News & Politics

Reporting on the Horrors and the Hope of the Congo

How small consistent acts of advocacy can create a movement that can change the lives of girls and women in the Democratic People's Republic of the Congo.

Note: After watching the documentary “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo” by Lisa F. Jackson, Catherine Corpeny decided to dedicate herself to advocate for the protection and empowerment of Congolese girls and women. She traveled to the Congo in November to establish relationships with Congolese women leaders, members of grassroots NGOs, human rights advocates, and rape survivors, to evaluate their needs and to seek ways to help facilitate the amazing work already happening on the ground. The following is a collection of diaries from her travels there. You can find out more about how you can help at the bottom of  her article.

Part 1 --

I wanted to wait and write when I understood more about the politics behind the mind-bending atrocities going on here, but it will take much, much more time for me to absorb, process, and understand the components and intricacies that perpetuate this senseless and obscene war. Every day I see and learn something new about this country, its people, and the unrelenting conflict that's turning both inside out.

So that being said I am going to report on both the horrors I've witnessed during my recent time in Congo as well as the hope, for the Congo encompasses high degrees of both.

First stop Kigali, Rwanda:

After 2 days of flying my travel buddy, Joseph Mbangu, and I finally land in Kigali. Safe. The supposed direct flight from Nairobi to Kigali was redirected making an unplanned stop in Bujumbura, Burundi. No one tells us why. Needless to say I was a little tense. I kept checking the faces of the flight attendants -- they seemed calm so I, thankfully, did not head for the exit.

Forty-five minutes later we land in Burundi to an army battalion standing in the middle of the airfield in full military regalia. They turn and salute the plane. A red carpet is rolled out onto the runway. Once we come to a full stop the Tambourinaires (drummers) begin the local Intore Dance warrior dance. TV cameras roll, photographers point their lenses toward the aircraft--it turns out the vice-president of Kenya is on our flight! And because of security reasons they couldn't tell anyone about the impromptu stop. As the Vice-President disembarks, Joseph and I, along with the rest of the passengers, watch the ceremony from the plane, and then head off to Kigali. Nice way to start the trip, and the first of many unplanned happenings. "This is Africa," I tell myself and settle in.

Kigali is wild. Cars, pedestrians, and motos, scrap for a piece of the road. It reminds me of the media footage I've seen of New Delhi or Islamabad only without the poverty. An enormous amount of investing is taking place in Kigali. Lots of new construction -- parks, schools, office buildings, beautification projects, and sub-divisions -- part of the government's rehabilitation plan to bring money back into the country after the 1994 slaughter of nearly 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in just 100 days by the Interahamwe (Hutu militia).

Two things seem to be so consistently true here that in my mind they warrant skepticism -- First, everyone in Kigali loves their president Paul Kagame, the RPF military commander who eventually drove the FDLR out of Rwanda (more on him later, A-hem). It's hard to imagine that with a population of nearly eighty-five percent Hutu, that no one has a contrary word to say about Kagame. Second, no one likes to talk about the genocide -- at least directly. Indirectly they talk about it all the time, in fact, it defines time: Rwandans often preface their sentences with "Before the genocide," and "After the genocide," but that's all you're likely to hear about it. They want to 'forget' it, which is understandable, and alarming.

Our lovely driver, J, a twenty-six year-old young man with a smile a mile long, was ten during the massacre. He said, "Now Tutsis and Hutus are living side by side peacefully. Kigali is growing. Things are good. People want to forget about these things."

As we drive through Kigali I take some photos and receive a few hostile looks. J tells me, "After the genocide, people are very suspicious." I put away my camera and respectfully ask permission before taking another shot.

The drive from Kigali to the DRC border is fantastic -- as we drive on a surprisingly perfectly paved road we are exposed to a more unidealized part of the country. The further away from Kigali we get the poorer the communities become. Many buildings, actually more like shacks, are marked with X's. The government has given these roadside businesses/markets a year to "beautify and unify" or the buildings will be torn down. I have to say I am not one for conformity, especially when it's mandatory, but the Rwandans make it look awfully good.

I gaze out the window at the spectacular terraced hillsides -- they resemble pieces of art, the people are true land artisans. The yards in front of their circular mud and palm huts are free of debris and marked with a variety of colorful flowers and pots. Individual doorways are painted magenta, turquoise, and sunshine yellow. And it works! I watch women carry enormous baskets of fruit and wood, and buckets of water on their heads. Men bicycle up and down the steep hills on a one speed with hefty loads of wood and palms leaves on their backs. I try not to miss a thing.

After four hours of driving, the perfectly paved road ends. We are in the Congo now.

Part 2

Crossing the border

The border is nuts!

Young men in uniform roam around, I wouldn't say wielding big guns; it's more that they wear their rifles like satchels, casually draped over their shoulders. Swarms of people, many of them "paperless," try to slip by the rank and file across the border. It's chaotic, and yet there is some framework, some order -- an order that's different than anything I'm used to, but a cohesiveness definitely exists among mayhem.

Our Rwandan driver parks in what is called "no man's land" -- the space between the Rwandan and Congolese border. He is not allowed to cross -- company policy -- Congo is considered a security risk. As we unload our suitcases, Joseph says something in Swahili and two kids in baggy jeans and dirty tee shirts appear from nowhere. Joseph signals me to follow him. I grab my computer and bag that has all my money in it, (Congo is a cash-only country), and leave the rest of my luggage with the young ruffians. I follow Joseph like a duckling scrambling to keep up with its mother, knowing somewhere deep down I'm fucked without him. Looking back, I say farewell to our bags, thinking I'll never see them again.

There is a L-O-N-G line in front of immigration and I fear we're going to be late for our first appointment in Goma with the hospital Heal Africa. Joseph speaks French to some young lady. Joseph speaks six languages including French and Swahili; I, of course, speak neither. Five minutes later we are third in the queue. All I have to say is thank god for Joseph.

Joseph Mbangu is part of the Congolese Diaspora living in NYC.

In 1996, when Laurent Kabilia, with the backing of Rwanda, declared war on the sitting Congolese president Mubutu, Joseph fled Bukavu for Lubumbashi, Katanga, to the safety of his family. He walked 600 kilometers (almost 400 miles) through the Congolese hills with a group of friends who were studying at the same private university he was attending. Among those students was his pregnant girlfriend (and now wife), Christine.

