I can't keep the stories or the needs separate anymore, at least not without really trying. Rape has become normal, four soldiers rather than two is only a bit out of the box and someone dying is a brief pause of grief in a conversation that continues. I'm trying to separate displaced by the war from raped but not pregnant, raped with a resulting newborn, previous child soldier and orpheline. I don't know how to put these things on a ladder. I don't know how to say, you have more need because you were raped by four soldiers, and he only had his parents killed and has nowhere to go. How do you prioritize suffering?
On the Saturday that Marcela, Devote and the other survivors of sexual violence were supposed to come from Isale, only Marcela shows up. Marcela along with sixteen malades. We are supposed to be going to the Kavingu center that day, but now the porch of the office is crowded with people. Half of the women have babies attached to their breasts and everyone is crinkled, dirty and looks exhausted. The Finnish Liisa is still at the office trying to have a class like session and she looks completely overwhelmed with the people that have just descended on the office. Maman Marie has explained that they are refugees from the affrontement and the worried, frightened look on Liisa's face reminds me that this is not normal.
The point of Marcela coming was to bring her to FEPSI so she could talk a bit with Joelle and have another physical check-up to make sure she's okay. Urbain and I leave COPERMA and walk with Marcela in the direction of FEPSI, it's only around the corner.
-Why are all of these people here? I ask Urbain.
-They're the sick people from Isale.
-I know but why did they come? We can't actually do anything to help them.
Their presence annoys me, simply because I can't do a damned thing to help them and I want to. Urbain glances at Marcela walking just behind us. She doesn't speak French so she walks quietly, in her own world.
-She says that the Doctor wouldn't let them leave the hospital. The road was too bumpy for the pregnant survivor, and the others, who were in the bush still when we visited, are now being treated at the hospital.
-Well that's good. But what are we supposed to do with all of those people? FEPSI only treats survivors of sexual violence and people with vaiy ee ache, HIV. We have nowhere to bring them and nothing to give them. I don't understand why they came.
I know exactly why they came. They have absolutely nothing and when the survivors of sexual violence were given an invitation, the others thought, just maybe they could get some help too. They have nothing left so a just maybe is a powerful motivator. I'm simply taking out my frustration on Urbain. He doesn't seem to mind. The people I live and work with put up with a lot more from me than they should. I'm almost constantly frustrated and acting childish in some way, but everyone puts up with me with unfaltering patience. Lucky for me Congolese people are incredible.
-The message got poorly relayed, he says.
Oiy vey. I start muttering to myself. Urbain walks with me, smiling at the fact that I wear my heart fully displayed on my sleeve with flashing lights around it.
When we get to FEPSI Joelle is there and is just as enthusiastic as always. He is in a meeting with the anonymous benefactors from Barcelona, but he leaves the meeting to speak with me.
-I brought one of the girls from Isale, I say and motion to Marcela sitting on a bench staring quietly at the floor. She's the one in the yellow shirt.
Joelle looks slowly around at her.
-Okay, I'll have them start a file for her at reception and then I'll speak with her myself.
-So, when are you coming over for dinner? My wife wants to meet you.
His smile is about to expand past the borders of his face and creep onto the walls behind him. I laugh.
-Whenever you invite me. You tell me a day, and I'll be there.
-Okay! I'll talk to my wife. She controls the schedule, not me. He winks at me. So I'll get a date from her and get back to you.
I get up and say good bye to him.
-Tell your Barcelona people I say thank you en touts cas!
-I will he says, laughing as he heads back towards the meeting. There are about five skinny muzungus sitting in the room. I'm glad nobody tries to make me go in. Sometimes people think that simply because we're white we'll know each other or have some innate need to speak. I don't have to deal with it that often though since I've only seen four other muzungus here in four months, outside of these Barcelona Benefactors.
I lead Marcela back downstairs to the reception office, using hand motions and facial expressions to get her to follow me. Urbain explains in Kinande that she should come back to COPERMA when she is finished here, and we leave. Back at the office, Liisa is still trying to accomplish things but it's not working very well. Maman Marie is walking in and out of the lesson trying to figure out what to do with the people outside. When I get back she leaves the class once again to speak with me.
-We're clearly not going to make it to Kavingu!
-No, that's quite clear, I say laughing. What do you want to do with these people? I don't have any way of helping them, and I believe you don't either, correct?
