PLEASE BE ADVISED: THE FOLLOWING BLOG CONTAINS POTENTIALLY DISTURBING GRAPHIC CONTENT RELATING TO SEXUAL VIOLENCE.
I only spent one night in Musienene before heading out of the country on a long-planned trip. I met up with a family member and relaxed on the solid ground she always provides. After picking me up at the Beni airport and filling me in on events, Hangie also met me at the airport the next morning for my departure. I was able to give him a decent lump of money, transferred by the Crosiers and donated by many generous Internationals who have heard about COPERMA.
Two weeks later, when I arrive at the COPERMA office, giddy with the feeling of being at home, the place is bustling. The main room is packed with large wooden rabbit cages and in the corner is a large white bag tied to a curtain, holding seven of the soft little meals. Everyone greets me with as much enthusiasm as I feel jumping around inside of my own chest. It’s been almost two months since I’ve seen all of them.
-Oh we didn’t know you’d be getting back to today! Exclaims Maman Marie, pulling me into a bear hug complete with three taps of the forehead.
-I know, sorry my schedule has been kind of crazy, but I’m so happy to be back!
Adorable little Helen hugs me as well, and Urbain, Sylvain and Hangie all flow out of the red COPERMA gate to enthusiastically greet me.
-You got fatter! Says Urbain, smiling.
-Yeah, I know. It was vacation, that always happens.
The proper response here is actually, thank you, but I can never quite fully extricate myself from my Western up-bringing. The comments no longer bother me, though. Hangie immediately pulls up a wooden chair for me and insists that I sit down.
-Where are the rabbit cages going? I ask the general room.
Maman Marie is still in charge of this operation and nobody even tries to answer but her.
-They’re going out to Kavingu today. The rabbits out there are making lots of babies so we have to give them more houses.
-And you bought more rabbits too!
-Yes, they’ll be going out today as well. Helen and I just got back from a hotel around the corner where we paid for the eleven survivors who are here to be treated at FEPSI.
-Eleven survivors? I ask, stunned. That’s the most we’ve ever brought in at once.
-They are from near Isale, where I told you 25 women were raped, cuts in Hangie. Urbain is staying with them and helping them with food and the laboratory process.
I look around and realize Urbain has already slipped out.
-Here is the information, says Maman Marie stretching her arm out to hand me a light green paper notebook.
Maman Marie looks so beautiful. Her face is a little rounder, but I’m also not comfortable enough to compliment anyone by telling them they’re nice and fat. He hair is braided back and held in a pony tail by a turquoise head scarf and she’s wearing the typical African print pagne that every woman in Congo wears, except me.
I look down at the book and flip through five pages filled with scribbles. The writing is hard to read but I can make out that there are names, numbers of rapists, locations, and consequences written down.
-Thanks, I’ll look through this. But I’d like to go to FEPSI and just greet the woman.
I always want to meet the survivors. The egocentric aspect of my humanity makes me feel as if having them in my sight will mean they’ll be okay. As long as I can see them, I feel like I can protect them. It doesn’t make a lot of sense but I don’t typically question it.
-A bientot, I say waving to everyone and walking out the door.
It’s hotter than normal for a Butembo day but the air is light and dry, not overwhelming. When I get to FEPSI I’m immediately greeted by one of the many nurses there. He tells me Urbain went to get food for the survivors, but I can still greet them. Mukanda, the short and smiley nurse, takes my hand and leads me down one of the dark hallways. It opens into an open-air room with plenty of light and about 18 women sitting on white wooden benches.
-They’re watching a video, to help them feel better about what they’ve been through. It helps with the process of detraumatization.
-Wahay, I say.
Most of the women respond but only some of them smile or laugh. The half-walls of the open room, the floor, and the benches are all painted white but the room is not lacking in color. Every woman is wearing vibrantly patterned pagne. The yellow, orange, green, blue, turquoise, and scarlet of their clothing turns the room into a garden. The color is balanced out by the darkness behind some of the women’s eyes. One woman in particular, in the center of the room, is nursing a baby and dancing with her eyes. She doesn’t smile and I recognize the dancing eyes as not knowing how to rest her gaze.
Mukanda grabs the remote for the television and suddenly the room is filled with the thunder of English. Some of the women yell at him and laugh. The woman in the center of the room continues to shift only her eyes.
-I have some work to do at the COPERMA office, I say to Mukanda. I’ll see you soon though, I’ll be back either today or tomorrow.