From 1996 thru 1998 Joseph finished his two remaining years of law school in Lubumbashi.
Then in August of 1998, President Kabilia decided to break his alliance with Rwanda, and what is known as the first African World War broke out. Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi aligned against Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and the Congo.

In 1999, fearing for Christine's life (she is from Burundi), the IOM (International Organization of Migration) evacuated Joseph, Christine, and their (now) two daughters to a refugee camp in the Benin Republic. They were there for five months.

Then in February of 2000, through the sponsorship of the HIAS (Hebrew International Aid Society), Joseph's family moved to Tucson, AZ, where Joseph finished his masters in international trade law.

In 2007 Joseph moved with his wife and (now) three daughters to NYC to practice law.

We are finally met at the border by Joseph's friend Kizito and his friend Seven -- they will be driving us around for the next six days while we are in Goma. Neither Kizito, nor Seven, speak English so I communicate with pigeon French and a lot of hand signals. Somehow it works. We all hop into the car and set out for our meeting.

Goma is like nothing I've ever seen. It's vibrant, angry, primal, desperate and hopeful -- lawless, but somehow not dangerous. Every energy coexists here. It feels foreign and familiar at the same time. The poverty is wrenching. There has been a huge population increase in Goma do to the war, pushing people from their villages into the city where it is believed to be safer because of the large MONUC (UN Peacekeepers) presence.

Today, Eastern Congo is considered the most dangerous place to be a woman or a girl. The country is caught in an epidemic of horrendous sexual violence. Numerous militias use rape as a military tactic to destroy communities and exert control over the natural resources.

Women are the backbone of Congolese society. They work the fields, carry the water, take care of the children, cook, and clean. When a woman is raped her community and family most often ostracize her. Considered dirty, her husband rejects her. Daughters are raped in front of their parents; sometimes fathers are made to have sex with their daughters or be killed. Whole communities are terrorized, their homes burned, their livestock stolen. Survivors flee to the city, the bush, or to IDP camps. The community is destroyed.

Sadly, multinational corporations, as well as governments, manipulate the conflict to further their lucrative economic interests in the illicit mineral trade. Valuable minerals (conflict minerals) needed for our cell phones, computers and video games are feeding the war through a bloody land grab, and Congolese women and girls bear the vicious brunt of the crisis.

We finally arrive at Heal Africa and meet with Lyn Lusi. She and her husband, Jo, began HA 12 years ago when the FDLR (Rwandan Hutu militia) fled Rwanda after the 1994 genocide -- the beginning of the violent rapes in the Congo. Heal Africa began as a hospital and treatment center for rape victims, but has now expanded its program to provide counseling, leadership training, financing of micro loans, housing and treatment for orphaned children with HIV, and legal assistance to women. Once one problem seems to be under control another challenge presents itself. It seems HA, with its ever-expanding number of programs to ensure the empowerment of women and children, is literally trying to 'heal' Africa.

While talking with Lyn she shows a picture of a thirteen year-old girl who had recently been admitted. She had been violently raped several times by the FDLR, her arms burned, and then her eyes gouged out. Such brutalization is NOT uncommon in the Congo.

Later I meet two survivors in the recovery room; they are weaving beautiful baskets out of Cassava leaves. Across from them a young girl sleeps on another bed. She is snoring. Loudly. I smile at her, then look back at the women thinking she is one of their daughters as many of the children are on the HA compound. They shoot me a quick glance, and then look away. It registers... she is not there with her mother. I excuse myself trying to keep it together as I pass HA staff on my way to the bathroom. I close the door, sit on the toilet, and bury my head in my hands and cry. A few minutes later I rejoin Joseph and Modestine (our guide) in the yard. A young boy with a big girly smile challenges me to a scrap game of soccer. I smile. The game is on.

We get back in the car and head to our hotel. Cars, bikes, motos, and every imaginable vehicle that can carry every imaginable item vie for road space. Cars kick up black volcanic soot from the 2002 volcano explosion that wiped out two-thirds of Goma. Most of the city has been rebuilt on the rugged black lava rock. As we drive the black ash mixes with the exhaust of unregulated vehicles. My throat burns. I think of what my lungs must look like inhaling in all these carcinogens.

Soon we are at our hotel.

Hotel Stella sits on the edge of Lake Kivu. The view of the lake is stunning -- endless and blue. An armed guard -- let me revise that -- a young man with a big gun in his lap playing cards, sits outside the hotel's entrance. I swear he's not older than 16. (By the end of my stay this sweet-faced boy has taught me ten new French words).

As Joseph heads off to hang out with Kizito and Seven, I head down to the lake. An old man with a knotted face passes in a Waka, a hollowed out tree used as a fishing boat. A small lantern hangs from the side of the canoe. He smiles widely, showing his three teeth, and waves. "Jambo" he calls. My face breaks into a big grin, "Jambo," I reply. I watch him until he disappears, and then head to my room.

Part 3 --

Clinic Gesom is a small, depressing, terribly underfunded NGO. Kizito has set up the appointment thinking I should see the smaller, 'less traveled' clinics. It is here I meet Zyiranzikubwimana Ziyonsara (her name has been changed to protect against possible reprisal attacks).

Zyiranzikubwimana Ziyonsara is 20 years old. She has been at Clinic Gesom for four years, the last two, for the most part, bedridden. Four years ago her village was raided by one of the many militias competing for territory. She was raped and then forced to watch as everyone in her family was murdered. Her home was burned. She was taken as a sex slave for several months before fleeing. Somehow she made it to Goma, then Clinic Gesom. She received medical and psychological treatment at the clinic, and tried several times to return to her village, but because of her burns she suffers from a chronic infection that has always led her back to the hospital. Dr. Mwarabu, who is showing us the clinic, lifts the bedding that is covering Zyiranzikubwimana's legs and shows me her ankles. They are swollen to the size of grapefruits. After a minute Zyiranzikubwimana covers her ankles with the sheet -- she still has some dignity. The doctor kindly sweeps his arm toward the door -- an indication it's time to move on. "I'd like to stay if that's okay. Can I sit with her?" Doctor Mwarabu gives a weary nod. The look on his face says everything; 'I have surgery to do. Rounds to make. Paperwork to finish. A clinic to run.' True. He is for the most part a one-man operation. God bless him.

