I am so weak. Weak of heart, weak of emotional strength and I’m constantly distracted. This is my assessment in looking back and wondering why it has taken me six months to sit still, reflect, and write about my time in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the beginning after returning home, I knew I simply needed time to recover physically from the travel and the climb which led me to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I needed rest, to adjust to my local time zone, and to get back into a rhythm of everyday living with my family. But then I fell into a funk of sorts – little energy or motivation and I was hungry most of the time. I think it is called let down. Epic high adventure followed by the routine of daily life.
Looking back now I am disappointed in myself – so weak and so self centered – very human. I am sorry. In my delayed response I have let the women I went to advocate for and myself down. If there are any people on earth who need a quick response – an alarm pulled on their behalf – it is the women I met in DRC. These women, who also represent millions of women around the world, have endured the most horrific forms of gender based violence.
I have decided though that my disappointment in myself won’t deter me from taking one more step – however small – in trying to shed light and speak up to what is going on in the world and what we might do to help.
I was overwhelmed with emotion when we walked into the small church in the community of Rushuru located three hours north of Goma. Joyful singing of welcome of our arrival caused my eyes to fill with tears immediately and remained ready to overflow during our entire visit. We had expected fifteen women to attend our first meeting and thirty arrived. There were so many of us in the small church where we met, we had to break into two groups. We were there to see and to listen.
In the beginning when I first began to hear the stories of these women I was confused by the joy. Eventually I would learn the redeeming work of God when his people come together and care for the most vulnerable in their communities despite circumstance.
The women were as beautiful as the natural landscape of their country. Flawless, smooth dark skin adorned by bright colorful cloth dresses – absolutely stunning. Their beauty, however, was contrasted sharply by the ugliness of the evil and violence each one of the women has endured. One by one I heard detailed accounts of horrific violent rapes.
Lena – 45 years old. Attacked by two men while gardening. One stabbed her. The other raped her. A local pastor would tell her where she could find help.
Vera – 68 years old. Over ten years ago she was raped by three men while collecting firewood. When she resisted, the men shot her in the leg. She was taken to a hospital to treat her leg, however, after two years of being sick, she discovered she had HIV from her rape. Showing me her papers she would share how the medical care she has received has kept her physically alive and the support from this group has kept her emotionally alive.
Remi – Shortly after her husband died, men broke in her house and raped her. While resisting she was stabbed in her arm. While in the hospital seeking medical attention her house was burnt. Her pastor told her of a church that cared for people in her situation. She eventually found care and support from this group. Now she and group of women cultivate land together.
Evelyn – 46 years old. Over ten years ago she was raped by two men while working in the field. She didn’t know of any treatment at that time and was afraid to tell her husband what happened. She tried to keep it a secret. She didn’t know she was HIV positive and pregnant. Her child died. Three years later her husband would die. Eventually she was given correct advice and found this group. She would learn how to care for herself and how to farm in order to provide for her four remaining children.
Lesly – 44 years old. When war broke out in her community she ran home to be with her husband, her daughters, and her aunt. She didn’t know people were fleeing the area. By evening rebels forceably came into her home. All the men in the family were moved to one side while all the women, including her daughters were raped. Shortly after they all fled to another community where they learned about this community.
Malla – The rebel group M23 was terrorizing her community when they came to her house asking for money. With no money to give, four soldiers raped her and a neighbor. Two days later she went to a hospital and eventually found this group for support.
Hope – 43 years old. While feeling fighting in her community she was raped by a man with knife. Receiving bad advice she suffered with HIV for a while before someone told her the right place to go for the help she needed to recover and heal. Now she farms and can provide for herself.
Bella – 28 years old. She was home sick sleeping with her kids when the rebel group M23 kicked in her door. They asked where her husband was and where her weapons were. She told them her husband was dead and she had no weapons. Her kids were crying by now and they told them if they weren’t quiet they would beat their mother. One from the group raped her in her own bed. Eventually she sought medical attention and joined the support group of other women.
Mary- 49 years old. She was attacked and raped twice. First by someone in her community and then taken by a rebel solider to their leader. She was kept there and raped for three days. Once returned she avoided questions by her husband to what had happened to her. When eventually she showed signs of pregnancy, her husband kicked her out of the family. She eventually had the baby girl and when her husband saw the little girl, he divorced her. As her daughter grew up they would work in a field together. When the daughter was 10 years old, five men attacked them, tying them up to banana plants and raping them both. Police eventually came, cut the ropes they were tied to, and took them both to the hospital. The rapists were evenually captured and emprisioned but quickly released by the chief of police in her area. She and her daughter eventually found help through this support group but the men continue to be free.
Esperance – 50 years old. I knew of her brutal rape and how she was left for dead, but what I didn’t know was that she has undergone multiple repairative surgeries and her body cannot be fully restored. She has, however, been apart of the support group and over the years has received enough training so she now can be a leader and counselor in the support group.
Faith – 26 years old. While looking for firewood she was raped by soldiers. She was told not to run, but did and tried to fight them off. They beat her terribly before raping her. She went to a hospital on her own and eventually made it back home. But she was worried about them coming back and a local pastor suggested she get help and introduced her to this group.
1, 2, 3, 4 – 11, women in my group would have a chance to share their story that afternoon before the sun would begin to go down to signal us all that our time together was ending. We hugged one another and took pictures together. We didn’t want to forget our time together – a sacred time of sharing vulnerable things and listening with fellow sisters. We learned that our listening was apart of their healing. It didn’t feel like much, but we were told they knew we had been praying for them. They knew we traveled far to meet them. They knew we considered them sisters and we hurt for them.
It didn’t seem enough. I left grateful and broken. In many ways, I still am.
I am grateful for the opportunity to be with them, to be awaken to the brokenness of this world and to bear witness to God’s work in some of the most forgotten places. I am grateful for the work of World Relief in Democratic Republic of Congo. God has used the staff and volunteers in transformational ways to train up local leaders to care for the least in their community and educate on trauma care and counseling, savings programs, job creation, health and sanitation, and peace building initiatives in an area of the country that regularly sees tremendous violence. I have the deepest respect for them.
I am still broken – emotionally fragile, quick to withdraw when I am overwhelmed or hurting, and despite the hope and redemption I witnessed, I am still grieving the degree of human depravity that systematically targets the most vulnerable in our world.
The only way forward I know is simply refusing to do nothing. It doesn’t have to be big, but it has to be something. Lesson #2 (one that I have had to learn and relearn over and over): Refuse To Do Nothing.
If you would like to help the women I met or women who are receiving similar care in the area of Democratic Republic of Congo, please considering donating to World Relief. Checks can be sent to World Relief (“DR Congo” on the memo line) 7 East Baltimore Street, Baltimore, MD 21202