Dusan told me a while ago never to let anything here touch me too much, but I don’t think that’s really possible. The thing is, seeing women with brilliant smiles, laughter and kindnesswho are hurting and unable to look me in the eyes does touch me. And not being able to really help them touches me more. There are days when I truly feel like a piece of this quilted country; I’m made more vibrant by the beauty of the pieces around me. And then there are days when I move through villages, over the patchwork mountains, through people’s homes, and I see and feel nothing. I interact with people as if there is a foggy window between us. It becomes harder to keep my heart open and I become more and more afraid of how it’s going to hurt to keep it open.
But then I remember that I’m being hurt by stories of things people have actually experienced and the dark, thudding hurt I feel becomes nothing compared to the depth of what they must live with for the rest of their lives.
There’s an area near Butembo that’s referred to as Graben. It’s a valley that’s a monster in a closet I can’t open, but one which many Congolese women have seen. It’s over-run with governmental soldiers and, allegedly, ADF-NALU rebels from Uganda. In Isale-Bhulambo, a village repeatedly attacked by the governmental battalion stationed there, many of the women and girls have also been attacked in Graben. It’s an area of fields for cultivation. Women walk to their fields and stay for several days before bringing their goods home, but recently, the women in the area have had to abandon their fields.
-There are 27 survivors of rape in Katolu near Graben and we brought in 11 to get treatment at FEPSI, but we haven’t been able to help the others, says my colleague Urbain. We sent out some supplies for petite-commerce but it wasn’t enough to help all of the women.
There are two yellow jugs of palm oil, several blocks of hand-made soap, and a sack of salt that still needs to be taken out so we all pile into the car and head out to Katolu. Katolu is three hours away in a car, plus a 30 minute walk by foot to the top of a plateau.
-Look, you can see Uganda from here, says Urbain as we get out of the car. And there is Graben.
I stare at the valley extending below us and try to imagine how such beauty can contain such horror. The land is so rich the greens and browns glitter like wet paint in the sun. Maman Marie and Urbain lead the way through a small village to a thin path. There are more people floating around in the village than normal, and when we arrive at the end of the path I see why.
-Oh no, I say turning to Urbain.
The path opens into a soccer field and the field is filled with at least 200 people. A few meters from our small group is a small black box battery connected to microphone.
-We can’t help all of these people, I say again. Why are they here?
Maman Marie has been doing this a lot longer than I have. She confidently walks up to the microphone and launches into a speech.
-Here, we don’t need to stay we can go and speak with the survivors.
Urbain stands up and starts walking back towards the path. I shield my eyes from the blinding sun and follow him to a mud hut with a stick cross spreading into the sky. Inside the air is cool and damp, the room is filled with small wooden benches. Within a few minutes women start filing into the tiny church. I count twelve women but they are still filling the room.
-All of these women are survivors? I ask Urbain who has taken a seat on a wooden bench to my left.
-Yes. Some of them went to FEPSI already and some of them haven’t though.
-Okay, let’s try and separate the two groups so we can focus on those who haven’t yet been treated or talked to anyone.
Urbain speaks to everyone in Kinande and immediately the women stand up and start switching seats and sides of the room.
-Everyone on the right has already been to FEPSI and everyone on the left has not received treatment.
I look at the group and don’t know what to do. There are too many to speak with individually in one day but I don’t know how to do identification in a group.
-Raise your hand if you have been to the hospital, I say in French.
Everyone on the right and about a third of the group on the left raise their hands.
-There is a woman who has a baby who is deformed and she wants to show you the child, Urbain says suddenly.
A woman has already stood up and is moving towards the front of the room. I brace myself and realize I am afraid of the child. I’m afraid of how his little face and the nothing I can do will hurt me. When the woman reaches me she lowers the little bundle and moves a blanket away from the baby’s face. The baby is only a few weeks old and still not dark enough to match his mother’s skin. I recognize a bilateral complete cleft lip and palate immediately.
-Does he have trouble eating? How old is he?
I’m amazed the child can eat anything at all and is still alive. I don’t know much about the condition but it looks incomprehensible to me that the child could be alive.
-He cannot eat milk from his mother’s nipple but he can drink some milk if they give it to him carefully. He’s three weeks old.
I start to tell her to take the child to the hospital, but I doubt there is a Doctor who can do the surgery.