There are one or two other doctors aside form Dr. Mwarabu, one counselor who comes twice a week (for free), and a nurse or two. That's about it. The survivors do the cleaning and cooking from what I can see. Clinic Gesom is so underfunded that that some women have been waiting since August for surgery due to traumatic rape.

I sit on Zyiranzikubwimana's bed. She seems flustered. I get the feeling that she is rarely visited. I hold her hand. Not really knowing what to say, I begin to massage her arm. Zyiranzikubwimana looks out a window next to her, her eyes well up, the intimacy is too much. Feeling her discomfort, I begin to retract my hand but she holds on tight and doesn't let go. She needs someone not to let go. She is a forgotten soul. Her future stolen from her by the vicious fight for land rich in 'conflict minerals.'

I tell Zyiranzikubwimana she's beautiful. She laughs. Once more, her eyes retreat to the window. I can see her light, a light that is dimming fast. I imagine her as my friend.
She is my friend. I imagine both of us walking on the beach near my house in Santa Monica laughing and talking about men or politics. I touch her face, and again tell her how beautiful she is. She smiles, then I lose her eyes to the window again. I lean in close and kiss her cheek. It's time to go. The doctor has surgery to do. Rounds to make. Paperwork to finish. A clinic to run.

I tell Zyiranzikubwimana that I will write, then ask if there is anything I can do for her, ask if there is anything she needs -- noting the idiocy of that question as I'm asking it, and also fearing her reply. What if she asks for something I'm not able to provide? Zyiranzikubwimana thinks for a second, then turns to me, her eyes dreamy. "Fresh fruit," she smiles. "Fresh fruit," I ask? She nods. I think to myself, 'Fresh fruit.' I can do that.

I exit the gates of Clinic Gesom and head quickly to the car. Once inside, I cover my face, and I begin to cry. I make a silent pledge to myself to help Zyiranzikubwimana Ziyonsara. I don't know how, but I will. "I'll figure something out," I repeat over and over to myself. I have to. Zyiranzikubwimana Ziyonsara is beautiful. She is my friend.


Thank God for Mama Virginie and Mama Noella

We leave Clinic Gesom to meet Virginie Mumbere. Virginie is Head of Public Relations at Heal Africa. She is also the co-founder, along with Mama Noella, of AMAVESA, a widows support group -- and I mean support in every sense of the word.

Ten years ago while Mama Noella was giving birth to her son, her husband was assassinated. At the time she was a Jehovah's Witness and their followers are not allowed to show grief. Over time Mama Noella grew very depressed. She wanted to die. Her friend, Virginie Mumbere, also a widow, understood her grief. "When your husband dies you are responsible for everything; the rent, the food, taking care of the children.

"Some women lose their land, have no money, or skill. It's very hard." Mama Virginie urged Mama Noella to talk, to open up. "Congolese women are full of emotion. We need to express ourselves."

Slowly, with the ever-present encouragement of Mama Virginie, Mama Noella started to come out of her depression and reenter life. Both women, deeply understanding the need for community after losing a husband, knew that to heal, women needed to share their grief and struggles to enable them to move on. This is how AMAVESA was born.

Now AMAVESA has a community of 150 widows spanning several communities. They have one permanent compound in Goma where women stay in rotations of three months. They mill corn, rice, and wheat into a floury mix called Soblema that helps fortify malnourished children. This assures them a small salary that they reinvest in their communities. They may use the stipend to buy flour to make bread, fabric to make clothes, or paraffin to make soap. They also created the Iron Sheet Program. Each widow gives two dollars of her salary to invest back into the AMAVESA community. Part of this money goes to buy iron sheets that cover roofs so they don't leak. Mama Virginie tells me, "When it rains and you don't have a good roof everything gets wet and muddy. You are miserable. Give women a comfortable, dry space, and they are happy, they stay strong.

We visit the compound. There is a milling room, an area for chickens and ducks, a corn plot, a place to congregate where stories are shared, and a room for bagging and storing the processed grains.

I tell the group that I have a dear friend who is a widow and that she too belongs to a widows group. Their eyes light up. I tell them her name is Deb, and that maybe the two groups can connect somehow.

Everyone on the compound is working together to ensure that every widow in the community is provided for financially and emotionally. These women are survivors. They have come through the other side and are contributing to each others lives. They are happy, they are hopeful. I ask Mama Virginie how many widows need roofs. She says fifty. I ask how much that would cost. "Each iron sheet is fifteen dollars and it takes nine to cover a roof," she says. Joseph does the math. "Four thousand five hundred dollars," he says. "Done," I say. The group begins to ululate. We put our arms around each other and laugh.

After the celebration, I pull Mama Virginie to the side. "I'm happy I can contribute, but I need you to do something for me. There is a young girl at Clinic Gesom. Her name is Zyiranzikubwimana Ziyonsara. She needs you."

If anyone can breathe life back into Zyiranzikubwimana Ziyonsara, Mama Virginie and Mama Noella can.

Part 4 --

There are spies among us --

I have an admission. I have a little crush on Georgio Trombatore. Georgio works for International Medical Corps. IMC is a not-for-profit organization that brings emergency medical care to global crisis situations. And Georgio Trombatore is IMC's Field Coordinator. He will be giving us our security briefing before visiting The IMC medical center in Kirotshe, and then Mugunga III, the last remaining IDP camp in Eastern Congo.

Georgio worked in Afghanistan during the fall of the last Taliban (along with his amazing wife). He has also been called to Pakistan, Iraq, and now the Congo. His wife works in Eritrea with an organization that creates initiatives to help promote sustainable peace in the region.

Georgio is like James Bond. He is charming, handsome, daring, and a great storyteller. But the thing I love most about Georgio is the way he talks about his wife. "I was in Afghanistan during the fall of the Taliban -- the first time -- you know when it was dangerous. I tried to blend in -- I grew a beard, wore the traditional clothing, learned Pashto. Then my wife decides she wants to come stay with me for a year and when she gets there she refuses to cover her skin," he says pulling his hair in frustration. "Then a few weeks later she tries to start a feminist movement in one of the most repressive and misogynistic societies!" Georgio leans back, shakes his head in disapproval, and lets out a big sigh. "She almost killed me this woman." A few moments later a smile creeps across his face -- a smile of reverence and love. "I love the woman." It's clear he does. It's this quality in Georgio that makes me swoon.

