Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Octagon


          At 6:30 a.m. I receive a text message from Baloti, the Founder of the Association of Women Living Alone in Butembo.  I’m asleep on a wooden cot in a medium-sized UN house where there is a Military Observers base.  Dusan and I drove down to Kanyabayanga the day before, in order to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the city soccer team where he’s from.  We bought a live goat on the way out, for which I resisted my usual impulse of naming, and the plan for the day is to roast her on a spit, drink beer and be among friends.
          I always answer my phone and check messages when people call too late or too early.  I always expect the news to be urgent and ugly and for the first time it is.
          Anuarite was attacked in her home by three men who wanted to rape her.  She called police, men were captured.  She was left naked in front of her children.
          The nightmare I was just having involved soldiers and the things they can do to women, so it takes longer than normal to separate dream from reality and wake my brain up enough to translate the French.  
          Was she raped?  I respond.
          Three men wanted to rape her.
          His response is too vague.  Did they want to and then do it or did they want to and not make it that far?  I put my phone back on the wooden table next to my bed.  Further texting won’t clarify the situation.  I need to speak with him but it won’t be a productive conversation if I attempt it half-awake.  I roll over and go back to sleep, thankful the sun is starting to come up so I won’t have nightmares.  I never have nightmares once I can see daylight seeping its way up my window.
          When I wake up fully I call Baloti.  He’s still vague about what actually happened and simply reiterates what he already said through text.  Anuarite is a woman in the Association who met with Sarah, Alana and me a few weeks ago.  She had lighter skin than most and wore white powder to push it further in the muzungu direction.  She was wearing a red sequined outfit that made her sparkle but her sadness also shone through.
    -Are the men in prison? I ask, looking out at the hills of Kanyabayanga over the stick fence around the UN compound. 
    -Yes, they are.
    -How is Anuarite doing?
    -She’s a little calm.
    -I will pay the fees if necessary to keep them in prison, at least for a while.
          One of the main reasons impunity is such a problem here is that anything involving governmental structures costs money and most survivors don’t have the means to pursue even the smallest level of justice.  I would offer to pay Anuarite’s hospital bills, but if she wasn’t raped I know it wouldn’t help.  She knows better than I do, I’m sure, that band aids and needles can’t heal shame.
          I spend the day watching Dusan and a Bosnia UN worker, named Harris, concoct a make-shift fire pit and position the now dead and skinned goat on a long pole.  There is also a Kenyan UN worker, Major Johanna, and we sit around drinking rare Heinekens and talking war.  Major Johanna worked in Sierra Leone during the brutal conflicts there.  The men bounce between the wars like hardened metal balls caught in a short loop in a pin ball machine; Sierra Leonne, violence in Kenya, the devastating war for the Former Yugoslavia, Congo.  I tune them out for the most part, reentering only when they return to the Congo pin, or ask me a specific question. 
    -This war is so complex, says Major Johanna in a heavy accent, while Dusan and Harris speak in rapid Croatian.  In Sierra Leone it was the government and the militia groups that supported them and then the rebels; two sides.  Here it’s everyone.  FDLR Foca, FDLR Rud Mai-Mai, NALU, government, CNDP.  There are too many sides!
          I have the image of an octagon in my mind.
    -I think the Congo may never see peace, he says shaking his head.
          Congo isn’t just complex, the problem is a spurious creature born of pain and greed.  Major J has only been here for a few months and he’s already lost hope.  Even Dusan told me on the drive down that he cannot see the end to this problem.  I don’t say anything in return.  I don’t think I could easily explain my theory of idealism within realism to these hardened war generals.   I’m uncomfortable, I feel like there are rats in my body trying to get out; something’s not right.  I remember Anuarite.  I feel stuck in this village four hours away from home talking about the bigger picture when I’m used to working with the pieces that comprise it. 
          I step outside and look at the mountains again.  The rolling slopes look like the body of a beautiful woman.  Every time I look at the mountains here, even the ones right in front of me, I feel as if there’s a glass window covered in mist between us.  I don’t know if it’s because of the fog that clings to them like hungry toddlers, or if the thickness of their beauty is simply unapproachable, in a divine decision sort of way.
          I know there’s nothing I could do for Anuarite even if I were in Butembo.  It’s not my place to console her or give her advice.  She knows much more about this world than I do.  But something about it is hurting me more than normal.  I’m used to these stories; they’re just words at this point. 
