unfortunately the bodies of women have become part of the vast battlefield.
So, the other day, I was surprised and relieved to learn about the sudden capture of the charismatic rebel leader General Laurent Nkunda by Rwandan Authorities; it is welcome movement in an intractable conflict. For years, Nkunda has led a powerful rebel army, and is in a large part responsible for keeping the armed conflict festering in the mineral rich region of North Kivu. For many Congolese people his capture signals the end to the brutal and protracted war, but the question that it raises for me is whether it will bring about an end to the insidious war that's being waged against the women of Congo. Rape is endemic to the region, and continues to be used as a weapon of war designed to demoralize and destroy communities.
Four years ago, while I was doing research for my new play RUINED I conducted numerous interviews with Congolese women fleeing the armed conflict. I was overwhelmed by the number of women who, regardless of age, recounted tales of sexual violation and torture at the hands of both rebel and government soldiers. They spoke of their frustration with authorities, their families and friends, who responded to their plight with relative indifference and in some cases outward hostility. Their stories pierced my very core, and became the foundation for my play. I wanted to capture the tenacity and resilience of women, who were attempting to reclaim their lives and move beyond the stigma of rape in a culture where it's become all too commonplace. Tragically, four years after my first round of interviews, large numbers of women still continue to be raped and brutalized by both government and rebel soldiers.
I am seriously worried that the war has given rise to a culture where men have been given license to rape and abuse women with impunity. In cities like, Goma, cautionary "don't rape" signs are fixtures in the landscape, and are as prevalent as ads for beer and skin lightening creams. Women are under siege, we must recognize and acknowledge that the war against them exists. The arrest of Laurent Nkunda is reason for cautious optimism and may indeed lead to a long awaited peace in the region, but for many women in the Congo the war will continue unless something is done to stop it.