Then there is Dr. Denis Mukwege, the director of Panzi Hospital. Dr. Mukwege has seen first hand the devastating consequences of the war on the women of Eastern Congo. He tirelessly repairs the reproductive organs of women who have been attacked from the inside out, raped with guns, and assaulted with chunks of wood by their attackers. He has had his life threatened, his hospital raided, and yet he vigilantly continues to speak out against the war and its reprehensible repercussions on Congolese women and girls. "Women do everything here. They are the lifeblood of the Congo. We would be nowhere without women." He receives awards for his tireless and brave work but has been known to hide them away, or tear them off the walls. Recognition does not motivate this man. Healing, and advocating for Congolese women, is his calling.

There is Bernard Kalume who risks his life taking documentarians like Lisa Jackson into the bush where she interviewed rapists for her consciousness-raising film, The Greatest Silence, or smuggling Frank Piasecki Poulsen into the illegal militia-run mineral mines to expose child exploitation. Bernard has made it his life's vocation to expose the truth and end the war. "What is happening here to woman is not right. Not right! Why isn't it stopping? Tell me why?"His eyes tear with anger. There is little that is more appealing than a man who understands and appreciates a woman's value. "One day maybe I'll meet a man like Georgio, or Dr. Mukwege, or Bernard Kalume," I tell myself.

During the briefing Georgio informs us that there has been a slight change in plans -- I hate changes in plans -- That we will first visit the area of Kirotshe where IMC has rehabilitated a remote medical center, then we will visit Mugunga III IDP camp on our way back to Goma.

Jan, the IMC Security Advisor informs us that there are still some security risks in the North and South Kivu provinces -- that even humanitarian workers have been targets for attacks.

I no longer have my sites on Georgio, I look to the OTHER WOMEN we'll be traveling with from Jewish World Watch (JWW) for reassurance and strength. We all exchange a look of, "Oh well," then gather our resolve and head for the vehicles.

Joseph, Diana (from JWW), Fernando (IMC Program Director), and I are assigned to vehicle 2. Our four Land Rovers are equipped with four-wheel drives and the most sophisticated communication equipment. A long antenna is posted on the hood of the vehicle -- It's so big I am sure we can communicate with Mission Control at NASA.

Our convoy rolls out.

On the drive up Joseph, Diana, Fernando, and I have an intense discussion about the recent, and forceful, closing of eight IDP camps.

Last year the camps were shut down without any warning as 'proof' that there is finally peace in Eastern Congo. Rwanda's President Paul Kagame played a powerful role in this decision citing that there were FDLR in the camps. The accusation according to most NGOs here were groundless. But with no IDP camps in Eastern Congo there would be fewer complaints by the International community, particularly US politicians, and less of a focus on Rwanda's participation in the rape of Congo's most precious resources -- its women and its minerals. It is no coincidence that this move happened directly after the visit of US Secretary of State Clinton. Tens of thousands of people were forced to go back to their unsecured villages -- villages with no infrastructure whatsoever. Only Mugunga III, the IDP we will visit later, remains open.

Kirotshe --

The area of Kirotshe is stunning. Endless green, lush, rolling hills dotted with groves of Eucalyptus trees. Long horn cows graze in the lower regions. It reminds me of Switzerland -- truly one of the most breathtaking places I have ever seen.

Kirotshe is rich in gold, diamonds, and coltan, a mineral used in manufacturing electronics, it's also the area where Laurent Nukunda and his Rwanda backed CNDP army maintained their two-year stronghold. Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi, is Congo's most notorious warlord. His history of violence in Eastern Congo includes the destruction of entire villages, the sanction of mass rapes, and the reason for hundreds of thousands of Congolese to flee their homes.

In 2004 Nkunda led a Tutsi backed rebellion in North Kivu near the Rwandan border. Nkunda and his army were eventually defeated, but fighting between rebels and government forces continue to promote ethnic tension in Eastern Congo, including widespread atrocities against women. In 2005 the UN estimated 45,000 women were raped in South Kivu alone.

Then in the Fall of 2008, Nkunda -- with the Kagame's encouragement-- led a new offensive of Tutsi rebels in North Kivu that uprooted about 200,000 citizens and threatened to take over the city of Goma.

In January of 2009 however the Rwandan government made a shock decision to apprehend Nkunda. Kagame's move against Nkunda appears to be motivated by the increasing international scrutiny of Rwanda's meddling in Eastern Congo. The arrest took place just after the release of an UN report documenting Rwanda'a close ties to the warlord concluding Nkunda was being used to advance Rwanda's economic interests.

Once at the med center Christopher, a nurse, introduced us to the Kausa Health Center. Our translator, a Rwandan, interpreted. He said, "The health center serves a population of 16,178. Before the center, some patients were treated under trees."

Christopher then mentioned that six hours ago the center had received a 13 year-old rape victim from a nearby village. We were close to something sinister. I wanted to grab the young girl and get the hell out of there.

On the drive back through the beautiful woodland hills on our way to Mugunga III I thought about the thirteen year-old girl. Thirteen years old. She will probably not be accepted back in her village and will have to find a way to make it on her own. No money. No shelter. No family. I imagine myself at thirteen trying to find my way under the same circumstances. My thoughts aren't pretty. I hold back my tears. We are headed to Mugngua III and Mugunga III will shock me to my core.

Mugunga III --

The stench of feces was the first thing I noticed, then the flies. Then the children.

Three thousand people etching out some sort of life under white tarps supported by sticks built on top of black volcanic rock. The living conditions here are unfathomable. Certainly living under a green tree would be a better option.

Joseph, Adil, IMC Program Finance Manager, and I walk around the camp while the rest of group takes a tour of the medical facilities. Mugunga III is for the most part populated by disabled and other vulnerable people (children). Entering the camp, kids flock to me wanting me to take their picture. "Photo!" Photo," they shout. I happily oblige. Before I know it about 30 kids are pulling on my camera strap and clothes. Soon I am on my knees as they fight to see themselves in the viewfinder.

Later a tough young girl asks me for money. I tell her I don't have any. She scowls then pulls my pockets inside out just to make sure. I have brought beads, clothes, candy, bubbles, and balls for about 100 kids, never expecting a thousand. I was afraid to bring out the loot thinking it would cause a frenzy and someone might get hurt.

