The sewing machines in Magherya are a hit. A couple days after making sure Christopher is safely settled at FEPSI I am able to join Maman Marie at the center in Magherya. I ask if one of the men who work in the boys' school next to the monastery can drive me out for the first time, since I don't know the route or the security on the road. The level of danger on the roads changes every ten meters and ten minutes because of les bandits, which pretty much always means soldiers, or police.
When the chosen driver emerges from the compound of the boys' school he is a gladiator. His body goes out in every direction but up. His name is Setraka and he's soft-spoken and kind. I know he has three kids, 2 girls and 1 boy. I asked my friend Justin to find someone with a family, so the few dollars I give for the trip might go towards a school fee. Everyone asks me if I can help them with their secondary school fees, which are between 45-60 dollars a school year. When Setraka gets on the motorcycle the whole thing sinks, and the idea of shock-absorbers goes out the window. The entire hour and a half trip up the mountains to the center I worry about the motorcycle snapping or simply stopping on the road and refusing to continue. The motor strains like an angry bee but we do, eventually, make it.
I don't stay long. The girls are already working with the two teachers Maman Marie had previously arranged. When I walk in all the girls start chattering and laughing loudly. They're working eagerly with the four shiny black machines, rotating between laughing at me and laughing at each other. The teachers walk through silently, darting in and out of the girls' work like chickens pecking at the ground. I take some pictures and bask in the glow of the smiling girls. They are all absolutely beautiful. If they were in my high school they'd run the school. Homecoming queen over here, captain of the soccer team over there, debate team M.V.P. in the middle. One in particular, who looks particularly young is constantly smiling and laughing. Her name is Kavira and she thinks it's hilarious when I say my name is Kavira too. The teacher's are a bit frustrated that I'm distracting their students, but the girls keep working while they laugh about the photos I take of them. I wish I could print them and leave a photo with each girl, they get so happy when they see themselves frozen in the tiny little box.
I head back with Maman Marie in the car. I've been on the motorcycle already for three hours and my back is not feeling so hot. I also don't think I can handle another hour and a half acutely tuned to the sounds of the motorcycle creaking under Setraka's massive muscle of a body.
The crisis in Isale is still a dilemma handed to Maman Marie and I know she doesn't know what to do with it. I leave it in her hands and for the most part follow her lead; I don't know what to do about it either. Over the past couple of days the situation has deflated somewhat and it becomes safe enough for us to bring a few sacks of food to the sick with the car. It's even safe enough for me to come along.
The morning that we plan to go to Isale Bamafay, Urbain and I head to the market to buy the various foods. Bamafay gets the manioc roots that look like white stones. The three of us stand and watch as the boys wearing masks and plastic bags on their heads grind the roots into light white powder. For the first two months I was here I thought the chunks of manioc root were actually rocks. I asked someone why so many women were selling rocks in the market and they laughed at me for about ten minutes before explaining.
Fufu is made after the roots are ground down to powder then mixed with warm water and stirred ferociously. The once rock-like roots become powder, then mush, then rock again when they sit in my stomach and refuse to leave. After the rock show Urbain and I head off for the beans, then the porridge powder and finally the blankets. When everything has been purchased the back of the car is packed. We head back to the office for Maman Marie.
-When we get close, hide your cell phone, she says as she pulls herself into the front seat.
-Are you sure it's safe for me to go?
She's been telling me yes, but always after a lot of hesitation. I know she'd never actually let me go if it wasn't safe but she's not very good at giving a straight answer.
-I called the village Chief this morning, he's waiting for us, she says in true form.
As I look out the window and we pull away from the COPERMA office I have the distinct feeling that this would be the moment I look back on later and think, if only I had changed direction in that moment. I have some images of possible scenarios and plan what I'll try to do if confronted with each. In the end I let the images go, I do trust Maman Marie.
The Nalu have left, but the FRDC are still in Isale. We're essentially trying to sneak past them in order to bring the food. They're like vampires, they hide in their canvas tents during the day only coming out at night to suck the blood of this country. As long as we leave before night falls there should be no problems.
After about thirty minutes we arrive at a wooden barrier. It's a toll road even though we are in the middle of the bush. They ask for $2 and Maman Marie argues feverishly.
