Friday, January 28, 2011

70 Percent

    -Up to 70% said they’d lied about being raped, says Dusan.
          We’re sitting on the Crosier porch discussing the women potentially being held in a governmental soldier camp.  He’s reminding me of things I know but try to not let overpower me.  He’s telling a story about a priest he knows well, another Croatian in Congo, who used to work with victims of sexual violence but stopped when priestly confessions painted an almost bleaker picture.  When white people and humanitarian organizations show up with aid, poverty overpowers dignity.  Any muzungu in Congo is like the Wizard of Oz and anyone we may try and help is Dorothy, a scarecrow, a tin-man or a lion.
          It’s unlikely, he explains, that soldiers could actually keep women in one of their camps without community retaliation; almost impossible.  Of course rape happens rampantly, he says, but it’s also fabricated in a similar way.  He tells a story of a woman he’s extracted from sexual slavery, only to find out she was playing three different soldiers who all thought they were married to her.
          I’ve known that happens since my first day here, and I’ve figured out ways of having at least an idea of whether or not a woman is being honest.  Body language is hard to fake, so is a visit to FEPSI where there are measures in place to subtly verify cases. 
          Yet, his comments eat away at me for a few days, and when we are distributing petite-commerce supplies in Vutondi and a woman asks to speak with me, I disappoint myself. 
          Kavira says she was raped five years ago, but her story changes as she tells it.  At first the man was waiting in her room when she arrived; she fought with him from 7 p.m. until 3 in the morning when she lost her force and he took her.  Then she was in her room already in bed and the man entered, and then he was already in the house but not in her room.  The holes in her story make me question her, as I normally would, but the seed Dusan has planted spreads its roots and I don’t even see the benefit of the doubt.
          It makes me feel cold and cruel.  I hate myself for doubting the woman and indicating through my questions, voice and body language that I don’t believe her.  In the end, who cares if she’s lying to me?  I’m not handing out money to anyone.  All it costs me is compassion.  Everyone deserves compassion, so why should a lie, if it’s even a lie at all, change anything?  This is how you burn-out, become jaded.  Only compassion can keep those things away; compassion and trusting, even when everything points to the contrary.
          We leave the room and I can tell she’s uncomfortable.  I feel dirty.  I want to take a shower and wash Dusan’s doubt out of my mind.  After speaking with Kavira, Sarah, Alana and I walk with the Vutondi President, a tall, deep-voiced man with a kind demeanor, to the source.  Many of the girls indicated they were raped while walking to “the source,” the place where everyone gets their water.  It’s a short walk through the forest, down to two white pipes trickling water into small puddles.  I can’t get rid of the doubt.
    -Many of the girls and women say they were raped while walking down this path or another to the source, but are there soldiers here? I ask, forcefully.
    -No, there are no soldiers right here, ever.  He says. 
    -But they said they were raped by soldiers on the path.  Are you saying they are lying?
    -No, they could not lie about that.  It is not easy to come forward about that kind of an experience.
          I want to slap him for educating me on the devastation of rape.  A young girl walks down the path with a bucket slung over her back.  I watch her step into one of the puddles and place the bucket under the trickle of clear water.  Another girl walks past, with the same type of container.
    -If these girls are being raped on these paths, why don’t you send boys?  Why don’t you tell them to come in groups together or walk here with their brothers?
          My voice is accusing him, even though I know he’s not the one I’m trying to blame. 
    -I don’t know, he says. 
          He’s shaky in his response and looking around for support from the two other French speakers standing with us.  I feel fury building up inside of me and I start back up the path alone.  I don’t say good bye, I just tell Alana and Sarah in English that I’m going back and they can stay and do what they need to do.  I know I’m misplacing my anger and the level of it is quickly bringing up tears.  I don’t want anyone to see me overwhelmed by something so small.
         On my walk back up the path I continue fuming to myself, surrounded by dense banana trees.  It would be so easy to rape a woman on this path.  Why don’t they just send men?  When I get back to the road I glare at every male I see, even little boys.  I can’t contain my anger.  The knowledge that not all men and boys could, or would, do such a horrible thing is completely escaping me.  Each face looks sinister and fills me further with fury. 
          When I arrive back at the expanse of grass there are about 50 people still milling about, going over things with Maman Marie and the team; I sit down and try to absorb the smiles of the children prancing around.  They are everywhere, as usual.  Their laughter and wariness of the muzungu help me calm down and start breathing again.  Shortly after, Alana, Sarah and the COPERMA village President get back.  The President walks into the group of women talking to Maman Marie and sits down with a pen and paper to help. 
