PLEASE BE ADVISED: THE FOLLOWING POST CONTAINS POTENTIALLY DISTURBING GRAPHIC CONTENT RELATING TO SEXUAL VIOLENCE.
When I step off the plane in Eastern Congo, every pore in my body opens up to breathe and the fist choking my heart disappears with a single inhale. Hangie picks me up from the Beni airport in a small compact car with a handsome but pimply young driver. I almost cry when I see him, standing in perfectly pressed pants and a big grin. I swim in the clarity of the mountains.
Business picks up again as soon as I get into the car. I take out my notebook and Hangie begins recounting the things I’ve missed.
-I told you about the little girl who was raped, he says , twisting awkwardly to look at me from the front seat. She was four years old and had to go to the hospital due to vomiting. She was vomiting so much, Amy.
-Okay, Hangie. I don’t need to know all of the details, I say quickly before he can continue.
I write his words as he speaks. Hangie told me about this little girl when I was in Kinshasa still. I couldn’t get the image he portrayed out of my mind.
The young driver interrupts.
-Somebody did what to a four year old?
-A man of 24 years raped her on the level of the mouth.
-Was he a crazy person?
-No, he was normal.
The taxi driver tsks loudly and shakes his head as I sit silently in the back watching their exchange. So many people in this region are used to the stories. Although people continue their lives as best as they can and don’t discuss or dwell on suffering, they’ve all heard the stories before. I like watching anger flare up in response, especially in men. Something about it is soothing to me.
-What else has happened that I should know about?
-Vraiment, Amy, security is not good right now.
-Isale is suffering again from the military fighting. A girl under 18 years was raped by a man over 40. They trapped him and attacked the rapist with a machete, he was in the hospital for a while.
-Is he still in the hospital? Can I speak with him?
I haven’t yet gotten to speak at length with someone who can’t deny what they’ve done. I don't know what I would ask but something inside me is aching to try, and foolishly hoping it would help me understand.
Hangie looks out the front window now as he speaks.
-Where was he hit with the machete?
-In the chest and on the neck.
I don’t know how I feel about this. I catch myself feeling happy that the man lost his life. I don’t know that my heart has room anymore to care for the perpetrators as well. I don’t feel guilty for feeling a twinge of happiness, but the happiness does make me sad.
- Seven people were attacked and killed near Beni. A man in Kipese was killed by FaRDC. Eleven women are in Butembo right now being treated at FEPSI. They were all raped just past Isale. There were 25 survivors of rape by governmental soldiers and Ugandan rebel NALU soldiers.
He lists the suffering like he’s reading me a grocery list.
-You’re talking about people actually being raped? Asks the driver, suddenly.
-Yes, that’s the line of work we are in, Hangie responds immediately.
-What is happening to the world? The driver shakes his head and tsks some more.
-But wait, how was Kinshasa? It’s been so long since we have seen you! Hangie exclaims suddenly, twisting again in his seat.
-I know, believe me it wasn’t because I didn’t want to come home to North Kivu. Kinshasa was…. I pause. Kinshasa was scary.
Kinshasa feels like a hangover. It feels like a poison that’s mostly gone but I’m still recovering. It makes me uncomfortable to think about and with a little distance, I realize it’s because of me, not Kinshasa. I didn’t trust anyone. Maybe it was founded, maybe it wasn’t. People everywhere warned me about everyone else. In the East I often forget to close my bag or leave too much money with a vendor. I’ve always been comforted by strangers who poke me and tell me to zip my bag or chase me down the dirt road with 20 cents in their hand. In Kinshasa I didn’t even give them the chance. I glared at anyone who walked in my direction or stood too close, and I clutched my bag to my chest like it was a dying baby. Yes I had some reason; there are shegue who hit people with machetes without warning and police officers who will rob you before protect you. But there were also taxi drivers like Jean-Louise who talked about missing his deceased wife and was concerned if I didn’t seem excited about what I ate for lunch. There were people like Sister June, Maman Lydie and Maman Christine, who saw only the gravity of suffering children.
Kinshasa was like an apple with a toothpick embedded somewhere inside; I feared the whole city. It’s dehumanizing to look at every person and assume they’re a snake. And normally it’s the assumption that proves the rule. One month in Kinshasa made me more jaded than a year in North Kivu, and it was only because I didn’t put forth the effort to brave the risk of trusting without knowing. But I'm back in the mountains now, and I've missed them like they're people.
Suddenly, a pineapple is thrust in front of my face through my open window. We’ve stopped at a curve in the road where women wearing pagne are chatting and selling their goods. About four more pineapples and a basket of strawberries pop through the window.
-Wahay, I say nervously, in Kinande.
-Iyahay, every woman responds in unison as they disintegrate into laughter.
Their laughter clinks slightly; both soft and sharp at the same time, like violets tumbling across broken glass. I welcome the laughter and join in.