-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.
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.
-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.