          Still sitting on a small ridge within the throng of children, I look to my left and see a young man of about 23.  He is laughing to himself and rocking back and forth slightly, with children filling the expanses all around him.  His movements aren’t normal, and after a moment I recognize the signs of someone hopped up on chanvre-marijuana.  But the look on his face has a streak of cruelty in it.  My eyes wander across his body trying to figure out what’s going on and I notice the opening in his pants; his skinny, sausage-brown dick hanging out like a dead animal.
          Someone turns up the sun.  For a moment all I see is blinding light.  I wonder if God takes a picture of you in these moments, so he, or she, can show you the image when you meet again and say, “this is what you looked like just before you made that decision.”
          My urge is to hit the man with something harder than my fist, but there is nothing in my hand and nothing within reach.  My anger is moving faster than my thoughts.  I start in his direction, but the sea of vulnerability around him makes me stop.  The hesitation the children provide allows my head to catch up with my heart.  I turn in the opposite direction and walk directly towards the Vutondi President. 
    -That man, I turn around and point at him with my finger and my eyes, is showing his penis.
          I start walking off immediately; I know this time I won’t be able to contain the wave of anger and fear.  The President stands up immediately and walks straight towards the man.
    -Around children.  You shouldn’t let him be around children, I yell as I walk across the small expanse.
          I start crying before I even finish my sentence, and I search for a place to be alone.  I walk behind a small hut, but children still peek at me through the banana trees.  They stare at me as I cry and try to pull the anger back inside.  Within a moment, the President shows up behind the hut.
    -He was high on chanvre, he says.  He used to be Mai-Mai.  I am so sorry.
          He thinks I’m upset as a result of seeing the man’s penis.  Not only that, but he’s making excuses for the man.  He’s embarrassed, not angry.
    -I’m not upset by him, but he shouldn't be near children.
          I can barely get the words out as I keep trying to reign in my tears.  I can’t speak without letting everything go and screaming at the man, and I do know he doesn’t deserve that. 
    -He could easily hurt the children, I choke out.
    -I’m going to talk to the boy’s parents and the village chief, he says.  I will talk to them, I promise.
          He wants to help, but there’s very little either of us can do.  The sausage-dick boy, or man, whatever he is, is the face of a villain I’ve been looking for since I first heard someone respond “civilian,” when I asked, “who raped you?”  And the face was more sad and hopeless than I could have ever imagined.  The President walks off with his eyes on the ground.  Just as I am getting my breathing and terrified anger under control again, Maman Marie shows up behind the hut. 
    -We are done working, she says softly.
    -I’m sorry, I say, starting to cry all over again.  I’m just frustrated.
    -I know, you feel scared for the people here.
    -It’s okay. 
          Her words soothe me a little and I start feeling capable of putting my game face back on.  We walk around the house and many of the people are still staring at me.  I hate showing them weakness when their strength is untouchable.  The women have prepared some cabbage and rice for us and Maman Marie and I walk into the dark hut I was trying to hide behind.
    -I’m sorry for making a spectacle, I say. 
    -You didn’t, and I understand.  This is why, many times I do not want to come out to the villages, she says.  I do because I know it’s important and that I have to, otherwise nobody will help, but I almost never want to.  I am afraid of it sometimes.
         I laugh as she laughs about revealing her seeming weakness as well.
    -One time I came out here to Vutondi, and just there behind the school, she points in the direction of one of the mud huts nearby, I found a boy raping a girl.  We caught him, the village helped me trap him.
    -Do you think they would have done something if you hadn’t been here?
    -I’ll never know.
    -What happened to the man?
    -He’s in jail now, he has been for four years and he will be for twelve.
    -That’s amazing. 
    -His parents came and asked us to forgive the boy, but I said no.  He needs to see justice for what he did.
          My breathing is normal again.  Maman Marie’s presence and words are comforting.  Sarah, Alana and the rest of the COPERMA team enter the room and we all dig in.  Though I call her Maman every time I speak to her, and I see the way she takes in children and adults alike who need help, I've never fully understood her title, until now.
          On the way home I think about the young man, and once again, my frustration seeps out of my body in the form of quiet but forceful tears.  At least this time I’m able to hide it.  I guess I believe more in the trust I have for the women who expose themselves and tell me their most difficult stories, but I’m not sure it makes anything any better. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Tunnel Vision

          After the last week, our Wazungu team takes a break; sort of.  One nice thing about having other Americans around is their lack of tunnel vision; or at least, different directions of tunnel vision.  They see things I don’t, like people and things that don’t necessarily involve rape.
          We spend a day doing Neurolinguistic Programming exercises that Sarah has brought with her.  It’s strange focusing on myself and thinking about what negative emotions or limiting beliefs I need to work through, even just for a day.  It feels good but odd here; it’s the job I’ve chosen, but it’s also easier to focus on other people’s problems.  And other people are easier to help.  But the day is enjoyable and I do feel a little bit lighter after imagining people whom I need to forgive for something on a far off hill, mentally bathing them in different colors of light, and letting go of whatever wrong I feel they did. 
