Monday, September 24, 2012

A HUGE impact you can make today for Congo - It is as easy as 1,2,3!

Have you been inspired to do more after hearing about The Truth Told Project and learning more about Congo?  Here is your chance to do something that will take approximately 1 minute, but have enormous implications for the Democratic Republic of Congo.

1 - Why should you do this?  Because girls like Waridi (below) have no one working on their behalf to ensure their safety and secure their future.  
If you need inspiration to take this action watch this Ted Talk by Congolese Refugee Bandi Mbubi (9 min).

2 - Inspired to act?  I just did it!  It is not intimidating or awkward.  Pick up your cell phone RIGHT NOW and Call (1-888-542-4146) now to be connected to the White House message line.  When the volunteer answers say this, "Please ask President Obama to delay the World Bank’s vote on sending funds to Rwanda until it stops supporting M23".  

3 - Share what you have done on FaceBook and ask your friends to do the same.

Thank you for taking action to help positively impact the future of the "fatherless generation" in the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Sarah Fretwell
The Truth Told Project

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Truth Told Project - Updates!

Before I left for the Democratic Republic of Congo, I emailed with National Geographic photographer Ed Kashi. I basically asked if I was crazy for wanting to do a self-assigned job in the Congo. The advice he offered me has proven invaluable. "If it stirs your soul, then you'll make great images and stir other peoples' souls." The time I have spent on this project has stirred my soul immensely and offered incredible opportunities for growth in all areas of my life. 

As many of you know my work created during my time in the Democratic Republic of Congo has become The Truth Told Project.

The Truth Told Project highlights from the past six months. 

March 2012
SXSW Interactive The Truth Told Project Solo Presenter- Listen to the session here! 
Keynote Speaker for Human Rights Week - University of California Santa Barbara . 

April 2012 -  
Masters in Photojournalism Workshop (images) at the Palm Springs Photo Festival.  I had the privilege of working side by side with world renowned photojournalist Ron Haviv at 29 Palms Military Base as his assistant workshop assistant. 

The Truth Told Project at Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum - A full installation (still images, video projection, audio, and blog excerpts) featured at Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum in conjunction with Planned Parenthood, The Rape Crisis Center, and The Fund for Santa Barbara in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Jeans for Justice - Keynote speaker and partial installation at the Women's Center at University of California Santa Barbara. 

May 2012 - 
PechaKucha 20x20 event in Santa Barbara. 

June 2012 - 
The Walk to End Genocide - in conjunction with Jewish World Watch the exhibit went outdoors and was installed in trees in West Hollywood (video).

July 2012
San Francisco Power Meetings!

Responsible Sourcing Network - Talks to begin a partnership to continue to utilize The Truth Told Project to raise awareness and engage industries involved with this conflict mineral supply chain issues. 
Bay Area Video Coalition - Managing Director Carol Varney lent her trained eye, words of wisdom, and praises for how far the project has come. 
liveBooks - CEO Andy Patrick was not only was he the first supporter of the project, but he took an hour away from an extremely important meeting to offer strategies to continue to move the project forward. 

August 2012 -  
Human Rights Watch - Art With Heart (timelapse) event in Los Angeles.

liveBooks philanthropy blog features The Truth Told Project

September 2012 -  has been much work to take the short rough cut into finished mode and preparation of the website for the an upcoming feature in American Photo Magazine! As well the project has applied for a space at Photo Week DC and is applying for grants in partnership with The Responsible Sourcing Network.

All this to say thank you so much for your continued support and I can't wait to see what happens next!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The DRC's Mineral Curse - You can help end it!

Three jars of peanut butter, 98 slices of white bread, 89 bananas, 54 boiled eggs, more goat than I will eat for the rest of my life, countless cups of Nescafe and my gut tells me it is time to leave the Congo. Exhausted from continually having multiple sets of eyes staring at me no matter what I do, it is time for a break. Everything I own and every crevice of my body is covered in a fine silt of red dust. I am sure I will continue to discover remnants of the dust along with my Congolese life lessons for years to come.

