It has been a whirlwind three days and so much has happened that I don't even know where to begin. Twenty four hours of the last seventy two have been spent in a car so we're all feeling weary. I'm not sure if I even have the energy to attempt eloquence but I'll give it a shot.
We left Bukavu for Chambucha on Wednesday morning at six. The journey was everything we had been warned about and more: muddy roads that could swallow a truck, flat tires, makeshift bridges, military checkpoints, very young men with very large weapons. It was a six-hour drive through Kahuzi Biega National Park and north to Chambucha. The scenery was breathtaking. Thick dense jungle, bamboo trees and wild orchids, monkeys, every shade of green you could possibly imagine. Enormous spider webs and their equally enormous creators, such a change from the urban feel of Bukavu. There were children swimming in the river that borders the forest where the FDLR (Rwandan rebel group) are in hiding, and where the FARDC (Congolese government troops) have taken positions along the road, weapons trained at their sides. And that's what's so confusing about this place..utter purity and beauty juxtaposed with brutal violence.
So we headed to an area engulfed by guerrilla activity. As a result tens of thousands of people have had to flee their homes in neighboring villages and have been essentially herded into Chambucha. The road we are on ends there, and we are received like heroes. The people had been told beforehand of our arrival and hundreds turned up to clap and cheer and sing us into our camp. It was so moving and there is no way I can do it justice in words...David Serota has it all on film, so it will no doubt eventually speak for itself.
Medical Corps' hospital facility is set up next to the compound where we are staying and after dropping our bags we walk fifty meters into the fenced area for a tour. The care being provided, considering the extremely remote location, is again incredible. The stories I hear are again, harrowing. I met a mother who was running away from a group of militia three days earlier with her baby strapped to her back. They both got shot, but survived and thankfully made it into the facility in time. Her boy is so little and the huge bandages on his arms break my heart. Everything about this place breaks my heart. These people all have stories which they share with me and there is just simply too much to try to grasp. Everyone has lost something, everyone has lost someone. I meet malnourished babies, mothers, fathers, widows and widowers, malaria sufferers, their eyes glazed, victims of rape and pillaging. They are all here in massive numbers, and their stories are agonizing. I meet a group of about a hundred who have selected an old man to read out on behalf of them all, their list of grievances. They have no homes and no possessions and they need others to recognize they are in crisis. I sat down with the Mai Mai, an armed community defense group that has been placed here by the government, but not paid for months. The general told me that he wants to go back to his old post but leaving this area would look like he was plotting to join another force and would essentially place a target on his head. He was surrounded by his men in green uniforms, holding their ammunition and AK 47s. It is intimidating for me to interview them and certainly against the norm for them to answer difficult questions posed by a woman. Even though their definition implies that they are allies of the government, I know that there is really no "good" armed group in this country. I later asked a victim of rape if she felt protected by the Mai Mai or any of the military here. She simply said "I don't trust any man wearing a uniform". This woman had been raped on three separate occasions, each time requiring fistula repair. The last time she was held captive for three months and was consistently raped by eleven men. The reason she had had so many of these encounters was because she was disabled and therefore when the men came into the village and the women fled, she was always left behind. She simply could not run as fast as the others. I sat with a fourteen year old girl who was raped nine days ago... and another and another. It is impossible to fathom the sheer number of women who have been violated here, and their stories are way beyond anything I can even begin to comprehend.
I was able to deliver one wonderful treat in Chambucha. Lysa Heslov and her terrific foundation, Children Mending Hearts, provided hundreds of t-shirts for the children who are in desperate need of clothes and it was uplifting and rewarding to later see them running around smiling in their new clothes.
We spent the night in bunk beds within the camps and eat a supper of cassava leaves with some river fish and rice. There is no electricity so everything is cooked on clay pots over coal and we wash before dinner with a bucket of cold water. I haven't felt so present in a long time. There is something to be said for eliminating choice and the calm that comes with it. It dawns on me that I get so overwhelmed at home and life is often spent planning or organizing or making decisions in general. Here there is really not much choice at all and as a result I find myself stopping and actually having the time to process the experiences we have had. The drive back on Thursday took about seven hours. We slept in Bukavu and then drove eight and a half hours to Rwanda.
I broke down twice on this trip. The first time after being in the displacement camp outside Goma, seeing the woman with the colostomy bag. I had to step into an empty tent and sob. I had consciously planned on keeping it together, but the visual and the look in her eyes broke me. After that, some form of defense mechanism kicks in. Of course you feel enormous empathy but there is no room for personal emotion in these places. Still, as we crossed the border into Rwanda, it all hit me, and I cried. It was a pretty silent journey to Kigali because we all leave a piece of our hearts in DRC. There is a lot to process, but I have never gone on such an incredible journey before and am inspired to come home and start the real work. Please go to imcworldwide.org and if you have anything to spare, donate. Trust me the money you spend will be very well used and these people need and deserve all the help they can get.
Sienna Miller is working with International Medical Corps, TakePart.com, and Children Mending Hearts to raise awareness of the long-running conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and its devastating impact on women and children.