          The next day we follow a focus of Sarah’s.  Though it is, in a sense, still a focus on sexual violence, I would never have thought to step out of my routine and seek out the common worldly thread of sex workers in Butembo. 
          Benoit is a shorter man with dark circles around his eyes that make him look strangely like The Adam’s Family’s Uncle Fester, but a lot darker.  He approached me months ago, explaining the Non-Profit Organization he started to help protect sex workers and teach them about safe sex.  I brushed him off, not having enough funds, time, or energy to help another NGO.  Only when Sarah mentions her interest in the women in this line of work do I remember the Association of Women Living Alone.
          We meet with the women in a small concrete room like any other here.  They’re sitting in a half circle facing us; it’s like walking into a royal court made up of some of the most strangely beautiful women I’ve ever seen.  They’re beauty comes in all sizes.  Maman Kaghoma is the heavy-set President of the Association of Women Living Alone; an association that consists of 6,000 women in Butembo alone.  Something about all of the women is comforting and I find it much easier to communicate with them.  They’ve seen everything, and are slightly wary of our presence but also open to our varying personalities and the possibility of kindness.  It’s refreshing; I immediately feel like we are among friends.  Sarah sets up her camera and I begin asking questions.
    -How did you get into this line of work?
          We start with Maman Kaghoma.
    -I used to live in Goma, she says, speaking directly to Sarah’s camera with an assertive force that’s empowering and intimidating at the same time.
    -I had to flee because of the war.  I used to be married, but my husband was killed.  You cannot survive here without a husband, not in this place.  I didn’t want to start doing this work but I saw that I could not survive without money and this was the best way for me to make money for my family so that I could feed my children and myself.  When you need food and you have nothing, and a man says here is this money for this act, what will you do?
          After Maman Kaghoma finishes, each of the other women speaks.  All of the stories are more or less the same.  No work, no husband, hungry children.
    -Do you have trouble with men being violent with you? 
          I may try to shift my focus but it’s difficult to completely remove my blinders.
    -Yes, we have problems with that.  All the time.
    -Do you have problems with rape?
    -All the time.  Men see us on the route and they think they can just take us.  And they do.
          The woman speaking currently is a skinny woman with a very bright smile, big white teeth, and a little gap in the middle. 
    -It needs to be something you decide on and consent to.  Both people.  A man needs to say I want to have your body in this way, and the woman also needs to say, I want to have your body in this way.  And then, okay.  But when they come and we refuse and they force us it is not okay.
          I’ve always had a soft-spot for women forced to sell their bodies.  It’s a complicated profession and problem involving radical power plays and insecurities in the greatest extreme.  Insecurity and self-doubt are what bring the devil out of humans.  I can’t imagine anyone sees this more than women who sell the physical manifestations of themselves. 
     -Do you use condoms in your work?
    -We used to, we’d like to.  But we can’t afford it.  One box of three pieces costs $2.00.  HealthNetTPO gave us some funding for our own health center, our own Doctor, training classes on safe sex and HIV/AIDS but the contract ran out and there’s nothing anymore.
          All of the women are listening attentively, some slightly nodding their heads.
    -Are there any women in your Association who are positive for HIV and still work?   
    -Yes, there are many.
          All of the women break into Swahili and Kinande chatter before seemingly coming to a conclusion.
    -Probably 20/100 are positive.
          A woman on my right cuts in.  She’s slightly chubby, beautiful, and angry. 
    -Some of the women are hidden and some are known.  But all of them work.  What are we going to do?  Do you think I like doing this work?  I have three children I can barely feed because I can’t find regular work anywhere.  When you have nothing, what can you do?
          I nod my head in agreement and tell them I understand.  I see their perspective but I’ve never actually known what that’s like.  We finish up and the women move outside as Sarah packs up her equipment. 
    -Would you like to promenade a little with us?  Asks one of the more voluptuous women.  Anwarite is wearing a bright red, fully sequined skirt-top combo that doesn’t quite zip all the way in the back.  She has the popular white powder on her face, making her skin look lighter but in a bizarrely obvious way.  I hate the white powder because it’s imitating my skin, when I don’t hold a candle to these women.
    -It’s the weekend, she says as she swings her hips around a little.  We must dance.
          Benoit started working with these women because he is the manager at a popular night club where many of the women work.  I set off on the motorcycle and Alana and Sarah walk down the road with the ladies.  Inside we sit around several tables, a party of 12.  Benoit orders fries with mayonnaise, tilapia and goat meat, and a beer for everyone.  Because the women have spent their entire day speaking with us and doing interviews, Sarah has agreed to treat the women to lunch and their choice of a drink. 