-No, we're going to have to simply tell them to go home, and search for a way to help.
I look around at the people. Some are looking at the ground, some are watching us expectantly. Traveling is very difficult; most of these people rode on one of the massively over-burdened trucks to get here and I'm sure the trek took a few hours. I feel so bad sending them back empty handed.
-We can do an enregistrement, says Maman Marie. We'll take their information down and after that we can send them back to Isale.
I like this idea. At least they'll feel like we're trying to do something. Maman Marie sends one of the apprentice students inside to get a table and several chairs. Thankfully I have my laptop with me today, since the original plan was to start accumulating records at the centers, starting with Kavingu. I walk across the dirt road in the sun. It's hot today, which is rare, but the sun feels good. There is a concrete room across the road where the students place the table and three chairs. One of them sits next to me in the dark box as I open my computer and start setting up a file. I can't quite decide what I should be asking, since I don't know what we're going to do with the information. I stick with the basics: name, sex, date of birth, original village, where currently staying, current situation, hopes from COPERMA, number of children, number of children still dependent.
The first person to enter the container is the man from the hospital with the broken rib. My spirits sink when I see him. He's still clutching the right lower rib; I'm sure the rocky camion ride here was not pleasant, nor will the ride back be.
Name: Fidel Muchava
DOB: He looks around the room for a few minutes thinking. 1969, sometime after July.
Original Village: Isale-Bulambo
Currently Staying: Isale-Bulambo.
Some of the information gets lost in translation, but I don't push it. I found out Isale-Bulambo is a general region with many villages in it. As the confrontation moves around, the refugees also move throughout the region, trying to avoid the soldiers without giving up the hope of going home.
Situation: Soldiers came to his house and asked for a chicken. He didn't have a chicken so they beat him up and stole everything else he had.
Number of Children: Five
Oldest/Number still dependent: 12/All still dependent.
He gets up carefully and walks from the darkness into the bright sunshine. The next person climbs in. I can see through the open door that les malades have formed a line stretching across the road.The next person is a tiny woman who looks younger than me. She has the obligatory baby hanging from her shoulders, holding her nipple in his teeth.
Name: Kavira Kayenie
DOB: She laughs when the student translates the question. 38 years old; sometime around 1972.
Situation: The soldiers took all of their food. She is very sick and four months pregnant. She was hospitalized but she is still not well.
I ask what she is sick with, but I can never get a response on this. She lists some of her symptoms, where she has pain and that she's constantly terrified. Terrified comes out as a symptom.
Number of children: Ten, but five have died.
Number still dependent: Five left.
She gets up and the next in line comes in.
Name: Esperance Kasuera. She has a small round face with tribal scars, one line on each cheek.
DOB: She looks at me like I just asked who was the Czar of Russia in 1904? Suddenly, she remembers something and fumbles with the cloth tied around her waist. She pulls out a laminated identification card and hands it to me-- Nicolas II.
DOB: June 2, 1970
Situation: She was cultivating the field in Hirungu when the soldiers found her. She was raped by four soldiers. She did go to the hospital. This happened about a month ago.
She explains the situation as if she's telling me about going to the market yesterday. She looks sad and doesn't smile, but those are the only things that give away the content of what she's saying. She finishes her story and there is a brief silence but c'est ca, is what I hear.
Hope from COPERMA: She doesn't have the strength or a way to find food for the kids. Her means for living was in the field, but now the soldeirs took that from her. Anything COPERMA can give, even ten francs.
She doesn't say this in a pleading way, like most people when they ask for money. She simply states it as a fact. Ten francs is approximately one penny. I have 20 dollars in my pocket. I want to give her the 20 dollars but there's still a line of others with similar need. It's endless, and handing over 20 dollars doesn't change a thing. Again, I'm hit by the frightening problem of arranging suffering in a hierarchy.
Number of children: Eight
Oldest/Number still dependent: 25/Seven still dependent, one married.
She gets up, the next comes in.
Name: Marie-Agnes Kisugho. She's older than the others. She has wrinkles that flicker in her face but can't decide whether or not to be present and scattered coils of silver in her hair.
DOB: She takes out a similar identification card. July 25, 1950.
Situation: She was beaten by the soldiers. They took everything, clothing, food, chairs, tables, everything.
Number of children: Four. I'm relieved to hear a relatively low number.