-We're bringing food to sick people. You're really going to charge us to bring food to sick people?
The man who guards the barrier is wearing police colors--blue and yellow--but it's not actually a police uniform, just a blue jumpsuit over a yellow t-shirt. He's even wearing a yellow plastic whistle around his neck but the velvet, leopard print cowboy hat on his head is a bit of a give-away. Urbain gets out of the car and starts arguing with the man.
-What did he say? I ask, when Urbain gets back in.
-He said there are lots of military on the route and we'll have to pay there anyway, so we might as start by paying him now. But, he agreed on $1 instead of 2.
Maman Marie hands the bill through the window and the velvet cowboy lifts the wooden pole that stretches across the road. As we drive, I search the woods and the fields for green uniforms or the glint of a weapon. All I see are women hauling wood or potatoes, women hacking at the ground in their fields, women nursing babies in the shade while taking a break. There are men around too, but they stick to the roads and use bicycles that look like they're made out of string to cart enormous loads from one village to the next.
-That is where the soldiers are.
Maman Marie is pointing out the left side of the car. Not too far away, perched on a hill are three enormous canvas tents flapping in the wind. Their looming presence, off on a distant hill, makes it feel like I'm looking at a haunted house. The entire car is silent as we pass the canvas dormitories.
We arrive without seeing a single green uniform. When we're in the village of Isale, we stop in a random place in the road in the midst of a few small huts. I recognize the village Chief as he leaves the low entrance of one of the mud houses. He's ecstatic to see us and I'm afraid he'll dislocate my shoulder when he shakes my arm.
-Where are the people we're bringing food to? I ask.
I look around and see only empty huts and a few women and children who are floating around the car. Without a word the Chief sets off across the road and Maman Marie follows after. We walk to a pathway that leads into the brush. The dirt path goes downhill away from the road. After a few moments the trees explode into people. Sittin in the brush and around the trees there are humans everywhere; women holding babies, men with dirty clothes, teenagers looking eagerly in my direction. It's too surreal.
-They stay here in the brush so the military can't see them from the road, says the Chief.
Maman Marie picks up the reigns and starts talking to one of the men who is clinging to a tree. There are three very old women sitting in a ring around him at the base of the tree. Maman Marie, Urbain and I stand in front of the group like teachers giving a presentation to a class. Every single person is looking at us. As Maman Marie speaks I ask her periodically what's being said.
-They are asking what they should do. They can't go back to their homes or their fields because the soldiers are still there. The soldiers took all of the animals, and without the fields they have no way of finding food.
She points to three men in the group of eleven malades who have been separated from the larger group.
-The FRDC held these three men captive for four days. One of them was raped, she says. They beat the other ones up. The FRDC thought they were Nalu soldiers.
I look around Maman Marie's round form at the three scraggly men sitting on the ground. They look, in a way, like wounded children. All of them are wearing dirty, over-sized suits that make their skinny frames look almost non-existent. I can't see how anyone would mistake these men for soldiers.
-The Nalue are from Uganda so they speak only Swahili and Luganda. These men speak Kinande and don't know Luganda, so after four days they let them go.
The importance of language distinctions are not new. The FRDC speak Lingala--the language of the Kinshasa region--Nalu soldiers speak Ugandan languages and Mai-Mai speak a range from Kinande to Kicongo. But the Mai-Mai are often young boys and from what I've heard, much more unpredictable than the rest, if that's possible. When we speak with survivors of sexual violence, we only have to ask what language were they speaking, to know which soldiers committed the crime.
-The soldiers stole everything, every goat, every chicken, every cow, every bean. Maman Marie translates as the Man Hugging the Tree continues his explanation. The number of sick has increased to 19 but there are now two who are already dead.
An elderly woman sitting in the back suddenly speaks out with force. She has a cold, I can hear it in her sinuses, and a lot of anger in her voice. She looks straight at us and doesn't look away once as she speaks, as if we are the culprits for her pain. Maman Marie keeps translating.
-If it doesn't stop, everyone, especially the children risk dying. The kids will soon show malnutrition and then they will start to die.