          It’s possibly the most fun I’ve had in Congo.  The women ask about our families, where are our boyfriends, what are our lives like?  Towards the end of the meal, Alana suggests that the wazungu get up and sing.  She has been teaching Sarah and I different songs and harmonies at night when we have to stay on the Crosier grounds to avoid les bandits.  The three of us stand up and I explain in French that we would like to share something with them.  We start singing a three part harmony and the women smile and listen intently.  They clap enthusiastically at the end, ask for an encore, and tell us they think we are kind.  
           It’s such a slight attempt at a gift, but it feels good to share something of ourselves with these brilliantly vibrant specimens of humanity.  It’s humbling.  I’ve never been more honored to be in the company of a certain group of people. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011


    -Plastic crutches
    -E-mail Makeba
    -Isale man
          The notes I write on my hand over the course of the week give a strangely complete image of what there is to be done here.  A couple of weeks ago, Maman Marie wrote up a budget for me, so I could check in on the various projects they need money for.  My contribution through donors in the States, is still rather minimal, but it’s a lot more than what they’re currently working with; that being nothing.  Gas seems to eat up the most money, unfortunately and seems to be the largest point of contention among us.  Gas and worker’s salaries.  The COPERMA team hasn’t been paid in a while.  They’re humanitarian workers, and the work they do takes courage, spirit and self-sacrifice; but they too have bellies to feed and school fees to pay. 
          When Maman Marie hands me the budget, I overlook all of these things that are just as necessary as sewing machines and petite-commerce supplies.  I see only the 28 new cases of sexual violence listed among the numbers.  Ten of the new cases are in a location called Vutondi and it’s the first place we are able to go.  Vutondi is only about 45 minutes away, which makes the day feel less stressful from the start.  A third American has now joined Sarah and me; Alana Yurkanin is a potential donor.  She has come to learn about the Congo and see how exactly she might be able to help.  When we arrive in Vutondi there is a mass of people standing outside of a few huts.  They sing and dance and laugh when they see three young muzungu women trickle out of the car. 
          Alana is from Hawaii, and has brought a ukulele and a beautiful voice with her.  She jumps right into the crowd and begins singing and strumming the tiny guitar, as everyone watches happily and the children creep closer.  For the most part, I leave Alana and Sarah to figure out their agenda.  Sarah often joins me in the “identification” of survivors, taking photos and film of those who want her to.  This is a new village for me, but the process is the same.  After introductions and many hellos, I enter a large mud hut with a chalk board at the front and a few wooden benches in the middle.  Urbain has a list of the ten new survivors and he immediately begins calling out names.  The villagers don’t know the reason for the selection of who speaks to the muzungu, and Alana’s music helps distract those who aren’t.
          One of the first women to enter is a short girl with a wide face, eyes shaped like elegant fish, and a brown hat that says FIFA on the front.  She comes in slowly, as she is using heavy wooden crutches to support her body and a twisted foot that didn’t finish forming in her mother’s womb.  Kavugho lives with her older brother.  Their mother died and dad abandoned the family prior to that.  Dad is in Oicha with another woman.  Kavugho hasn’t seen him in years. 
          Kavugho was walking home one night at around eight after buying gas.  She was attacked by one Mai-Mai soldier in November, 2010.  He raped her.  Kavugho’s brother brought her to the hospital three days after the rape and he willingly paid the hospital bill.  Her eyes tear up and she stops speaking.
    -She’s going to cry, whispers Urbain to me.
          I wait a moment as her eyes flit around the room trying to command the tears.
    -I’m noticeable in the village, she says.  My heart is tired. 
    -Why is your heart tired? I ask, even though the words in my notebook should have given me that answer already.
    -I’m an orphan, my dad abandoned us, I don’t have work, they make fun of me in the village.  After this event, I feel so tired in my heart.
          She really wants to start a small business, she says.  Her foot and the heavy crutches make it impossible for her to work a field, and though her brother takes care of her, he has a wife and three children to feed as well.  She’s fidgeting with her clothing and avoiding eye contact. 
    -A pair of plastic crutches would really help, she practically whispers.
          I look at her restless fingers and the thick, brown crutches laying across her lap.  There is no padding anywhere, and the wood is not a light timber.  It’s thicker than the sticks most of the houses are built out of.  I move my pen from my notebook to the back of my hand.
    Plastic crutches, I write, in blue ink.
          After Kavugho, many others stick out.  Thirteen year olds who are seeping anger. 
    -I was a virgin.  I received my period only after this happened.