Oldest/Number still dependent: 20/Four
She gets up, the next comes in.
Name: Josephine Kahambu. Her voice is raspy and hoarse, she's struggling to get her words out.
DOB: March 15, 1978
Situation: She was raped.
-By how many soldiers? I ask and the question makes me sick.
Only one, she says. She did receive physical treatment from the hospital. It happened about a month ago.
Hope from COPERMA: Anything you can find.
Number of children: Six but two died.
Oldest/Number Dependents: 14/Four dependent.
She gets up, the next comes in. The next woman takes a while to make the big step into the room. She's hunched and has more than a few spirals of silver in her hair. Her movements are slowed by the pressure of age and it takes her a minute to get into the box and then onto the chair.
Name: Jacqueline Kahambu
DOB: July 25, 1937. She's 73.
I ask what happened, what situation she's currently in and silently beg her not to say the word viole.
Situation: Her husband is dead, the soldiers came on foot and took everything she had in the house. Her children don't work, they drink.
She says the last part with the bitterness of a disappointed mother. I can't stop myself from smiling slightly. I am beginning to wonder what the soldiers do with all of these chairs and tables, pots and jugs. There are 3,000 FRDC in Isale alone, but what do they do when they move to another area for another confrontation? Do they just pick up their canvas tents and leave a pile of human belongings behind? They are like Mary Poppins' purse except they're putting things in rather than taking them out. They make less and less sense to me everyday.
The next woman who comes in looks strong but is very thin and I can see her hands trembling as she sits down on the white plastic chair. She has perfect crow's feet sprouting from her eyes, so perfect they look like they've been stamped on. Her shaking hands make me want to reach forward and hold them steady and the fear in her face makes me want to hug her, leave or cry.
Name: Kavira Noel
DOB: 1970. She doesn't have an identification card.
Situation: The military came at night and took everything she had. Everything in the house. She fled but now she has returned home even though there's still not security. She can't find anything to eat anymore, the soldiers stole everything and ruined the field.
Hope from COPERMA: Anything you can give.
Number of children: Ten.
Number still dependent: Ten plus four young grandchildren. Fourteen dependents.
She speaks quickly and leaves after only a few moments. The next woman steps in. She also has a baby slung around her neck. The baby has huge eyes and is staring at us like he has never seen another human before and cannot get over the shock.
Name: Florina Kahambu
Situation: The soldiers found her in the field, they raped her.
-Two. It was almost one month ago. She did go to the hospital and receive medical treatment.
Hope from COPERMA: She can't find food or money in order to live. Anything we can give, because she can't feed the kids or pay for medication.
Number of children: Ten, one died.
Number of dependents: One child married, eight still dependent.
She leaves and I put my head in my hands.
-How are we supposed to help these people? I ask the boy acting as translator, as the next person climbs in.
-I don't know, he says.
All I've done is sit and type but I am exhausted. There is still a small line outside and the thousand other people in Isale with the same stories. All of them have had everything stolen, some have been raped, some have been beaten, none can return home and none can cultivate their fields.
After I speak with all of the people in line I pack up my computer and head back across the dirt road. I don't know what Maman Marie is going to do with these names and stories. I don't know how we're going to put them in order and even begin moving forward. She seems to come up with plans when I least expect it so I try not to get too caught up in the thought.
I give the student two dollars, which can buy enough bananas for all of the victims. They are now waiting on the side of the road in a different direction of line. I go back into the office and Maman Marie heaves herself out of her chair to speak with me in another room.
-I took their information down, I can print the list when I'm back at the Crosiers if we have electricity today. I don't know how we're going to help.
Maman Marie doesn't answer my question. I don't think she knows either.
-For now we should tell them they must go back so they can make it home before dark.
We head outside. She talks to them in Kinande as they munch on the thumb-sized bananas. I get on my motorcycle, say good bye and head home abruptly. I don't want to be there when they leave with only bananas in their hands. I try to think of how we can organize the people and the need, how we can put some structure to the suffering, but I get back to the Crosier house without figuring out even one rung. When I think I can help the women who were raped I feel bad for the old woman who was beaten by the soldiers. Why shouldn't she get help too? I focus my mind on FEPSI, which is a tangible tool I can utilize. I try not to think about it too much without Maman Marie's experience and the rest of the team's amicable bickering to help. I know in the end it will come down to, who is dying and who's not quite yet.