There are so many eyes looking at us. The tone of Maman Marie's translation is escalating and I know she is feeling just as angry and frustrated as I am. I imagine once again, the many typical photos I've seen in Time Magazine or the Washington Post; images of people throwing bags of food to outstretched hands. These hands are outstretched but there is only one truck and three bags of food.
-How many children are there under the age of seven? I ask. And how many women are currently nursing?
Seven is an arbitrary number but it's where I've decided to draw the line between deserving of food and not yet. Maman Marie poses the question to the crowd. Everyone starts talking at once.
-The majority of us, says the Man Hugging the Tree over the other voices.
Urbain creeps up behind me.
-I'm going to go divide the food while you keep talking to the people here, he whispers.
Nobody else speaks French, but it feels appropriate anyway that he's whispering. He leaves and after a few more minutes of talking Maman Marie tells me she is going to go and help him. I start to move slightly in the same direction and the 50 or so children move a couple of steps with me. I stop. They stop. I take another step and they do too. A couple kids dart up the hill excitedly, sensing my direction, wanting to get to the car for a better view.
-I think it's best if I stay here, I say as Maman Marie passes by.
She looks at me a bit confused then looks at the children. Their eyes are wide-open and glued to me.
-Good idea, she says laughing. Her whole body shakes with her laughter. She trundles up the hill and I"m left to entertain the class on my own. At first I just stand there and it's completely effective. Not a child moves. I look at them and they look at me. It's a stand-off. I start tapping my pen against my little notebook and moving my hips to the rhythm. Everyone laughs. At the realization that they're missing a muzungu performance, the kids who tried to head me off at the car flow quickly back through the trees and join the rest of the group once again.
I ask an arbitrary question in French. Not one of them speaks a word of French but one brave little toaster answers anyway.
-No! Shouts a girl of about eight years old smiling at me.
-No? I ask.
-Oui! Several other kids join her.
Every single child in the crowd is now shouting in unison and I can't help but end the game laughing. They laugh with me. I see Maman Marie on the path. She yells down to me that they've finished distributing the food and we're going to the hospital now to visit three other sick people who are getting treatment. I walk through the brush to the dirt path and every single kid moves with me. Maman Marie and I walk back up the hill together; she looks back every now and then and laughs.
-The kids love you! She says.
-I know, I say, laughing with her.
We get back in the car and drive about five minutes to the hospital. I'm confused about what we're doing. The sick people change constantly, in terms of identity and location. I stop asking questions and just follow Maman Marie. I think my questions make her more confused too. Everything is hearsay, it leaves the bush, goes to the hospital, somehow makes it to Butembo then back to the bush; thus, the information changes with every person we speak to. It's like playing Telephone with war.
In the hospital, the rooms are made out of thin wooden partitions and the door to each room is a blue patterned bed-sheet. We're let past one of these bed-sheets to a room with three cots. Two cots are empty, but in the cot all the way on the left is a man. He has pulled his shirt up to show us the bruise on his side. The hospital administrator, or at least someone who talks like he has some authority, starts speaking.
-The soldiers came to this man's home and asked him for a chicken. He didn't own a chicken so they beat him up and they broke his lowest rib on the right side.
The man is still holding up his shirt to show his wound, but there's no Tatu-like pride in his face. He didn't ask for this fight.
-Was it the 4th battalion? Asks Maman Marie.
I'm a bit surprised by her question, it seems a bit out of place.
-No, it was the 6th.
-Are the Nalu still here?
-No, they're down in the valley. In Graben. Just FRDC are still here. There are three units.
The administrator looks at me.
-That's three thousand soldiers.
-What about the other sick people? Maman Marie asks.
-There were lots of girls who were raped.
-Did you give them medication to prevent a pregnancy? I ask. I know the hospitals do this and almost every girl I've spoken to has wanted to take the morning after pill. I find out later that FEPSI has distributed stock piles of the morning after pill to the hospitals in the war areas. One of these days I'm worried I may actually lose control of my happiness and kiss Joelle, my FEPSI psychologist friend.
-All of the ones who were able to come to the hospital took the pill, he says.
-We need to have an information session in the rural villages to tell people how important it is to come to the hospital within 72 hours. That way if they want to stop the pregnancy they can. The problem is that they don't know about it and they don't know it must be taken within 72 hours.