          On the drive back to Butembo with Dusan I realize what’s making Anuarite feel different.  I knew Anuarite before this happened.  With most of the survivors I meet, we build up an acquaintance from the baseline of what has already happened.  With Anuarite, it’s a cut rather than a baseline.
In Butembo, Dusan and I drink a couple of whiskys in Hotel Butembo and talk more about the bigger picture.  A UN worker was attacked on the road to Goma, things are shifting in the FDLR and Mai-Mai groups due to the elections, and it is “not good.”  Dusan is furious about things seeming to get out of his control and is saying maybe he’ll transfer to South Sudan.  I wonder if he really has lost hope. 
          The next day I head to the COPERMA office.  Hangie, Jean-Marie (a COPERMA worker who looks like James Dean but darker) and Laurentine are the only ones in the office.
    -I’m going to Goma and then to Kinshasa, I tell them when I walk in.  So I may be out of town for up to two weeks.
    -You’re going out of town?  Hangie responds and leans on the table.  Didn’t you hear about the violence 95 km from Butembo?  ADF-NALU are active in Oicha, eleven are dead.
    -No, I didn’t hear about that.  What happened?
          I ask, but it doesn’t affect my trip. 
    -I don’t know, I just know that eleven people were killed on Monday.
          ADF-NALU are supposedly rebels from Uganda who’ve recently begun creeping their way across North Kivu, trying to get their fingers in the cookie jar too.
    -There were people in one of the big camion trucks and the NALU shot them all, he says.
          I remember the images of a similar event that happened last year.  The images online were devastating.  I still remember the striped shirt and braids of a girl of about 12 with a hole in her head.
    -Also, you heard there was a case of rape here in the city center?  He continues.
    -No, I didn’t. 
    -The Maman trapped the rapist and she came here for help.
    -Was she lighter skinned than normal? I ask, almost with excitement.
          It would be wonderful if Anuarite had come here, but would also mean she was actually raped.
    -No.  It was a 7 year old girl.  Her mother caught the man with the girl and trapped him.
    -Oh, jeez.  How old is the man?  I ask, imagining a confused teenager.
          Disgust reaches out a skinny hand and wraps its fingers around my esophagus.  It clenches for a moment, disappears, and I can breathe.
    -How did the Maman trap the man?
    -The Maman went to go to the bathroom, it was during the day.  The store where they sell things, attached to the house, was closed and she went inside and then she came across the man raping the girl.  The mother screamed and the man said he was guarding the child.  The Maman went to the owner of the store and told him and she started to cry.
    -After that, they spoke with the girl and found she was raped, Laurentine cuts in.  The girl started crying when they asked her what had happened and she said the man held her mouth shut so she couldn’t scream and he raped her.
          I can imagine perfectly the little girl’s tiny form; skinny arms with bird-like bones, a smile and skin innervated with the fresh excitements of childhood.
    -Where is the man?  I ask. 
    -We took him to prison, responds Hangie.  When the Maman first went to the police, the police officer told the rapist to say that the Mother had splashed water on the girl’s vagina to make it look like a rape so she could get him in trouble.  Then the police officer told the Mother to give him her telephone.
    -What happened after that?  That's horrible.
    -When the Maman came here with the girl, we took the girl to FEPSI.  And we said, that’s not okay that he took your phone and said that.  We went to a different police office, and now the police man and the rapist are in jail.
    -Thank God.  Which jail? Can I speak to the rapist?
          I don’t even think about this before I ask it.  I know I need to see the man; I need to speak with him and ask him where his heart went.  I need to ask him if he has daughters.  If he does, has he hurt them in the same way?  If he hasn’t hurt them yet, what makes this little girl different from his own?  The police officer is simple scum, but the man who raped a 7 year old girl is on the other side of humanity and I need to know what that looks like, in detail.  There’s so much hope here, in the strength and spirit of survivors and the people in general.  But in terms of the problems, I can't see it yet.  I need to find where that hope lies because I know it’s still here.
          I leave COPERMA and speed home on my motorcycle listening to Nina Simone sing Sinnerman and feeling like something is chasing me.


  1. Thanks for your beautiful writing. Long exhale. You've witnessed some horrible things. I'm glad you can still see the beauty in the mountains.

  2. I can't put it any better than jonnyfilmboy. Sending you strength and wishing you saftey.

  3. Peace and grace....I am pushing that towards you in my prayers. As much as I can eek across continents, oceans and sins.