          Anita is 14 years old.  Her mother died when she was an infant.  She has never seen her father before, as he abandoned them before she was born.  She’s wearing an orange shirt with a pink, square cloth draped across her shoulder.  She was in the field with her Grandmother.  On their way home they encountered soldiers who spoke Lingala and wore the uniforms of governmental soldiers.  The soldiers told her to carry their bags back to their camp.  Anita’s Grandmother tried to intervene, so the soldiers took the Grandmother to another place and tortured her. 
          After two of the soldiers raped her in the road, Anita was taken back to their camp.  There she was held, and the two soldiers “took turns” with her for seven days.  There were other women there, and there still are.  She was able to escape with a few of the women and girls, but not everyone escaped.
        Vighumba, I write on my hand.  It is the area where Anita and the others were held, and where an unknpwn number of women may still be.  Dusan should be home soon, and regardless of whether or not he can help me find these women, I’m going to try.  Sarah and Alana agree with me, it becomes a top priority for all of us.  But none of us know quite how to storm a soldier’s camp and liberate women being held as sexual slaves.
        A day or two later, when we are in Isale, E-mail Makeba, becomes necessary.  Makeba is a counselor and close friend in the States, and I hope she may be able to help me figure out how to help a woman who’s heart and mind were broken when her husband left and took their children with him.  For two years the woman has been a rambling spiral of excitement and confusion. 
    -What is your name? I ask.
    -You will have to ask my teeth, she says.  My name is kept in my teeth.
        She speaks rapidly, when no one is speaking to her or listening. 
    -This is where I keep my children, she says, pointing down to her left big toe. 
          She has not hurt anyone or herself, but her mother is exhausted.  Mom has other children to feed and watch, and is at her wit’s end.  She doesn’t know what she can do to help her daughter, but if I have any way of helping, she is prepared to do anything.  I don’t think I can help.  The mental health centers here are like thorazine warehouses, where patients look through you and have trouble forming words.
          There is a man in Isale who is physically ill.  Isale man, remains written on my hand for several days.  When we came upon him, he was an empty cardboard box.  His walls were so thin I’m sure they would crease if you pushed on them hard enough.  His mouth is coated with the layers of many nights without exposure to outside air.  He looks like a 90 year-old man but Kasereka is only 32.  We take him immediately to the hospital, but I don’t have much hope.  As I help him into the back seat of the car, guiding his feet, something cold and wet brushes against my arm.
    -What happened to his foot? I ask, pointing to the white cloth, soaked in some natural fluid.
    -He was delirious one night and his foot was cold, so he put it in the fire, says Urbain after asking Kasereka’s wife.  She doesn’t know how long his foot was in the fire.
          A few days after meeting the whirlpool woman, Sarah, Alana and I arrive at the office, laughing about fitting three people on a motorcycle. 
    -I brought the medication out for Kasereka on Saturday, says Urbain as soon as we walk in.  He was doing well.  Yesterday, I received a call that he was in the midst of losing his life.  And now, the man is dead.
          I sit down and translate the words for Sarah and Alana.  Our laughing immediately disappears and the room is silent.  The silence only lasts a few moments, as life picks up again; Kasereka was a foregone conclusion.  On the ride back to Vutondi, I try and imagine the flimsy man I only met twice.  I didn’t truly know him, but it’s frighteningly important for me to think about what his death means, and thus, what his life was.  It’s easier to simply let the thoughts go and keep moving forward.  In many situations it’s necessary here.  But with death, I feel like it’s a responsibility and it would hurt me more to not show the man that respect.  I may not have known him, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t exist.
          I wonder what he was like as a four year old child, playing in the dirt, chasing an old tire with a stick.  I wonder what his engagement was like with his still young and beautiful bride.  I wonder if she was nervous and shaky around him when she didn’t yet know the intimacy of their shared vulnerability.  I wonder if he was scared to ask her to marry him, or if shared vulnerability came first.  I wonder what his kids thought of their dad when he was still himself.  I wonder if they got the approval all children look for from the two pieces that put them together.
          I wonder if he was happy.  I wonder what his children thought of the skeleton he became.  How frightened were they, by the stagnant animalism exposed by imminent death?  What is more frightening for them, having that animalism around or not having anything of him at all?
          In Vutondi I watch the people move around, laughing and singing along with Alana’s voice, once again.  I think about suffering and pain and life.  I can’t force the familiar and cliché thought of, what is the point? Out of my mind.  When you ask, what’s the point of suffering, don’t you also have to ask, well then, what’s the point of living at all?  Suffering and life seem to be like Siamese twins.  In order to get rid of one, you’d have to get rid of both.  Would it be better if we just get rid of both?