The problem, I think, is that these assholes are raping girls in the first place.
Maman Marie finishes speaking to the man with the broken rib and the administrator leads us back into the diminishing sunshine. We can't stay much longer or the soldiers will begin to flow out of those canvas tents like wasps leaving the hive.
-There are two girls here right now who were raped, they would like to speak with you. You can speak in that room.
We walk into an expansive room with several wooden benches and a young girl sitting alone. Her eyes glance up at us but drop immediately back to the ground and her expression doesn't change. I don't have to ask if she's one of the survivors. I've seen this sad expression too many times now.
I've changed my mind a bit about rape separating someone from their soul. The common distance in this girls face shows something else. I think it take a person further, not from their soul, but from the knowledge of their self-worth. It's already so hard to know how worthy you are, of love, life and joy; of all of the good things that could come to a person. Everyone deserves those happy things, but it's a knowledge that's hard to hold on to. Having something like rape throw you farther from that knowledge is one of the cruelest things I can imagine. Not knowing how beautiful and needed you are as an individual is one of the most horrible things to feel. Everyone has felt it. In these faces it seems like they don't see it at all anymore. It's across an ocean rather than a puddle or a lake. It's a terrifying thought.
I wish you could say to someone, you are worth everything beautiful in this world, and have them truly know it. Every time I see a survivor with their eyes on the ground I want to say, you're incredible! And beautiful throughout. You deserve love and comfort and laughter and hope, just like the rest of us. I can say it; I'll know it, but that doesn't mean that they will too.
I sit down on one of the benches across from this young girl and let Maman Marie take charge. The squat administrator man sits next to me and translates as Maman Marie and the girl speak in Kinande.
-Her name is Marcela. She says she doesn't know what the soldiers are doing here. One of the soldiers found her in the field. She was getting bananas to sell. It was one sole military, he spoke Swahili. She cried out but he forced her mouth closed so she couldn't warn the others, and he raped her.
Swahili doesn't say much about who it was, since it's the only common language between most of the groups. That and cruelty. I'm not sure why it matters who it was, but we keep asking language anyway. Marcela's eyes dart back and forth as if not knowing which spot on the floor to rest on.
-She's afraid when she sees the soldiers.
-You must try to forget this, says Maman Marie.
Marcela responds, looking down at her feet now.
-She says she'll never be able to forget it.
-Please tell her it's necessary that she knows that this wasn't her fault, I cut into the conversation. These were the actions of another person, she didn't do anything wrong.
Maman Marie translates. I wish I could speak Kinande. I want to say so much more. I ask if she minds if I take a picture of her. If anything, it might cheer her up a little bit. She looks up with interest and nods her head yes. I take a couple pictures of her. Her face doesn't change its sad expression and she still doesn't seem to know what to do with her eyes. I smile as big as I can and point to my teeth.
-Smile with your teeth!
She laughs and smiles and she's beautiful. I show her the pictures I just took and she laughs and smiles some more. It ends quickly but it feels so good to hear it for the brief time it's there. I sit back down still smiling to myself and feeling a lot lighter in the moment.
-She's seventeen, says Urbain from my left, pulling my smile back down.
I shake my head and start writing in my notebook again. Maman Marie, Marcela and the Administrator resume their trio of talk.
-She was raped last Thursday. So it's been four days. Today is the fourth day.
-Did she take the medication to prevent a pregnancy? I ask.
-Yes, she did, he says.
I feel so relieved. In a lot of areas that are extremely Christian, the women aren't allowed to take the morning after pill; even when it's a fourteen year old girl who was raped. I had an argument with Frere Ange about this.
He tells me it's taking a life, it's murder. I say it's just two cells and a fourteen year old girl's sanity, health and future are more important than those stupid cells. He fights avidly. I scratch him and say, "there I'm a murderer. I just killed your cells."
I explain to him that I think the two biggest things holding the Congo back--outside of the war--are the road conditions and Christianity. Christianity, especially in a country like Congo, doesn't know how to move. It sits there like a fat, wealthy man and everyone who's attached has to sit there too. The conversation ends in an amicable agreement to disagree but at one point we are yelling our positions at each other in the middle of the courtyard while several younger Brothers pretend to peel potatoes.
