There's a military confrontation in Isale, about 25 km from Butembo, which is one hour by car. If there were paved roads it would mean only about 20 minutes. Somehow, everyone knows about it the day that it begins. The FRDC--Congolese 'governmental' forces--are fighting the Nalu--Ugandan rebel forces. Nobody knows why they're fighting, or whose side the Nalu are on, but with so many different military groups switching allies with enemies, it's difficult to know what the sides are anymore. One would assume that the FRDC, being 'governmental' forces would be on the side of the Congolese people, yet Maman Marie and I receive word that in Isale the FRDC have pillaged several villages around Isale, raping at least 3 women and at least one man. The only consistent enemy in this war are the regular people, children especially. They're easier to catch.
I'm in the office after buying four sewing machines and a months' worth of start-up materials for the girl-mother camp in Magherya. It wasn't possible to buy the machines the last time I came as a result of the two students who were murdered by the police. The original plan was for me to travel with Maman Marie to Magherya to install the sewing machines, immediately after buying them. Now, Maman Marie has a greasy letter and a hand-written list in front of her with 4 pages of recently displaced persons and the number of children in each family. Both arrived while we were out buying the machines.
We want to inform you of the problem we have here. The military are making us suffer greatly. They are stealing our cows, goats, chickens, everything they can find. What should we do? The children are getting sick because of the famine and people are already dying. We sleep in the forest to hide from the soldiers. Maman COPERMA, help us please. We have hope in you because you can counsel us in what we should do. We had 3 sick girls, but one is dead. What should we do for the two girls who are still alive? Since the fighting began we have received many refugees and now we have received many more. They come from the villages Mwalika, Kivuma and Kitendo. Now, Maman, what should we do for the sick? Can you come here to see that their health is not good? You will see it yourself, and maybe you can help us know what to do.
The tone reminds me of the book by Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. It's subject matter that should have so much emotion and yet is written with the formal respect of a business letter.
I take the 1980s style calculator and start tallying up the number of children to get an idea of how many people are now displaced because of this particular confrontation. Most families have at least 10 children. Everyone here with no international exposure has the idea that children are an investment in wealth. People stop listening to me when I ask how they're going to pay for 12 children to eat let alone finish secondary school, when they make 25-35 dollars a month, if that. The massive families are like someone blowing on coals of poverty, but everyone tells me that somewhere down the line those 12 children will somehow make them rich.
-1,149 people, I say. Mostly children.
That's 1,149 people who have had to flee their homes and are now living in the forest and relying on a neighbor's kindness for any morsel of food, down to the speck of porridge powder. Every single family in the villages struggles to feed their children. Suddenly having 3 more families with 8-10 children each, all needing food equals death for at least a few children, more depending on how long the conflict lasts. Everyone in the COPERMA office knows it.
-The Chief of the Village also sent a list of les malades.
Maman Marie hands me another sheet of paper with eleven names scrawled across it.
-The four on the bottom are rape victims, Maman Marie points to four names sectioned off at the bottom of the page. There were 3 girls raped who are in hiding, but one of the girls is already dead. One is a man, and he has been hiding in the bush for two days now because the soldiers look for him. He is much sicker than the others. He was raped on two levels, she adds.
She points to her mouth and then in the direction of the chair she's sitting on. I put my head in my hands. I'm not sure what you're supposed to do in a situation like this. Where is the Non-Profit Organization that's supposed to magically appear with large trucks and sacks filled with food? I thought they sprouted out of the seed of famine like a flower and magically rained pollen on the people. No flowers here. There is no way I can provide even one meal for 1,149 people.
-If we buy 50 kg of rice powder, 100 kg of porridge powder and 100 kg of manioc, we can feed the 11 sick people, she says, still working on the calculator.
-For how long? And how much would that cost? I ask.
-Would it be better if we buy beans? They're less expensive than rice, interjects Urbain. Urbain is one of the young men who works for Maman Marie, part of her 'team.' Urbain has an attitude and I love that he uses it with me. He doesn't tip-toe around me and shoves it in my face when I'm wrong or thirty minutes late; it's refreshing. He's a normal sized man, relatively handsome with a face that always has an underlining of mischief to it.
-Beans also have a lot more nutrition than rice, I say.
It sounds silly when I say it, but when you're talking about 4 year olds and sick people lasting as long as they can on a tiny amount of food, it wouldn't make sense to bring the equivalent of rice, potatoes and bread. We work with the kilograms and prices, trying to figure out the most nutritious and efficient combination of food we can bring. We decide on 100 kg of fufu powder, 100 kg of beans and 100 kg of porridge powder for the mornings, which will cost approximately $250. It feels like a waste. What's one week of food for 11 people out of 1,149? What's one week at all? I think of my friend MJ, who called it "spitting into the wind." Maman Marie hasn't come out and said it but I can tell by her flickering glances and the lack of money in her purse that all of this funding will be coming from me. I feel completely frustrated. I could throw my entire life-savings at this respectively small group of people and not make a dent. My Godmother just sent me an e-mail indicating $300 waiting kindly for me in Western Union; I'm going to use it up in less than a day.