He waves at me with the remote and smiles before returning his attention to the blaring television. Back at the COPERMA office I sit down with my notebook and the scribbled stories Maman Marie handed me. Urbain did the interviews and his handwriting is difficult but not impossible to read.
Name: Kyakyimua K.
Age: 45 years
Event: Trapped and raped by one military in her field. Military stole her animals and everything else she had with her.
Current State: When she thinks about what happened, she has doubt about living.
Name: Kahambu M.
Age: 24 years
Event: She was raped and they stole her clothing. She was pregnant after first rape, baby was 1 year old and 3 months.
The words after this are confusing, not because of the hand-writing or the French. For some reason, I feel the need to verify. What I’m reading can’t be right. Urbain has recently gotten back from FEPSI. I jump out of my chair quickly, interrupting Hangie in a sentence I wasn’t listening to. Urbain is standing against the concrete wall surrounding the office, looking into the dirt street.
-Urbain, can you help me read this please? I don’t think I’m understanding it correctly.
He leans his head down without moving his body and reads the paragraph I’m pointing to.
-She was raped by three soldiers the first time, and became pregnant. The last time she was raped by four soldiers.
-She was raped twice? By a total of seven soldiers?
What he’s saying is clear and I realize my repetition is pointless.
-Yes, he responds and looks at the ground.
-And what about this, what does it say here, for “current state?”
He looks back at the notebook and takes his hand out of his pocket to follow the words with his finger.
-Current State: She is afraid of all men, especially military. She hurts badly, because the soldiers who raped her the second time, killed the baby she had after the first rapes.
-She had a baby from the first time she was raped, and then the second time, when other soldiers attacked her, they killed the child?
I’m still clarifying so I can wrap my head and heart around the concept, not the words.
-Yes, the baby was one year and three months old.
I sigh and go back inside.
Name: Masika M.
Age: 45 years
Event: She was raped in her field by one soldier. When she said to him, “you are my son,” he began to beat her.
Current State: She is ashamed to be around others. She feels deceived by life.
Name: Kahindo B.
Age: 29 years
Event: She was raped by one soldier in her field.
Current State: After the rape, her husband left her because he was afraid of diseases and HIV. She wants to have the opportunity to take medication so her husband will come back home.
Name: Katya K.
Age: 17 years
Event: One soldier raped her in a small house in the village.
Current State: She thinks about what happened often, when she does she always cries. She says she needs help with her emotions, and financial and medical help for her one child.
-Amy! Come and eat.
Maman Marie pulls me out of the horror in the little green notebook.
-Yeah, I’m coming, I say.
I glance over the stories again, before closing the notebook and joining Maman Marie, Hangie and Laurentine around three large metal plates of rice and black beans.
-Amy, do you have beans in your country? Asks Laurentine.
Laurentine is Maman Marie’s seeming mini-me. Laurentine is also a larger woman, much younger, but just as beautiful. She is extremely curious about where I’m from and before I came along she thought the Western world lives without food, sunlight, love, violence, poverty, black people, divorce, rape, or menstrual cycles.
-Yes, we eat beans all the time. I love beans.
-I’ve never seen you eat any beans, she retorts.
-Amy eats beans all the time, says Hangie. I’ve seen her eat beans before, I’m a witness.
I pick up a spoon, dig it into the pile of black lumps, put all of it in my mouth and then wave the spoon at Laurentine. She laughs slightly.
-Of course they eat beans, says Maman Marie eating from the same platter as me. They just don’t eat palm oil.
-That’s true. Or at least it is for my family and me. And definitely we don’t eat it like you, you all drink it like it’s water.
Everyone laughs and nods in agreement.
-Food isn’t food without palm oil, says Hangie.
-Have you finished with the reports from the survivors? Maman Marie asks, changing the subject.
-Yes, I have. It’s so great that you brought them all to FEPSI.
-One of the girls was trembling so hard yesterday. And another told me she had a wound, but that she would treat it by sitting in cold water and she would be fine.
-Where was her wound?
-On the level of her sex. When I heard that I knew that we could lose her if we didn’t help her.
-Well, now she can get it treated. And when I was there, they seemed a little bit calm. Some of them were even laughing and smiling. So, hopefully they’re already feeling better.
-You have done a great thing, Amy.
-Me? I haven’t even been in the country, you guys are doing everything.
-Yeah but without the finances we couldn’t have helped any of them.
-Well, for that you should thank the people who donated their own money to help, I say.
She nods her head and takes another scoop of beans.
-That’s true. If I could thank every one of them, I would.