Another woman walks into the hospital room. She has the same distant look of not knowing anymore if she's worth a dime. You are, I think to myself. She sits down timidly on the bench next to me. Maman Marie shifts her focus and starts softly speaking with this woman. This woman looks a bit older than Marcela, and I find out she is 28 years old. Her name is Devote, she is six months pregnant and was also raped four days ago.
-She was on her way to get water when she was caught on the side of the road. She fought back and cried out but it didn't help. They spoke Lingala and Swahili--FRDC. She can't take medication for anything, even possible HIV because of the pregnancy.
The Administrator lists off the facts as she says them. The word they cuts through the air like a high-pitched bell. They raped a woman in her sixth month of pregnancy. I'm looking down at her hands fidgeting in her lap. I notice them start to quiver and when I look up I see the tears trying to force their way out of her eyes, but she's not letting them.
I'm aching to tell her she's the same wonderful person she was before; this doesn't change your worth in this world! I don't know how to. I don't.
-They have the same parents, I hear the Administrator say on my right. Devote is Marcela's older sister. Marcela is the youngest in the family.
I can't think well. I'm drowned by the desire to provide these girls with every comfort the world has to offer, the best psychologists, the tightest security. The things I have.
-Their question is where should they go? Even during the day the military are there.
Maman Marie explains that she will find a place for them to stay. There are still four women in the bush who have not had medical treatment after their rape. She says that we will send a car to bring them to Butembo on Saturday where they can get medical treatment and have a basic session with Joelle. It feels horrible leaving them in that empty room, with the canvas tents on the hill. It's dangerously close to dark and we absolutely have to leave. Urbain brings in the last bags of food and the last blankets. We've diminished the food in order to help more people, so I give them each $4, just because I have to do something; and I know that giving them $10 each would put them both in even more danger. The girls light up and the day feels worthwhile.
On the way home a new barrier has sprouted out of the ground. On the right side of the road are about eight soldiers sitting and laughing with each other on a few wooden benches. There's not a villager in sight. One of the military, in a dark green uniform with red cloth on the shoulders, walks down to the car. Just before he reaches my window, without thinking I shove my backpack under my jacket. Maman Marie shakes his hand through the window and greets him as if she's greeting a long lost friend. I know she's vibrating with hatred. He looks in the car. He sees my skin and walks to my window. I greet him with as much enthusiasm as Maman Marie.
The first time a soldier spoke directly to me I was in Butembo. He told me he had a turtle and thought a white person like me might want to buy it. I didn't even look at him; I couldn't. I was seething and it took everything I had just to tell him "no thank you, I don't need a turtle."
After he left and I drove off I thought about how much I despised him. I also thought about how stupid I was. If I made him angry or made him feel insecure, he could seriously hurt me or kill me without a thought. More likely, if he couldn't hurt me, he'd take out his childishly bruised ego on someone else. Simply by not smiling at him I could ruin a woman's life. One night while coming back from the UN office in Lubero, I angrily explained this to Dusan.
-It is like train going fast, he said. If you stand in front of train, it will squish you, no problem. You must find other way to slow train so you can stop those people on the train from being killed. If you stand in front, you will simply become part of collateral damage.
That man is crazy, but I love him for it.
In Isale I don't care about smiling at this terd of a human. The militaire keeps moving after shaking my hand. He walks around the whole car looking in the windows. When he asks the driver for two dollars, not even Maman Marie argues. She hands it over with a smile that I know is killing her. I'm nervous, but I also don't have an image of these soldiers, aside from rape in a field, so I'm curious about what he looks like, how he moves. He's human like anyone else; that's the most unsettling thing about it. The man lifts the barrier and as we pass through the other soldiers look in our direction. I hide my skin as quickly as I can. We're through and they're still sitting on the bench.
-What was he looking for? I ask.
-They're thieves. He was seeing if we had anything worth stealing.
-Good thing we already gave everything away!
The whole car laughs and says thank you to no one in particular. During the drive I think about the many different faces I saw sitting in a group of humanity in the bush. We were able to help 17 people rather than the original 11, but not sustainably. I'm happy that Marcela and the others will be coming to Butembo on Saturday. But now the question remaining is, what do we do with the other faces? How do we do it? And how long will it last?