          That night when I get home, I find out a baby monkey who I was trying to nurse into adulthood died during the day.  In Congolese culture, animals are not seen as children of God, simply creations like any object to be used and disposed of; even in a religious community, if not more so.  The monkey died because the head priest didn’t think it fit for a human to feed an animal too young to eat on his own.  Somehow, at the end of each day filled with suffering I couldn’t solve, the little needy form brought my heart back towards my middle like a breathing magnet.  Whether it’s a culmination of the week, or the personal connection I had to the little being, a monkey the size of my hand seems to hurt the most. 
          I think about religion, and that Christianity, at least in this community, doesn’t include animals.  Why was I always told animals aren’t allowed into heaven when I was a child in Sunday school?  Any religion that doesn’t include animals as children equal to humans doesn’t work for me.  If anything, humans are less of God’s children than animals are; at least animals follow the laws of nature. 
          They’re not the ones destroying the world. 
          I cross off the words Isale man and Vet on my hand.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Commander

                Interacting with soldiers is like balancing on a weak and unsturdy wire.  Bulambo is a village located next to Isale.  It is next to Graben where the NALU rebels from Uganda are working to sink roots into the ground, so Bulambo is speckled with governmental soldiers, in order to combat the rebels.  They are walking green blotches of humanity, lost and left behind.  Rebels such as NALU have no rules, and if they were in Bulambo, we wouldn’t be able to go there at all.  Governmental soldiers have to at least pretend to be controlled, but it doesn’t mean much.
                While walking through the market of Bulambo, checking on the women starting the petite-commerce program, I take a picture of a soldier and get caught.  There’s no real need for the photo, I know what soldiers look like and I know I’m not supposed to take pictures of them.  But for some reason my hand itches and I do it anyway.  There are no other soldiers around me at the moment, but a large man in a black track suit and leather sandals approaches me.
                -You see there is a problem, he says.  You see, I am the Commander of this unit, and you are taking pictures of my soldiers without their permission.
                My adrenaline spikes immediately.  The man is more or less 3 feet taller than me.
                -I can erase the pictures, it’s really no problem.
                -No, you will not erase the pictures.  You will not even touch your camera, do you understand?  Do you understand that you cannot do this?
                -Yes, I am truly sorry, I really can simply erase the pictures.
                -No, come with me.
                We start walking down the main road.  Urbain, one of my COPERMA colleagues, was standing with me when I took the photos and he is asked to come as well.  I look around and don’t see Maman Marie or anyone else anywhere, and hope that she has decided to hide herself and the others.  I hope they’ll all pile into the car and simply leave.  There’s also another American in town.  Sarah Fretwell is a professional photographer who has come to work with COPERMA and do some pro-bono work to help them with fund-raising, possibly score a grant.  She has about $10,000 worth of camera equipment and I hope she’ll stay hidden as well.
                -You are from which country? He asks as we walk.
                He’s speaking sternly, but he hasn’t grabbed my camera yet and thrown it on the ground, and he’s not carrying a gun that I can see so I relax and start trying to work with him.
                -I’m from America.
                -You can’t take pictures of American soldiers ever.  So why do you think you could do this here?
                -Actually, you can take pictures of American soldiers and governmental buildings.  It’s really not a problem.
                -No you cannot. 
                I’ve never understood the whole problem with taking pictures of governmental assets in third world countries.  They seem to think that if I take a picture of a soldier talking to someone I’ll have immediate access to the inner circles of knowledge within the ranks.  The Commander has never been to the States, and I’ve definitely taken pictures of American soldiers before, but I let it go.
                We arrive at a concrete box of an office where there is a short, plump man sitting behind a desk.  The Commander enters immediately and motions for me to sit down on a wooden stool against the back wall.  Urbain sits next to me.
                -This woman was taking pictures of my soldiers without permission.  And she did not come to this office to get permission to take any pictures at all, he says to the squat man at the desk, before turning back to me.
                -In this village you must register with this office before you can take any pictures of anyone or anything in this area.
                -I’m sorry, I really didn’t know, I say. 
                I say it as kindly and docilely as possible.
                -It is not your fault, says the Commander, still speaking sternly.  It is really the fault of the person with you who knows the rules.  He’s looking at the ground in front of him motioning with his hands, signalling emphatically from Urbain to the ground.
                -I can erase the pictures, I say again.  It’s really not a problem.
                -Who do you work for? Asks the Commander.  Why were you taking those pictures?
                I think he thinks I’m a spy.
-I’m a humanitarian and a teacher, I just took them to amuse myself, because I’m interested.  I really have no problem erasing them.
I want them to let me erase the pictures and go on my way but the Commander won't even let me touch my camera.  He has placed it on the wooden desk, but I don't get the feeling anyone is trying to steal it. 
-Write a letter, apologizing for the pictures, says the Commander. 
He stands up and gets a pen and a piece of paper and hands it to me.
-Write it in French and in English.
Not one of these men speaks English, but I do it anyway.