I'm suddenly infuriated with UNICEF and Save the Children Foundation. I've only seen those 'organizations' drive around knocking people off the road in their white vans with meaningless logos on the side. Maybe they mean something somewhere else, but here those logos are just doodles on a car. Handicap International, a French based organization, has two offices in Lubero. Both offices simply house people who 'work' there. When I went to speak with a French woman who was visiting to survey the situation for handicap people she confirmed, 'there's absolutely nothing here.' I could have told her that and saved her the flight. I refrained from asking what the purpose was of even having the two offices and several wandering vans. Not to mention, Kahambu lay on her cot for three weeks after the rape, directly next door to one of the Handicap offices. I also refrain from mentioning this to the transient, wild-haired administrator.
-What about the survivors of sexual violence in the bush? I ask, pulling myself back into the office. I think it's a priority to get them out so they can be safe and get medical treatment before we do anything else.
-The man is the sickest, and the most targeted says Marie.
-We can only transport one person at a time on a motorcycle, is it safe to go in and get them with the car?
-Not with a car, and definitely not with you, says Urbain. He throws me one of his twinkling smirks.
-If the military see a car they'll think we have money and will definitely rob us, maybe kill us. If they see you, we're done for.
-Okay, I say. I don't need convincing. Why don't you take my motorcycle right now and go get him? I look to Maman Marie for confirmation and she nods in agreement.
-I think that's best, says Urbain. It will be necessary for the village Chief to come back with us, to hold the man on the bike.
He stands up and starts patting his pockets making sure he has all of his necessary things. I hand him my helmet, my key, my raincoat and $7 for gas.
-I'll wait for you here, I say. I'll go to FEPSI now to make sure they have a place and are ready to receive him. I know one of the psychologists and he's extremely helpful, so I'm pretty sure we can get the man in. Do you know how old he is?
That's not a man, that's a boy.
-It's terrible, Maman Marie mutters and laughs softly. I laugh with her. Our laughter is not because the situation is funny, but simply because of the insane absurdity of it. It's recognition of mutual understanding, confusion and disgust, with a pinch of sadness and fear mixed in.
I laugh loudly when women ask me to give them the dress I'm wearing, not because it's funny, because it's so frustratingly ridiculous. I understand how poor you are, I always want to say, but don't you think it would be just a little bit weird for me to walk around in just my blindingly white skin?
-Terrible, Maman Marie repeats. Her voice is shaking as it always does, but recently it's started to make me uncomfortable. I'm constantly worried she's going to fall off her chair or collapse on the floor in a sobbing heap.
-Yeah, I agree again. Okay. I'll go tell FEPSI. Send me a text message when you're on your way back to Butembo so I can meet you there, I say to Urbain.
He has the large helmet in place and nods with it shaking loosely on his head before turning and leaving the room.
-I'll bring the machines to Magherya now, and you can come out later in the week with a report on how the boy is doing, says Maman Marie. I told them we'd be bringing the machines today and I want the girls to be able to start learning tomorrow.
-I'll send you a text message when he gets here and let you know his condition.
I get up, we shake hands and I head out the door to FEPSI. I'm starting to feel a bit like the team and it feels great. Outside, the dust is overwhelming, especially now that we're in the dry-season. It still rains, this is the tropical equator after all, but when we don't have moisture for a couple days the dirt on the road is suffocating. Every night my eyes burn from the malicious little grains. FEPSI is only a few blocks away. In Butembo, people still call out muzungu but they typically don't approach me and ask me for my shoes or my dress like they do in Lubero. I greet as many people as I can and keep walking.
Joelle, my psychologist friend at FEPSI who I met through Pere Charles when he was here, is in the office when I arrive at the open red gates. The courtyard is filled with people and I worry that it's because of the affrontement. They're not going to have any space. I'm led into Joelle's office on the second floor, past a long line of people waiting to get in.
-Lots of people here! I say after shaking hands with him and the three nurses crowded into the room.
-We're doing free HIV-testing.
It's the first time I've heard or seen any positive initiative of the sort since I arrived.
-I was worried they were here because of the military confrontation in Isale.
The crinkles around his eyes disappear.
-No, we haven't been able to access anyone in Isale or around.
-Someone from COPERMA just went on motorcycle to retrieve a boy who was raped several days ago and has been hiding in the bush. I know you don't have much space, but would it be possible for you to treat him? Temporarily?
The suspense doesn't even have a second to build.
-Of course, he says. Anytime you have someone who has been a victim of sexual violence, we will treat them here. If it has to do with rape, they can always come here. And it's better than the hospitals, because we'll treat them for free.
Not for the first time I want to dive across the desk and kiss him. He's married with a kid so I stay in my seat.
-Thank you so much, I say forcefully. He should be arriving in the next two hours. I'll come back when he's close.
I start to get up to leave.
-I received your message, Joelle says quietly. About the woman from Lubero.
I sit back down slowly.
-Yeah, sorry I sent you the news in a message, but I was in Mulo so I couldn't come in person.
I could have called you to tell you more appropriately that Kahambu had died, but I didn't have the courage to explain through crackly service and crackly French. I chickened out and sent you a pathetic little text message instead.
-That's too bad, he says.
-Yeah. But it's better for her. She was suffering a lot. It's not right that it had to be that way, but it was, and now she's better off. C'est ca.
I've mirrored Immaculee's words so many times here, I'm beginning to despise them.
-Yes, I agree, he says with his eyes on the floor.
After a moment I reach out to shake his hand. His face lights back up with more enthusiasm than my college friends at a jam-band concert, which is saying something.
-Well, we'll be here waiting!
I leave the office and head to the market in the gritty sunshine. I need to buy a radio so I can hear Radio Okapi which sends news to North Kivu saying where the affrontements are, who's participating and who is caught in the cross-fire.