I want, more than anything, for this problem to stop growing. Every time I think I understand the bigger picture, that I've reached the bottom of the stairs, the last step drops out from under me and everything just keeps falling. I help a few women who were raped, and I feel their hope and happiness flow through me; then on the way home I speak to someone like Kambale, who joined the army when he was ten years old, because CNDP soldiers started cutting off his arms.
He's young, he looks like he's still a teenager but he tells me he's twenty-one; he's been killing and pillaging for eleven years. He pulls up the sleeves of his army green uniform to show me the thick scars in the creases of each arm. I look at his face, as his Superior Officer, Muhindo, speaks to me. I don't listen to the lies he's telling me. He's speaking in a mixture of Swahili and Lingala, the language of the Western regions around the capital city of Kinshasa. Urbain is translating for me. The soldier speaks for several minutes at a time before letting Urbain convey the message to me.
So, I have plenty of time to look at Kambale. His eyelashes are thick and curl away beautifully from a set of very deep eyes. He's very pretty. He notices me looking at him and shifts his gaze around nervously. I make this soldier uncomfortable; this man with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder is nervous because I'm looking at him. I tune back in to what Muhindo and Urbain are saying. I just asked Muhindo what he is fighting for, since I don't see anything but greed and cruelty in this war; men using chaos as an excuse to let go of their humanity.
-The objective, says Urbain when Muhindo is finished, is so that Congo can be in peace.
-So, you're fighting to protect the Congolese people? I ask.
-Yes, to protect them from the insecurity in this area.
You are the insecurity.
The man has big teeth and bad skin. He's an officer so his army green has two flaps of navy blue on the shoulders. He smiles as he speaks and it's misleading.
-I've heard that a lot of the FRDC soldiers in this area are causing problems for the people, by stealing and raping.
Muhindo shifts his weight at the word viole, but maintains his composure well. His gun is pointing directly down at Urbain's foot.
-A lot of things go through my mind when I hear that, he says. It's not all soldiers who do those things. My unit doesn't do that, we're here to protect.
It's amazing how people can lie so easily. His unit is the 18th brigade and there's a woman dying in the hospital right now, because one of his men wanted to feel powerful for a few minutes. I want to slap him, but I just shake my head.
-What about rape? I talk to a lot of women who have been raped by FRDC soldiers. What do you think about that?
-Yes, here. In the last few months.
-No, that's not possible. If a soldier rapes, he can be blindfolded and shot. Depending on the crime, he will at least be taken to prison.
-And what do you think? I ask, turning to Kambale.
He laughs nervously and looks to his Superior.
-A man who is guilty must be judged, he says.
He's still laughing. I wish I had talked to him alone. I feel like he wants to tell me things that are true, he doesn't want to be here wearing army green, not knowing where his family is. He told me when we first started speaking that he's tired, he's wanted to leave the army for a long time. Muhindo said that he can leave whenever he wants to, but Kambale silently shook his head.
-So, you're telling me that FRDC soldiers in this region don't rape women?
-I know one solder who raped a woman, Muhindo says. He's in jail now, for twenty-five years.
He says it like it's an example that will erase everything I've heard and seen. He knows that I know he's lying; it's just a game for him now.
-You can be honest with me, I mean, when there's an affrontement, things are really chaotic, and it's war after all. It would make sense if soldiers ended up raping a few women.
I hear the words flow smoothly and easily out of my mouth; I don't recognize myself. I'm a good liar too, it seems. Muhindo doesn't take the bait.
-No, we don't rape. We are allowed to take one woman, but no one outside of her. When we know what woman we want, we can get a letter from our Colonel and he will go with us to the home of her family. Then she becomes our wife. But we will be punished for sleeping with anyone else.
I've already been pushing things a little farther than I should. I don't explain to him that this is just extended rape. I'm laughing with him and acting like we're buddies. I need to do it, to try and get him to give me some more insight without him feeling threatened, but it's making me sick.
-Do you have a wife that you picked with the Colonel's help? I ask Kambale, still listening silently on my left.
-Yes, she's pregnant.
He smiles slightly and says thank you. He still won't look me in the eyes for more than a flicker of a second.
-I have three children says Muhindo, quickly, as if to show up his subordinate.
Urbain's phone starts ringing in his pocket. He pulls it out and I glare at him. Muhindo is watching him, clearly annoyed. Urbain puts the phone back in his pocket as the electronic rhythm comes to an end. Muhindo relaxes.
They're not giving us any actual information and it's getting close to dark. I thank Muhindo and Kambale enthusiastically and tell them I will bring several boxes of cigarettes tomorrow. Kambale's face lights up. I don't even know what to do with this man with the scars in his arms, who should still be a boy.
The truck is waiting a few meters down the road, with Maman Marie and the group of apprentice students standing in the back. In the car, I tell Maman Marie that the soldiers just lied through their teeth. Sylvain is also in the car and tells me it will be almost impossible to find a soldier who will tell the truth. After killing, torturing and raping, I guess lying wouldn't raise a moral red flag.
-I called Urbain because we need to leave now, Maman Marie says, as the driver starts up the car.
-You probably didn't see the man who walked by while you were talking. He is a soldier in this brigade but he is off duty so he wasn't wearing the uniform. He asked the driver if I was a woman who runs an aid organization in Beni. She has lied a couple of times to avoid giving the small amount of money to the soldiers at the road barriers, and they are looking for her to kill her.
-They thought it was you?
-Yes, but the driver told them no, it's not her. The soldier didn't seem to believe him, so we had to leave immediately.
-They want to kill her because she didn't give them the 20 cents at the road barrier?
-Yes! They are bandits.
-I'd better remember to bring those cigarettes, I mutter to myself. I'm exhausted and overwhelmed. I feel bad for the ten year old boy having his arms cut-off and being forced to give up his life. I hate him at the same time, because I know he's raped at least one woman, killed many and probably tortured in a similar way to what he experienced. I'm annoyed because they both acted like saviors. And I'm mad at myself for putting Maman Marie and all of the students in palpable danger, all because I wanted a few answers. Which, I didn't get anyway; just more questions.