I am sorry I took a picture of soldiers without permission.  It was not my intention to show disrespect to the Commander or the community of Bulambo.  It will not happen again.
I feel like I’m in fourth grade getting caught by the teacher, except this teacher can determine the outcome of the rest of my life, in a drastic way.  I don’t feel unsafe; I’m mostly worried about Urbain and COPERMA in general.  Maman Marie and Helen show up at the opening of the concrete room and my heart sinks.  Them being involved in any way will not only increase the risk, but increase the amount I’m sure I will have to pay to smooth things over.  Maman Marie steps into the dark office and starts explaining to the Commander that she’s with me.  I have never wanted so badly to strangle someone.
-No, I stand up.  I’m not with them at all.  This guy is my translator, and they gave me a ride but they’re not actually associated with me.
-Yes, Amy! Maman Marie says, you are one of us.
I am grinding my teeth and glaring at her.
-No, I am not.
I need her to agree and leave.  I can handle getting Urbain and myself out of the situation, but the more people they connect with me, the more lives are at stake, the more people I’ll have to pay for to keep safe. 
-Bring the other American in, says the Commander.
-No, really, she doesn’t need to come in, she wasn’t taking any photos of soldiers.  She doesn’t even speak French it will be useless to have her here.
-It’s okay, just bring her in so you will feel more comfortabele.
The Commander gets up and gives an order to one of the soldiers standing in the doorway.  Urbain leaves as well, presumably to help Sarah understand what’s going on.  They all arrive within a few minutes.  Sarah is a tall, thin woman with dirty blonde hair and a lot of traveling experience under her belt.  I’m not worried about her, but also want as few people involved as possible.  She sits down next to me.
-Don’t worry, I say in English.  They just brought you in to make me feel more comfortable.
-Can I take pictures? She asks.
I almost laugh.
-No!  Don’t even try it.  That’s why we’re in here.  I took a picture of a soldier and got caught.
-Oh, these are soldiers? 
She looks around and chuckles.
-I thought they were the men we were going to be interviewing.  Damn, I really wish I could take pictures now.
-Maybe you should smoke a cigarette, she says, watching the Commander pull one after another out of his bag and inhale the grey smoke.
When we arrived in Bulambu I bought a pack of cigarettes in case of exactly this type of situation.  The idea is more to give them out to soldiers to break ice and create bridges.  I slide a cigarette out of the pack in my bag, lean forward and casually ask for a light.
Everyone in the room turns to me and looks at the Commander.  He stands up as if he has just received the most important order in his life and says something in Swahili or Lingala to one of the soldiers in the doorway.  Within moments matches are procured.  The Commander takes out a cigarette of his own, lights it and then offers it to me.  Within the span of seconds, the tension in the room deflates.
-You are becoming truly Congolese! He says, laughing.  You even smoke our brands.
-Yeah, it’s my favorite, I say, puffing on my cigarette.
I don’t mention that I hate this brand and only have it for schmoozing purposes.
-You know, I am the Commander of this unit, he says.  Unfortunately, I’m out of my uniform.
-Oh, don’t worry about it.  You don’t need a uniform I can tell you are strong.
I feel like slapping myself in the face for such obvious and gross ego boosting, but it's necessary.  Insecurity is it's strongest among men who deal in war  He eats it up.  The room explodes with laughter and he puffs out his chest.  The situation seems to be winding down a little.  I should be a spokesperson for cigarette companies.  Smoke Cigarettes, Save Yourself From Soldiers.
-So, the squat man behind the desk says.  In this letter you say that you are asking for our pardon.  I think in order to give you that pardon, maybe you can help us some.  Give us a little something.
-Something like what?  I ask, pretending not to know exactly what they’re indicating.
-Something, he repeats, and everyone chuckles.
-I’m sorry, I’m not from this culture I don’t really understand what you’re saying.  I can give you cigarettes and maybe buy you some sodas?
The entire room laughs again.
-That’s not what we mean.
-Well, what do you mean?
I want him to say it outright because this is totally against the rules.  Everything the Commander has done has been a façade of proper action, following the law.  Now they’re trying to squeeze a bribe out of me to ensure the safety of COPERMA and nobody wants to actually say it because they’re all still trying to pretend this is legal.  At one point The Commander even says that this is a "professional army."  If I had my way I'd ask him how professional included rape, stealing, and now, a miniscule but entirely unprofessional bribe. 
-You know, you can give us something to help out.
This is taking too long.
-Since I wronged the community and the soldiers, maybe I can give twenty dollars to each of you.
Again they laugh.
-That’s too little.
The Commander walks outside again and seems to pull Maman Marie aside.  We’ve been sitting in this room chatting about my errors and apologies and cigarettes for over an hour.  It has to end soon.  I follow him outside to make sure the repercussions land on my shoulders and not on Maman Marie.  When I walk up to them the Commander casually walks away. 