One of the guys working at the camp throws the remnants of a bag of mints into the sea of kids. The kids dive in a pile onto the sharp lava rock tackling each other for a piece. It makes my stomach flip. I think of the alternate choice, the choice I made to withhold my goods, worried someone might get hurt or left out, but no one getting anything. I'm unsure who made the better decision.

Before long the tough young girl who had asked me for money walks up to me again with a hard look on her face. Dragging her comb across her neck, she threatens to cut my throat if I don't give her a dollar. It was a symbolic gesture -- life is cutthroat in these camps. Life is hideous here.

On the ride back to our hotel Joseph and I are told that a CNDP commander and a few CNDP soldiers dressed in civilian clothes were at the med center in Kirotshe, listening, and observing everything that was taking place. We were also told that CNDP soldiers are not far over the hills.

Later we are informed that the translator works for the Rwandan government to "control the message" and report back his findings.

Tonight I am to meet someone at the hotel. This person asked if I could tape their testimony about the war -- its beginnings, and the political underpinnings of the current situation. This person fears for their life. After hearing about the CNDP spies and our translator working for the Rwandan government I am a little freaked out. But I tell myself, this person is just telling me their story. I want to hear this person's view. Later that night we taped.

A couple days later in Bukavu I run into my friend Naama -- we are staying at the same hotel -- I ask her if she had heard about the CNDP soldiers among the crowd at the med center. She nods. A second later the translator materializes out of nowhere. "Catherine," he interrupts with a big grin, "How are you," his eyes not leaving mine. I get the message.

Today is the first day I've been scared.

Part 5 --

Port Goma -

Joseph tells me once again to put away my camera-- "You're not allowed to take pictures at the port. It's considered a military zone." A shame because the port is full of action--orange sparks fly as men weld giant fishing vessels supported by rusty steel girders and blocks of rotting wood. Customs officials roam the docks scanning the crowd for their next bag search. Kids trying to make a buck compete for the luggage of overloaded passengers. I, of course, am one of those passengers, and by the way, so is Joseph. He packs like a woman.

We are leaving Goma for Bukavu-- a two-hour boat ride across beautiful Lake Kivu. Bukavu is built on five peninsulas and has been described as "a green hand, dipped in the lake." Its green hills and cascading gardens stand in sharp contrast to the black volcanic rock of Goma.

Shortly after our arrival in Bukavu we are met by Padjos Lokeka, a quiet, lovely man with a sweet smile and fleeting eyes. He is a friend of Joseph's and will be driving us around for the next week.

Padjos and his brother started Centre Kitumaini after a group of soldiers broke into his sister's house and killed her husband. Thankfully, his sister, Elizabeth, wasn't home at the time. After the death of her husband, Elizabeth went into a deep depression. In an effort to try and revive her, Padjos and his bother started Center Katumaini, a small grassroots NGO that provides medicine, legal services, livestock, seeds, and transportation for women living in the more volatile provincial areas.

Padjos and Paul, our other driver, load our bags and we head to Lodge Coco.

Lodge Coco -

Once at the lodge we are greeted with a hearty welcome by Carlos Schuler. His wife, Christine Schuler Deschryver, is a human rights advocate and one of Eastern Congo's most outspoken critics of the war and the horrific toll it's taken on women. Christine's father founded Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the early seventies and was later murdered (poisoned) when he stood up against well-to-do gorilla poachers.

After hanging out with Carlos for a while Joseph and I head to the restaurant and order lunch--I order Tilapia and a green that I LOVE called lenga-lenga. Joseph orders the same as well as some weird concoction called Fufu. It's made out of cornflower and looks like bread dough when it's rising, like a substance that could take over the earth if left unattended. Yuck!

Minutes later we are joined by Christine Deschryver. Christine has lived this nightmare for over a decade now-- Ten years ago her best friend was raped by 20 men, her body found with 100 knife holes in it. Her Canadian husband was made to help, then he was killed as well.

I first laid eyes on Christine when she was being interviewed by Lisa Jackson for her documentary, "The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo. Christine spoke of the horrors, her worldly eyes had seen too much and were weary, but piercing-- just as they are today. I was immediately drawn to her.

Christine now heads V-Day/Congo and oversees the building of City Of Joy (COJ)--a joint venture by V-Day, Panzi Hospital, and UNICEF. City Of Joy will shelter female survivors--many of whom have been shunned by their communities, lost their families, and land rights because of the deep stigma against rape victims. COJ will be a transitional center where women will stay for 4 to 6 months. There will be therapeutic programs through dance, music, and art, as well as leadership training.

On this day Christine tells Joseph and me about a woman who came to Panzi Hospital after she was raped. "She was operated on, recovered, then returned to her village. A year later she was raped again, this time by a soldier with AIDS. She had the baby, a little girl, who was born HIV positive. The woman died when the little girl was three. She is five now." Christine smiles at the thought of the young girl, "Dr. Mukwege tells me not to get too close. Of course I can't help it." I want to meet this little girl, I think to myself. Christine shakes her head, looks to the ground, disheartened, "There are so many stories; hundreds of thousands of stories like this. Some so horrific they can't be told." I blurt, "I want to work for you." I do. I want to do anything to help relieve Christine Deshryver's burden.

Tomorrow Christine is taking the Vice-Governor of Bukavu to visit The City Of Joy and invites Joseph and I to join her. Of course we accept.

Next day--

Before the City Of Joy ceremonies, Joseph and I visit AFEM. AFEM is an association of women journalists working on good governance; democracy; human rights; and HIV/AIDS education. We are met by Julienne Baseke, AFEM's Program Officer.

In 2006, a provision was added to the Congolese constitution that consecrated equality between men and women, but these laws are rarely enforced. In fact many women in rural areas don't even know their rights. AFEM broadcasts news intended to empower women, reminding them of their constitutional rights in both rural and urban regions.

Close to six months ago three female journalists received threats after their reporting on Kimia II - the botched Congolese Army/MONUC (UN Peacekeepers) military operation that ended with 62 civilians dead. In spite of the threats, AFEM continued their denunciation of the Kimia II operation. At a press conference in Kinshasa, AFEM received threats and orders to deny any information they received about the ill-fated Kimia II. AFEM continued to report, and more death threats followed. Julienne said journalists are now so afraid that they quit reporting on Kimia II and today write under pseudonyms.

