Janice Kamenir-Reznik is Co-Founder and President of Jewish World Watch (JWW), a leading organization in the fight against genocide and mass atrocities worldwide. JWW's work is currently focused on the ongoing crises in Sudan and Congo. Janice recently traveled, along with fellow JWW Board Members Diana Buckhantz and Diane Kabat, to Congo's eastern provinces to meet with JWW's on-the-ground project partners, to participate in the dedication of JWW's Chambucha Rape and Crisis Center, and to work with survivors of Congo's decades-long conflict to build innovative new partnerships and projects.
June 28, 2013
We have spent a week in Congo and my head is spinning. We visited 11 different programs and met with and talked to hundreds of people. Here are a few of my thoughts as we begin the two-day journey to come home:
1. Enabling Congo's Rebirth
The program managers, directors and staff of the local and international NGO's with whom we visited are uniformly outstanding human beings, wholly dedicated to helping repair and reform Congo. The esteem in which I hold these humanitarian aid workers cannot be overstated. They are working under the most extreme conditions in a region teeming with violence where poverty and suffering abound; a region in which there are absolutely no resources or services available to the people other than those provided by the NGOs. Just as an example, in the capital city, Bukavu, South Kivu, which is home to more than 1 million Congolese, there is no water delivery system. Individuals, almost always the women, exert enormous amounts of energy walking to retrieve water, carrying fifty pounds of water in plastic gerry cans on their heads while carrying a baby on their backs. The organizations send a truck each day across town to purchase water which is brought back in plastic barrels.
If you haven't been here, it is hard to imagine what it is like to function in a place in which there is absolutely no infrastructure -- the simplest tasks take hours and require enormous physical effort to accomplish thereby depleting the population of the energy, time and will needed to think about the change that is needed in their society.
What work is being done here is being done by the noble non-profits -- and the work they are doing is exceptional, and will eventually enable the rebirth of Congo into a new society in which corruption, violence and gender inequality do not define the country.
2. The Resilience and Courage of the Congolese People
Given the circumstances in which the Congolese people are living, each time I visit Congo I am in awe of the strength and resilience of the people I meet. They have endured decades of oppression and violence, and nonetheless, they exhibit a resolve and an inner strength that seems super-human. I saw this resilience exhibited in many ways this past week, but perhaps most remarkably at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu. The Panzi Medical Director is the great Dr. Mukwege, who has pioneered fistula repair surgery and whose primary personal and professional interest and commitment is to survivors of rape. Dr. Mukwege has treated thousands upon thousands of rape survivors since the hospital's founding in 2000. Because of his extraordinary work and his global advocacy decrying rape in Congo, Dr. Mukwege was the target of a failed assassination attempt several months ago. Now, he and his family live in constant danger.
Despite all of this, Dr. Mukwege is more committed than ever to his work. When we visited with him this week, we asked him how he continues to maintain his resolve. He responded with his characteristic humility by telling us that it is the extraordinary resolve of the women that inspires him. He spoke of an especially violent abduction and assault of one of his veteran staff members which occurred just the day before our visit (which most likely was intended to intimidate Dr. Mukwege). While the survivor, who was abandoned by her attackers and left to die, was accused by the "authorities" of fabricating the attack, she is resolved to pursue legal action against her attackers. For survivors to pursue legal action in Congo is not only dangerous, but is also largely a symbolic act of protest, inasmuch as the justice and the prison systems, like the rest of the government, is corrupt and dysfunctional.
The courage exhibited by Dr. Mukwege and the survivor are just two examples of the resilience, courage and resolve which we find everywhere we visit here. There are thousands of courageous and resolute rape survivors who are pursuing legal cases through various non-profit justice-related projects, despite the danger inherent in so doing. These programs serve to empower the women and help to restore their dignity; these justice projects represent the beginning of the new Congo. Men like Dr. Mukwege and the thousands of women taking action are acutely aware that the journey to reform and reclaim their country will be long and arduous; their willingness to take these risks empirically proves their courage and resilience.
3. Visiting People Not Projects
When I was in the Darfuri refugee camp in Chad a few months back, one of the most moving moments of my visit occurred when we sat on the floor of the JWW Solar Cooker Project and engaged in conversation with the refugee women who work for the Project. In the middle of the very difficult conversation in which we asked them to tell us about the attacks on their villages and about their life in the refugee camp, one of the women reached over and grabbed my arm. With tears in her eyes she told us, through our translator, that there are other funders who have come and looked at their projects or toured the refugee camp in the 9 years since she arrived at the camp, but that this was the very first time anyone had ever sat on the floor with the women and talked to them about their lives. We were so embarrassed-for the other funders who left their first job undone, for ourselves, wishing we were doing more- when all 50 women who were sitting with us blessed us for simply sitting and talking to them.
On this trip in Congo, and on many of our visits, the people served by the various projects we fund said the same thing to us. We simply cannot imagine it any other way. It was our great honor to spend two hours in conversation with a group of 50 high school students whose tuition JWW underwrites through a local and amazing Congolese organization, ABFEK. We talked about the students' hopes, their dreams, their perspective on the political situation in Congo, about gender equality, about what they were learning in school. We told them about Jewish World Watch, about the ancient values that inform our work, and about the Holocaust. As we left the students, we felt inspired by their thinking and by their expression of their dreams. When we visited a local leadership council established by International Medical Corps to explore gender-based violence (GBV), we spent a couple of hours in conversation with the council to understand their perspective on the causes of GBV and how their council intends to stem the tide of violence against women in their community. When we went to the "ribbon cutting" of our Chambucha Rape and Crisis Center, we asked to meet with rape survivors willing to talk to us about their experience recovering from their trauma. In all instances, we feel that we leave our visits having received a great deal more than we have given.
In fact, we do not make "site visits;" rather, we make "people visits." If all we wanted to do was to ensure that our funds were being used properly, we could easily hire a consultant to perform that task. But, inherent in our mission is to bear witness and to provide not only financial support, but also moral support to those who have survived genocide or mass atrocities. Aside from the education and inspiration which we derive from these visits, visiting people, listening to their stories, giving them the opportunity to share their ideas, hopes and dreams, is a critical part of the process of giving voice to the voiceless-a core foundational principal of Jewish World Watch. It is impossible to imagine these trips as simply photo ops or site checks; such a trip would be voyeuristic and devoid of purpose or meaning.
4. Last Word
So, as we close the chapter on this, JWW's and my 4th trip to Congo, I am once again left with deep emotions about the work we do-emotions which are almost impossible to put into words. Suffice it to say that I am grateful to Rabbi Schulweis for the enormity of his depth and compassion, and I am honored and grateful to be part of such a serious engagement aimed at shining a light on the great injustices of our time.
I also want to thank my incredible travelmates, Diane Kabat and Diana Buckhantz, as well as our truly outstanding and most beloved Naama Haviv, who develops and maintains all of our relationships with all of our Congolese partners. All three of these women have sterling characters, golden hearts and platinum souls!
As we go back home, we will continue our work, which coupled with the resilience and resolve of the Congolese people, will help Congo be reclaimed by its rightful owners. Until next time...