-He wants you to give them $200.
-What? I don’t have that much money.
I have three hundred dollars tucked into my bra, but I have no intention of paying them so much.  I have no intention of doing so, but in the end there’s nothing I can do; there’s no higher authority to go to, this is the higher authority.  I know that if the situation doesn’t end in a fully closed circle, the soldiers won’t create problems for me but they could and would be a serious threat to COPERMA. 
                The Commander is speaking quietly with someone on the other side of the office.  I walk up to him directly, I don’t want Maman Marie or any of COPERMA to be anymore involved in this than they already are.
                -I hear you want me to give you two hundred dollars.
                Put so bluntly, the Commander can’t deny it without denying wanting the money.
                -Yes, I think that would be enough.
                -That’s a lot of money.  I don’t have the means to pay you that. 
                -You’re American of course you have the means.
                -No, I don’t.  I can’t afford to give you two hundred dollars.  How about one hundred?
                He looks at me skeptically.
                -One twenty.
                I look to Maman Marie.  She looks uncomfortable.  Sarah has wandered outside and is picking up on the conversation; the body language makes everything apparent.
                -If you have any money, don’t even mention it or start to pull it out, I say to her.  They’ll just ask for even more.
                I know she has only large bills and giving them a fifty and asking them to change it would simply mean we’d be paying 150, or who knows, 300.
                -There’s twenty dollars in the car, says Helen.
                Maman Marie gives her a nod and Helen ambles off quickly.  Helen was just telling me how much she hates soldiers, they terrify her.  I’m such a shit.
                I turn back to the Commander.
                -Done.  She just went to get twenty dollars from the car.
                The Commander looks down at my letter of apology and asks me what I actually do in Lubero. I explain that I’m a teacher there.
                -You’re too young to be a teacher, you can’t have finished school.
                -I finished school two years ago, I say, trying to keep the conversation light.
                -Why don’t you put your phone number on here too, to be complete.
                I pull out a pen and write down an inactive phone number on the paper.
                -You know, I’m single he says.  I have four kids but I’m single, and I think you’re single too.
                I laugh to inflate his ego, and completely evade the question.  When Helen gets back with the twenty dollars I hand over a hundred dollar bill as well. 
                -I want to make sure this means there will be no problems for anyone in the future.
                -Don’t even worry, says the Commander.  You are leaving as friends and in good spirits.
                -Thank you so much.  I am sorry again to have disrespected you, it was nice meeting you.
                In the end they make me erase the pictures from my camera but they don't keep it; The Commander even shows me his ID and lets me take down all of his information, even though he just took an illegal bribe from me.
                I feel so disgustingly dirty.  I can’t believe this guy is absorbing all of the transparent shit I’m throwing at him.  We all leave the office and start walking back towards the car.  I think we’re going to leave right away, but now that we have permission from the Commander and the squat guy, Urbain and Maman Marie say we can keep working.  When we finish, an hour or so later, we walk back to the car.
                Sarah sees a hanging leg of some sort of animal hanging from the outside of a hut and goes off to take pictures. 
                -Urbain, I really am sorry for getting you caught in that situation.
                -No, it’s okay.  It’s totally okay.  Fortunately you had money!
                -I know, I went to the bank today just because I had extra time, but I’m so glad I had that.
                -The Commander told me that because I was the person who knows the area, I was responsible and he was going to keep me overnight and torture me.  So thank you for being so supple and quick with the money!
                -He said that?
                -Yes, but now it’s okay.
                I do something small like push a button on a black box and I put everyone I work with and care about at risk.  My skin is a slight protection, but the Congolese people are walking muscles, completely exposed. 
                -I’m so sorry.
                He laughs and punches me lightly, he seems completely comfortable with the entire situation, even though I almost caused him to go through a potentially irreparable trauma.  I think of the two little girls and the wife he has at home and am infuriated by my stupidity. 
                Sarah finishes and we climb back into the car.  The women in Isale are still waiting for us and we stop in the little courtyard for about twenty minutes.   None of the COPERMA workers seem angry at me or especially uncomfortable, I guess they’re just more used to this than I am.  By the time we get home I feel like four days have passed in the span of six hours.  I’m shaken by the experience, not because of my personal safety, but because of the devastating effect my actions can have on everyone else here.  The money ended the situation, I don’t think there will be more problems for us.  But everything here is a chain reaction.  Maybe the soldiers will be able to get drunk tonight with the money, and every human in the Bulambo region will be at risk.  Maybe the Commander will keep all of the money for himself, the lower soldiers will continue to feel frustrated and unsupported, and thus deserving of destroying other human beings.  The images in my camera are gone, but the effects remain.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011