City Of Joy -

After a brief stop at the Vice-Governor's house we are on our way to City Of Joy.
In the car Christine turns to me, "Do you remember that little girl I told you about yesterday?" I nod, about to ask when I can meet her. Christine's eyes blur, "She died last night." I stare out the backseat window and for the first time on the trip I numb out.

We arrive at City of Joy.

The first thing I notice is men and women of all ages working together. Happily!

Christine introduces the project; refers to Secretary of State Clinton's recent visit to the area; and suggests the word "rehabilitation" be replaced with "reconstruction." She tells the press, "City of Joy will change pain into power and teach women leadership. It's a revolution without taking arms."

Dr. Mukwege, director of Panzi Hospital, addresses the crowd. He expresses gratitude toward the governor in making the trip to see evolution of the construction.

The Vice-Governor thanks Dr. Mukwege, the V-Day foundation, the visitors, and the construction company. "It's great seeing female engineers working with your company." He wonders why the International Media is not talking about the Congo crisis, "where like at the time of the Holocaust more than 5 million have perished."

As the Vice-Governor continues, Joseph and I talk with Dr. Mukwege. We put forth our idea about helping women mobilize. Dr. Mukwege likes the idea. He is disgusted by the way women are treated in Congolese society. "People need to understand that the power of women is misused. The male oppression on women is a loss to the community. We don't need 10 years to change this country. We made a mistake the first time, calling this a women's movement. It's unrealistic to separate men from women. They are complementary to each other. Men and women need to hold hands for a positive outcome. This will expedite a change in views. Together they're stronger. And, absolutely you should get some men to join in the rallies. Get men that can articulate a message of unity."

I go back to Lodge Coco inspired by Dr. Mukwege: I, with Joseph's help, can organize this. Justine Masika Bihamba, from Synergie des Femmes contre les Violence Sexuelles, is on board. The amazing men and women at Centre Olame offered a few suggestions and like the idea too. And I will mention the idea to Christine and I hope she will join in once I tell her of our plan.

All we have to do now is establish a delegation of Congolese men who will unite with Congolese women's rights leaders and join them in speaking out against violence against women. To do this Joseph and I need to raise enough money to send that delegation to Kinshasa (where the President resides). Meanwhile, we need to help local leaders organize simultaneous protests on the ground in Goma and Bukavu; figure out a way to keep them secure; and keep all the organizations in alliance. That's all we have to do.

That night I snap at Joseph.

Part 6 --

Backtracking a bit

Joseph had worked hard to secure a meeting with a well-known Congolese women's rights activist, sending numerous emails prior to our trip requesting an appointment. He finally got a response from her. She wanted to know the specific reasons for my desire to meet.

Many individuals, celebrities, and NGOs, with far more notoriety, influence, and heft than I have passed through Eastern Congo over the last six years. Many of them make big promises to help, leave their business cards, and are never heard from again, so I understood her hesitation. In response I sent off a flurry of e-mails outlining my intentions and expressing my gratitude for the opportunity to sit with her. Finally the meeting was set.

On our second (or third) day in Goma, Joseph and I, along with Kizito and Seven, arrived at her office, and of course... she's wasn't there. Her Deputy Director had no record of the appointment. Joseph asked her to please call the woman. Retreating into another room, the Deputy Director talked to her boss in hushed tones with her hand cupped over the receiver, occasionally glancing at me and Joseph in the waiting room. After she got off the phone she and Joseph exchanged a few tense words in French--Joseph reminding her that we had come all the way from the United States and that it was bad policy to not show up for a meeting. Then I swear I heard the Deputy Director say, (even though I don't speak French), "What can she do?" If those weren't the exact words it was definitely the subtext!

"What can she do?" Her words (real or, imagined) maddened me. She didn't know my history, or my evolution that lead me here, nor my determination and commitment to the Congolese women. How dare she. But more than pissing me off, she reinforced the little-- actually not so little-- gnawing, persistent, voice of doubt, that was asking the same question: "Really, what can you do?" I didn't know the answer. I hate not knowing the answer. So I did what I have done all my life, pushed the ever-present voice of doubt to the side, and made it my mission to prove her (real, or imagined) judgment wrong.

Joseph stood, I picked up my camera and backpack, and we politely excused ourselves from the meeting that never happened.

Synergy

Our next appointment was with Justine Masika Bihamba, a human rights worker who devotes her life to helping women of sexual violence, documenting incidents of rape as well as war crimes in East Congo. She has also bravely confronted the Congolese Judiciary about the culture of impunity. Justine created Synergie de Femmes contre les Violence Sexuelles, a grassroots collective of local women's rights groups that works on initiatives to put an end to the violence against the women of the Eastern DRC.

As a result of her work, Justine's family was attacked, both daughters tied up and beaten, one daughter sexually assaulted by the Congolese military. Both girls now live in Uganda, but Justine refuses to leave and has never wavered in her drive to promote peace and human rights.

Prior to leaving for the Congo, I had a conversation with an authority on Africa/kinda friend of mine about my upcoming trip. I mentioned my idea of trying to mobilize women. My authority on Africa/kinda friend of mine works non-stop and is known for his tireless commitment to bringing peace to conflict zones in Africa. He's also known not to mince words. "Don't go in with any grandiose ideas. They'll think you're nuts," he says with critical impatience. He takes a breath, "Just go in and listen, ask what you can do to help. They'll appreciate that." With a catch in my voice, I bow to his authority. I hate that about myself. I begin to back peddle. "That, that... is my intention," I stumble. "I mean to go and listen. First and foremost, I'm going to listen to their needs and see how I can facilitate their work from the States." "Good," he says.

So as I'm sitting in the room with Justine, I ask if she can explain a little about what Synergie de Femmes does. She politely responds. Joseph translates. Silence. My African authority/kinda friend of mine's voice runs through my mind. "Just listen," I hear him say. I open my mouth--nothing comes out. Uncomfortable silence. I look at Justine. I'm losing her. The tennis match that takes place for the next thirty seconds between the warring voices in my head is ridiculous: Positive Voice, "It's a big a idea, but it's not grandiose." Negative Voice, "It's grandiose." PV, "No it's not. It's a big idea. It's what you think you can do best." NV, "What you can do best? You've never done it before in your life!" PV, "Look, it won't be easy, but shit, nothing you take on ever is." NV, "Good point. No! I mean..."