-We need to research if there is a Doctor in the area who can perform this surgery, I say to Urbain. I nod to the woman and smile; she walks out the door of the hut into the sunshine. I look back to the group.
-Is there anyone who has physical pain in their body?
Urbain translates and over half of the room raises their hands. Urbain points to a woman in the front row who is raising a strangely crooked arm. I stand up and walk over to the woman, my heart beating quickly. Her arm is broken in the same place that Kasuera from Isale broke her arm, but the break and the swelling look twice as big. It looks like someone took a golf ball and tucked it under her skin.
-Can you move your hand at all?
The woman looks at her hand and a couple of her fingers move about a centimeter.
-When did this happen?
-Six months ago, Urbain translates.
-Oh jeez, okay. Well she’s an urgent case. We need to get her to the hospital as soon as possible.
-Okay, we will ask her. I think we should speak with them individually, Urbain says.
-Yes, I agree. But only to the women who haven’t been identified yet. The women who didn’t go to FEPSI already.
Urbain translates and the women stand to leave. I point to the woman with the broken arm and ask her to start. We all move to chairs in a small circle and when the rest of the women are outside and the door is closed, Kavy begins.
The soldiers came into the field, she explains in Kinande. A group of them came, they tried to kill her after they raped her but she used her arm to block the blow of the gun to her head. She doesn’t know how old she is, maybe 37 years old. She was raped in November during the confrontation in Bhulambo. The soldiers spoke Lingala and wore uniforms of the governmental soldiers. She went to find food to eat in the field and when she started to leave with the food three military came and raped her.
Kavy has slightly slanted eyes that make her look perpetually sad.
-After that day, I feel very tired always and I stay in my bed, she says.
After Kavy, Masika comes in. She has a round face with a shockingly white smile. She’s 31 years old and she has a problem with her feet. She points down to her feet and I see that her skin is peeling off as if it were a thin sock.
Masika went to the field to work. A group of military came and trapped her. One of them raped her but the others saw women working in the fields nearby and one of them said, “we should go to take the others as well.” The pain in her womb is calm now.
As Masika I watch Masika speak I feel my heart open up a little bit. I’ve been focusing so much on the suffering that I’m helpless to fix I’ve been forgetting to focus on the beauty and strength that is pervasive here. I wish others could see this young woman so they could understand how beautiful she is. Even though I’ve just met her, kindness emanates from her and I feel comfortable in the softness of her presence; her voice is like wind chimes.
-There is still fear in my heart when I think of it, she says.
Kulemba was working in the field when the group of soldiers came. The leader was a fat military, when the others left, he stayed and said “I am going to sleep with you.” She refused and so he forced her. He beat her before he raped her.
-I had been working very hard and I was tired. That’s why he succeeded.
I tell her it’s not her fault. Since then she doesn’t work. When she tries to go to the field or do hard work her back begins hurting and she has pain in her abdomen still.
Kyakyimua is 34 years old. In March she was in the field alone. The 3 military came and she tried to flee but they caught her. They said, “since you wanted to flee we’re going to do what you were afraid of.” She went to the hospital afterwards but she was too ashamed to tell the Doctor she was raped. She feels weak.
Wena is 39 years old. She smiles at me shyly before looking down at her feet. Her husband is dead. Three months after he died one soldier raped her. She went to the hospital and they told her she contracted an infection; gonorrhea and syphilis.
-You have syphilis? I interrupt her.
-Yes, that’s what they said at the hospital.
-Did you receive treatment there?
-No, I couldn’t afford the medications so they would not let me take it.
I make a note in my notebook.
-She also needs to get treatment, if she wants.
Urbain asks her in Kinande and she shakes her head.
-She refuses, he says.
Urbain asks her and her response is soft and deflated.
-Because she says she can never feel better.
-Explain that physically, syphilis can be treated. But if she doesn’t treat it, it can be fatal.
Wena smiles again and then nods her head.
-Yes, she accepts.
Wena looks at the ground again but there’s still a trace of a smile on her face. I wonder as I have many times, how anyone can hurt these women? I just don’t understand it and I can feel the tightening around my heart; frustration and anger wrap like rubber bands around my throat and it's difficult to breathe. But their strength is inspiring and their kindness is this world's salvation. I watch Wena, smiling shyly, and the rubber bands loosen and I can feel why this is all so important once again.