Brother Maurice calls it "auto-defense," I call it unfortunate and beautiful. At night in Butembo, a child and a jug sit quietly outside each small house. Kids take turns, every hour the family sentry changes. When a car passes, overloaded with soldiers, the rhythm starts. Maman Marie imitates the motions using the wooden table as her jug.
Boom, boom, boom--rest--boom--rest--boom.
Just listening to the thudding of her hands hitting the wood makes my heart beat faster. When one jug lights up with sound, the neighboring sentry picks up the same beat, until all of Butembo is pounding with rhythm, and everyone knows that les bandits have arrived.
There haven't been as many deaths in Butembo, since the song began. I live just outside of the city, so I can't hear the warning rhythm, but I imagine it would be a mix of beauty and fear. The Rwandan elections have passed, and I haven't seen Dusan in over a month. He has been in and out of the bush, and back and forth from Goma, doing his best to keep the men and their weapons calm. I spend most of my time in the Kavingu center with Maman Marie and either Jean-Paulm le psycologue, or Urbain as my translator.
At least every other day, after the forty minute ride up the mountain, Urbain or Jean-Paul sits next to me in the dark, concrete room, as I open the blinding screen of my computer. The office is a small wooden table, one chair and a bench or two, depending on the day. With a friend next to me to translate the Kinande, and to feel as saddened by the world as I do, we talk to the girls one by one. All of the girls start speaking with fortitude, and sometimes, even a bit of attitude. But when the question arises of what she has experienced, almost all see that fortitude crumble beneath what they have seen.
In one way it's good that there are so many, because they have friends who understand. On one day, when the room was even darker because of the rain pouring outside, a troop of three girls came in, one right after the other.
Kavira Devote is the first of the trio. I had forgotten how small a thirteen year old can be. She is wearing a white dress that is torn and hasn't been washed in many days. Though the dress is tiny, it hangs loosely from her body. She smiles a lot, with the nervousness of a girl. I can tell she's excited to be talking to me; I'm more of a celebrity in the rural areas than anywhere else. She's also nervous and I can see the soft cup of skin at the base of her neck, where the clavicles meet, beating fast and hard.
I ask her the lighter questions first, to get her used to me; her name, her age, where she's living now. I like this part of the conversation. Eventually, though, I have to get to the main question. It turns excitement into grief in less than a second. I've never seen anything move eyes so quickly to the ground.
She doesn't know where her parents are. Everyone fled in their own directions when the soldiers came. She saw the soldiers pillaging the village, but she didn't see anything else. She was raped by one soldier. She was twelve. She fled with a group of girls; the group ran into the military. The military started to rape them all in the woods.
-Just like that? I interject. All at the same time, just like that, in the woods?
Jean-Paul is with me today. He translates, even though my question is pointless. We both know the answer.
-Yes, just like that.
-God. They're truly animals, I say. I just don't understand it at all.
Jean-Paul looks down at the table.
We're both silent for a minute, trying to comprehend the scene in our heads, and hers. I'm sure I'm not the only one who doesn't get anywhere. Jean-Paul explains to Devote that FEPSI is free and we will arrange for her to come to Butembo for treatment if she would like. She says yes, she would like that. It will be her first time getting medical treatment.
As Devote leaves she smiles at the next girl coming in, in a way that indicates friendship. The next girl is also tiny, of course, she's twelve. She has a green scarf around her neck. Her name is Kavugho. She's extremely thin and more nervous than Devote about speaking to me. As the conversation progresses she hunches into the wall and fidgets with the scarf, pulling it up to cover her mouth. She speaks so softly into the green fabric, I'm amazed Jean-Paul can understand a word she says.
She doesn't know if her parents are alive, everyone fled in different directions. She was raped by a civilian when she was alone, running through the bush. She was eleven.
In one way it's good they were so young, because they couldn't get pregnant.
The next girl comes in, and again I notice a brief exchange of friendship. They clasp hands for a moment. She has a chubby face and a body that somehow looks as if she's missing a few bones. There's something not quite stable about her movements. Her name is Kavira. She doesn't speak with the same nervous emotion as the other two. She speaks softly, with a somber expression throughout the entire conversation. It makes her seem older.
She's thirteen now, she was twelve when she was raped by a civilian. She doesn't know if her parents are alive. The man trapped her and raped her as she ran from the soldiers. After she was raped, a man with a bicycle found her. He helped her onto the bicycle and they rode away from the village together. He helped her off of the bicycle when they knew she was safe again. She's not healing very well. She didn't go to the hospital and she still has pain between her legs and in her abdomen.
I ask her if she has any support here, and see a flicker of a smile. She says the two girls who were just here are her friends. They make it easier to move on.
I tell her thank you. She gets up and says, "ushale jambo," stay well.
It's the end of the day. Jean-Paul and I have nothing to say to each other. We both walk out into the rain; I don't even attempt to cover myself. I let the droplets soak me through.