Justine looks at the floor, taps her fingers on the desk. "From your heart, Cath. Hang in there! Just speak your truth." And so what always happens when I speak from the heart happens-- I cry. (Ugh). "I have this idea, uh, about mobilizing women...possibly sending a delegation to Kinshasa." Joseph translates. Justine looks up. She's interested. "Maybe holding sit-ins or protests simultaneously in Goma and Bukavu," I add with an ever-so-slight degree of confidence. Justine smiles.

Two hours of passionate conversation and number crunching later, me and Justine and Joseph are united on a mission. Justine likes big ideas.

Back in Bukavu, Hope swings

"But we've done protests. We sent a delegation to Kigali to talk to Kagame. He wouldn't see us. No one listens," says Odile. "If we do this it needs to be coordinated with protests in the States," Franny chimes in.

We are visiting the folks at Centre Olame. They like the idea of mobilizing, but they think it needs coordination and focus to work. Odile tells me, "You need to speak to your government..." I think, "Speak with my government. How am I going to do that?" "We'll also need security--A MONUC/UN Peacekeeping presence," Franny adds. The doubting voice smiles a sinister Grinch-like smile. I notice my hands pushing my hair back, nonchalantly covering my ears, readying myself for the berating. Odile tells me, "What your government believes we need and what we, Congolese women, feel we need are different. If you could deliver a list of our requests..." I think of the Raise Hope For The Congo lobby days coming up in Spring. I tell them about it and say, "If Centre Olame and other Congolese women's rights organizations can come up with a list of their needs and sign off on them as one united group, I will give that list to my friend Candice at the Enough Project and perhaps we could deliver it to our representatives." I will also put Centre Olame in touch with Justine at Synergy. CO can work from Bukavu and Synergy from Goma. They love the idea. And two hours later... we are united on a mission.

That evening I lay in bed thinking, "Okay, all I have to do is figure out a way to raise money to send a delegation to Kinshasa, help facilitate security for the protests, and deliver a list of proposals to our government representatives from the Congolese women. That's all I have to do." I don't move from fetal position all night long.

The Siege of Centre Kitumaini - Our last day in Bukavu

We arrive at Centre Kitumaini. I walk into the office. About a dozen women sit in the waiting room--waiting for me. Padjos has set up meetings with representatives of four small local NGOs working with rape survivors. Four meetings. In a row. Right now. My brain swirls.

We meet first with Gracia Ruboneka and Agnes Mukongere of FRAPAC. They have traveled from Mwenga, a village 70 kms away from Bukavu-- over a half-days ride by bus. FRAPAC, like many NGOs, is a multi-pronged organization that deals with a multitude of issues facing rape survivors. They refer cases of sexual violence to Panzi Hospital. After medical treatment when women return to the village, they work on women's social reinsertion by teaching them skills and providing them with small loans to start a business, and also provide psychological counseling. Today they tell a story of trying to heal a community's trauma after witnessing such war atrocities as seeing human beings buried alive. I begin to cry.

Agnes speaks of a recent case that took place in Mwenga last Tuesday. She said armed men attacked a family, shot the husband, raped the wife, and took 2 girls as sex slaves. The husband died while the community was driving him to Bukavu for treatment. One daughter escaped only to find her father dead. I continue to cry.

The second group, Philomene Mwana Muzinzi Nehema and Collette Mwa Matabaro Mapendo, are both rape survivors. They represent the villages of Miti and Katana-- about 40 kms away from Bukavu. They said that last week 30 women and girls had been taken as sex slaves by the Interhamwe (FDLR).

Philomene spoke about a young woman who had been raped but didn't tell anyone, even her husband. From that time on all her pregnancies ended in miscarriage. She finally broke the silence after hearing of Philomene's story. I hug Philomnene and Collette.

After the women leave I crack, "You've misrepresented me," I snap at Joseph. "They think I am capable of more than I am. I can't do this... I can't... do this..." "They've traveled a half a day to see you," Joseph says calmly. The tears continue to roll. "It's the malaria medication," I convince myself. My doctor informed me of the side effects, "nausea and the possibility of a general malaise." I remember thinking at the time, "A 'general malaise,' with my chemistry? In the Congo! Are you kidding me?"

Max, my ex-husband and good friend, warned me before I left, "Cath, try not to take it all on. Your empathy is your gift. It can also be your downfall. If you want to do this work you have to find a way to protect yourself."

Up until today, I have done well. I have stayed open and present, feeling the horror and hope of the stories I've heard, letting them pass through me, only breaking in my private moments. But today I am spent, and raw, I have taken it all on. The stories don't pass through me any more they now stay with me. How could they not. I begin to comprehend the incomprehensible-- This is REALLY happening. Here. Right now. Every day. Women raped in unimaginable ways. Husbands killed. Daughters stolen.

I start to beat myself up for even considering leaving, but I stop, and I do something I rarely do...forgive myself. Forgive myself for not holding it together. Forgive myself for not being strong. I forgive myself for being where I am. And I stay. I allow myself to be just where I am. And I stay.

The last 2 groups are brought in together. Elodie, the head of civil society spoke of the services they provide in the territories of Walungu and Kabare. Anne spoke for OBA. Both groups take rape survivors, counsel them, give them some crops and small piece of land to farm. Mapendo (OBA) tells us, "We try and educate the children who have lost their parents, but it's a major challenge. Many kids run away to be street children in Bukavu."

I sit and I listen to these amazing women who have been witness to acts which would send most of us into retreat, but who are instead rising up, pulling together to help one another; speaking up against antiquated and barbaric customary law, creating communities of support. I sit in awe of these brave souls. Congolese women are strong, and resilient, and beautiful. They will not stop raising their voices; they will not stop risking their lives; they will not stop traveling long distances in the hope that one middle-aged white woman from Santa Monica might just be the tipping point in stopping this horror. They will talk to anyone who listens until the terror ends. And now so will I. I will talk to anyone that will listen. I will not stop. They are my sisters, my mothers, my daughters, my friends.

That evening I lie in bed. Once again, I skip dinner. Once again, I am reduced to the fetal position. I am turned inside out by this day. "What if I go home and I can't get people to imagine the unimaginable. Even worse, what if they don't care," I think to myself. This is happening now. NOW. Thirty girls were taken. A father shot. A child raped. I cry.

