-She was running from the soldiers in the field when she tripped and fell.
Urbain shifts his glance from me to the thin woman with the strong cheekbones and sad eyes sitting next to me. We are sitting in a dark mud room in Isale talking to the most recent victims of rape, or at least, the ones who chose to come forward.
-She hurt her wrist.
The woman lifts her left arm from her lap and pulls the blue nylon of her jacket up towards her elbow. I suck in my breath. Her arm is not just hurt it's unmistakably broken. Just below her wrist, bone is pressing against the skin wanting to break through. It extends almost an inch off of the straight path a bone should take.
-Shit, I mutter to myself in English.
-Did she see a Doctor? I ask, switching back to French.
Urbain calmly translates.
-She is getting treated. One of the village elders is massaging the fracture.
Without meaning to I reach out and gingerly place my fingers on the unnatural bend. Kasuera Vunyatsi doesn't flinch. If my arm looked like this I would be on the floor in the fetal position, crying and cradling my arm.
-Does it hurt when it is touched?
-Yes. She says it hurts very much and she can no longer use this hand.
I pull my fingers away.
-Please tell her that it is her choice, but that there is a chance she may be able to use her hand again if she comes to the hospital.
Urbain translates. Kasuera looks at her wrist as she contemplates. There is a lot of faith in traditional healing practices such as the touch of an elder. I would never question that faith or push her to seek treatment she doesn't want but I know the only shot she has at being able to use her hand again is if she goes to a hospital. Her arm has been broken for almost three weeks now, so it is an extremely small shot. The words "maybe use your hand again" seem to have an effect and she nods once.
-What happened to her thumb? I ask.
Urbain looks over in surprise and then asks. On the same hand, just above the break, Kasuera's thumb is missing. The wound is healed, the skin has already covered the bone like light brown saran wrap so I know it's not from the recent attack.
-She had an infection in her thumb and they had to cut if off.
He makes the motion of snipping something with scissors.
-Oh jeez, did she at least get it done in the hospital?
-Yes, she did.
I have no idea if that means they actually used scissors or not, or if it means she had any anesthetic. I let it go and continue with our previous conversation.
-How many soldiers?
I still feel uncomfortable asking this question. Sometimes it seems like it's not necessary, like I'm only asking because of some sick, morbid curiosity. Yet, at the same time, it feels necessary to me in terms of the hierarchy of need.
Kasuera is the last woman in the room to tell her story. At first I was worried that the women would be uncomfortable speaking in front of the others but I realized after the first time I spoke with a group together that there is strength and courage to be gained by speaking with people who know something small about what you've been through.
Right now there are nine women in the room, seven of whom were raped during this last outbreak of pointless fighting. Two of the women in the room came because they were able to hide in the bush but they wanted to share that they saw mothers being raped in the fields all around them. A lot more mothers than the seven in this room.
Sifandiwey, who is sitting on my left, was the first woman to speak. She looks a bit like Kasuera, with a long thin frame and strong bone structure. She has a baby hanging from a sling around her neck. The baby was in the field with her when she was raped. The soldier tossed the baby to the ground while he raped her mother a foot away.
-We were in the field when the bullets started and the bomb went.
Urbain explains the bomb.
-The FRDC used an RPG--rocket propelled grenade--to kill all of the people in a bus traveling by. That is how the fighting started.
I've seen soldiers with the long snouted RPGs sitting next to huts only slightly higher than the propped up barrels. I couldn't imagine what anyone would do with one of those out here in the middle of nowhere. Now I know, I guess.
Sifandiwey is forty years old. Her father was killed by the military. Was it the first time you were raped? Yes. How many soldiers? One.
It's strange feeling better because someone says the word one. One is just as far on the other side of devastation as any other number besides zero.
Kavira Musafiri and Kahambu Tsimbula are the youngest survivors in the room, both eighteen years old. Both are beautiful and shy. Kahambu smiles at me a lot more than Kavira. Kavira doesn't look at anyone else at all. She looks at the table, the ground, the ceiling, anywhere but at another pair of eyes.
-How many soldiers, Kavira?
-How are you feeling? I ask softly.
Kavira doesn't respond right away so Sifandiwey chimes in.
-She doesn't speak much anymore.
Kavira suddenly whispers something in the direction of the floor.
-She says she feels shame and fear.
I can see it in every movement she makes. She seems uncomfortable within a dejected sadness. I try and smile at her with kindness but can't hold her eyes. I want to get up and give her a hug and say or do something to make her laugh. She's already been to FEPSI, the free medical clinic in Butembo, to get immediate care after the rapes. I can try and help her find a new way of supporting herself, since she can no longer return to her field. That's all I can do.
When everyone has had a turn to speak I tell them things I've said to others before; things that I believe but am never sure if they do. This isn't your fault, these were the actions of another individual and you are not responsible for this. It doesn't change how wonderful you are. It's really the only thing I can say but doesn't go very far, if anywhere at all. We all get up and step outside into the small clearing where Maman Marie has distributed the emergency food care-packages in a square. This is the second time I've seen this square of food bubbles in this village, though now we are in a different hiding spot in the bush.
Doing it a second time makes it feel hopeless. How to help is a hard line to draw, since the soldiers are still around. These families need help more than ever; without their homes and fields, once again their children will have no food, and may starve. Starting with the youngest. If we bring more supplies to help start small-commerce and the soldiers come back in two months, we're feeding the devil. If we bring nothing, it seems even worse. The amount of food we have brought is not sustainable but it will allow the families to feed their children for about a week. Anything can help someone get their feet back on the ground; I have to hold onto that.
While watching Maman Marie and Helen hand out the food to the various women who are exploding with color, I notice a little foot poking off of a mother's lap and tickle it. The foot shrinks away slowly and the mother says something to me. Urbain is watching and steps in.
-This child is very sick, he says.
I look at the little girl as the mother draws a blanket away so I can see her. Her face is puffy, her eyes are glossy and her mouth is hanging open. She looks like she's already dead. Mom is trying to entice the baby to breast-feed but nothing in the girl's face responds.
-Do you know what she is sick with? What are her symptoms?
-She has been tired and not eating for two days with bad diarrhea and vomiting everything.
The little girl looks like she has putty behind her eyes.
-Please tell the mother she should take the baby to the hospital, as soon as possible.
I don't ask this time, I try to insist. This girl is going to die if the only thing helping her is an elder and a massage.
-She says she cannot pay the hospital receipt.
-I'll pay the receipt, just tell her the girl absolutely needs to go to the hospital tomorrow, early in the morning.
The woman looks at me as if for a second she doesn't trust me. My whiteness and the bag of food at her feet convinces her and she nods.
When the food is all passed out the COPERMA crew climbs back into the car. The sun is starting to go down but is still above the horizon and the air is heavier and hotter than normal. Laurentine, the newest addition to the COPERMA team, is sitting next to me. She has a build like Maman Marie, not small but very beautiful and her smile is arresting.
-It's hot today, she says, turning to me. Do you have the sun where you live?
I laugh and look at her for a second to see if she's serious.
-The sun? As in does it exist? I ask, taken aback.
She's looking at me as if she has just asked if I have love in my life. There's a tinge of pity in her gaze.
-The sun exists everywhere. You can't live without the sun.
-Really? She looks back towards the front of the car, smiling slightly. I thought you didn't have the sun chez vous.
I watch her for a moment before looking out my window, smiling next to her.