A few minutes later, Harper walks in. Harper McConnell is a 26 year-old whip smart blonde from Manhattan, Kansas. She has lived in the Congo for three years. Harper is a whole story in herself (Really. You can read about her in Nick Kristof's and Sheryl WuDunn's book Half The Sky). She came to the Congo to work for Heal Africa. She was the US Director Of Development there for two years. Harper's presence in Goma and Bukavu bodes well for the future of Eastern Congo. She will definitely be a heroine in on of my screenplays.

Harper sits next to me on the bed. "You okay," she asks. I nod. "I don't know what to do. I don't know where to begin." Harper rubs my leg, smiles knowingly, "You can't know right now."

After Harper leaves I put my hands over my heart. "Breathe, Cath. Breathe." A few moments later I'm on my knees, kneeling at the side of my bed, praying. I am not one who usually prays, and if I do it's rarely on my knees, but I have been brought to my knees in passionate prayer many times over the past year with nowhere else to turn. I pray for faith-- faith that the answer will come to me. I crawl back in bed and I allow myself to rest in the 'not knowing.'

Soon my mind drifts to all the amazing people I've met, people doing extraordinary things for little or no money, motivated only by their own humanity and a desire to see peace. The great paradox of the Congo is that there is so much horror and yet so much hope. Some of the most brutal and some of the most beautiful people exist here.

I think of Paul Ramazani and the GLR/Foundation Ramalevina. They provided Joseph and I with our host letter. They are the reason we were allowed into the country. Foundation Ramalevina works on all fronts of women's issues with little staff (mostly volunteers) and almost no money. They work on the economic restoration of the victims because most of them have lost everything. Ramalevina works with abandoned rape survivors, those who have been taken as sex slaves, those who have no place to stay. Legal rights/empowerment is another aspect the organization focuses on. Reconciliation with Survivor's husbands and their communities is something Ramalevina strives to achieve.

I think of the growing number of legal teams sprouting up, providing these desperately needed legal services to survivors of sexual violence. Because of the heavy stigma of rape, community rejection, child custody, and land rights, are all challenges facing survivors. It's crucial the women be educated on their rights. The majority of rape survivors do not have access to any legal services. They do not realize laws exist which protect their rights and that they even have any basic, inherent right to justice at all.

There is Kerry Gough who is helping HEAL AFRICA put together its Gender and Justice Program-- a collaborative effort with Universtite' Libre, a Congolese university. Together the partners will develop a legal aid clinic which will train Congolese law students to educate women about their rights under both formal and customary law and represent them in both justice systems. Not only will the aid provide access to the legal system for survivors of rape, but it will also build up the rule of law in Eastern Congo.

There is Senghor Bagalwa and Claude Maon of Advocates Sans Frontieres (ASF) and Mireille Ntambuka of Dynamique Des Femmes Juristes. Both organizations go into the villages and educate the greater community about gender justice issues, and more broadly, reinforce the truth of each person's right to justice and dignity.

There is Brandy Walker at Panzi Hospital who is focusing on land rights issues. She told me a story about a number of corrupt magistrates being fired by President Kabilia - a good sign. But since, there has been a huge back log in cases as the new magistrates find their way through the system, working hard at being meticulous, not wanting to make one mistake in an effort to make prosecutions stick.

There is Sekombi Katondolo who started YoleAfrica, a center for art and music that serves as a positive alternative to the street, a place where kids can come and express themselves through music, painting, photography, dance, and writing.

There is Murhabazi Namegabe of BVES who takes orphaned children off the streets of Bukavu and houses them, feeds them, educates them, and offers them psychological counseling.

And Major Honorine Munyole Police Nationale Congolese - who is often called the 'one woman special victims unit.' For years she operated out of a wooden shack with just one other person on her staff.

And Christine Karumba of Women For Women International. Women For Women provides housing, rehabilitation, skills and leadership training.

That night I go down to dinner. The restaurant at Lodge Coco is full and resembles Rick's Café in the movie Casablanca--A hub for expats, NGO workers, political figures, human's rights advocates. Dr. Mukwege is there. The Vice-Governor is there. The tables are full of people, full of people who are trying to find a way to peace in the Congo.

I sit across from Harper. Joseph joins and we share a beer. I look around the restaurant and am filled with hope... hope in the possibility that people are starting to listen.

That night I had a dream.

A mother and her seven year-old daughter sleep soundly, peacefully in their beds. That night terror creeps into their village and raises its fist to their door. But just as terror is about to knock something shifts, perhaps enough consciousness raised that a sinister energy is alchemize, and terror turns and retreats from the door.

The next morning the mother gets up and fixes breakfast. The daughter gets dressed. The mother shoos her daughter out the door to get her to school on time. After, the mother sticks her hands in the earth, plants some seeds, tills the garden, and fetches the water.
The daughter sits in class twirling her hair, daydreaming about the end of the school day so she can play.

After the daily chores the mother takes a bus to her part-time job so she can pay to go to school on the weekends in Goma or Bukavu.

That evening the daughter jumps rope with a friend in the yard. The mother returns from work, weary. She calls to her daughter to come in and do her homework before dinner. The daughter balks at her request. The mother snaps at her daughter. The daughter throws down the jump rope, stomps inside, and opens her schoolbooks.

At the dinner table they eat silently.

Before bed the mother sits next to her daughter and brushes her hair. She tucks her in, and kisses her goodnight. Her daughter softens.

Late into the night, the mother studies by candlelight. She rubs her tired eyes, finally shuts her books, and turns in herself.

Both mother and daughter experience fleeting moments of joy during the grind that comes with the routine of the average day... and both sleep soundly through the night never knowing the terror that was just outside their door.

Never, never, never knowing the terror that was just outside their door.

Things You Can Do To Help:

  • Support International Violence Against Women's Act
  • Commit To Buying Conflict Free Products
  • Support Congo Conflict Minerals Act
  • Support the Conflict Minerals Trade Act
  • Call The White House (202-456-1111) and tell the President he needs to politically engage more on the Congo; to put pressure on the Rwandan and Ugandan governments to come to a diplomatic solution in stopping the war in the Congo.

 

Catherine Corpeny is a screenwriter who has worked on behalf of human rights, specifically women’s rights, for the last four years. She returned from Washington DC last June where she lobbied members of Congress to co-sign the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act. She is currently working on a PSA on how small consistent acts of advocacy can create a movement that can change the lives of girls and women in the DRC.
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