It has been 50 days since I few into the unknown of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Not sure if I would like it here or if I would even be able to walk down the street alone, my experience here has been surprisingly calm and quite magical. The Congo will really go down in my book as one of the most amazing travel experiences ever. If nothing else, it has been very real. The most raw elements of life and humanity in every way. Some of the most kind people I have ever met and five minutes later quite possibly one of the most evil people I hope I will ever meet. The most light I have ever witnessed and moments of the deepest despair I have ever felt.

As you have read, the contradictions of the Congo has been difficult to sum up. Not wanting to sensationalize the situation here, there is so much going on it is hard to write all the details. All of the things I have discussed soldiers, police, looting, and rape they are going on around us, but the majority of my time here has been peaceful and fairly relaxed. The situation here is not chaotic. It is systematic, calculated, and predictable.

As my farewell to the people of S.Kivu, Alana and I decide to do the 30 km walk from the Crosiers to Butembo. It is the drive we take everyday, but during that time we pass hundreds of people on the road walking to the market with their goods and to the fields to cultivate their crops. The walk took several hours, but it allowed us to take in even more of the scenery and interact with people. One woman we pass every morning came out to greet us with her newborn twins, a grandmother going to cut firewood stroked my white arm, and as we passed the school we picked up a small mob of 200 children who walked with us for several kilometers. When we talk to people along the way –especially the elderly- and they learn that we are from America their eyes light up with the realization the world has not forgotten about the DR Congo.

One description I read about the Congo compared the entire country to a sick water buffalo being gnawed at by hyenas (all the countries surrounding the Congo and foreign players). The Congo is 2/3 the size of Western Europe and the estimated population is only 50 million. Many experts (including our UN friends agree) it may only be manageable if/when it is broken into four countries.

Unlike my prior perception, the entire Congo is not a chaotic mess, but a systematic arrangement of alliances and political power plays. At many junctions it is impossible to tell who is “right” and who is “wrong”. Most of the key players are shape shifters who change alliances when it works to their benefit. Without a government that truly wants peace, an international organization with a mandate that has some teeth, and enough pressure from the outside world, the situation in the DRC is an unsolvable Rubix’s cube.

Now the good news.

The DRC is a resource rich country with thriving land with a RESILIANT population that wants change. As demonstrated numerous times by the COPERMA staff and the really amazing group of prostitutes we worked with, common people of the DRC are organizing themselves and working for what they believe is right. Willing to risk personally safety for change, they want to live in peace and have justice in their country.

They are working tirelessly towards this end.

So what can you do personally to help change the situation in the DRC and why should you care?

To put it simply anyone in the world who has a laptop, cell phone, or digital camera has a direct connection and an ethical responsibility to help the people of Congo resolve the problems in their country. Why? At is core, the fighting in the Congo is for control of it’s mineral rich land that contains coltan, diamonds, tin, copper, gold, and almost every other precious mineral in the world. Over a million dollars worth of minerals leave the DRC each day on the black market and the common population living in mud huts sees none of the benefits. These minerals are transported to other countries and refined into usable products that are then shipped around the world for use by electronics manufactures. There is currently no standard to ensure that companies are not buying “blood minerals”.

While we may feel powerless to help, we must remember we vote consciously and unconsciously with our dollars. While I am typing on my Mac laptop and listening to tunes on my ipod, I need to remember at what cost they are produced. It is not that we should stop using these products, but it is time to join consumer movements (like the “Enough” project) that are demanding ethical mineral sourcing from companies such as Mac and Nintendo.

What I have walked away with personally is that I need to learn even more about foreign aid and specifically why it does not work in Africa. While it is comforting to think the UN is helping and the World Food Program is doing food drops, there is no one working for long-term sustainable solutions to end the conflict in Congo. By paying attention to our governments foreign policy and having an active voice in it we can create the atmosphere of consumer pressure that is needed to create lasting peace and stability in Congo. Really it starts with you.

Where can you start right now?

1. Repost this to your FB page
2. Join the Enough movement and get on their email list
3. Have a discussion tonight with at least one friend about conflict minerals

The “Alpha Job Hotel”

One afternoon a few weeks ago, bored with our daily

routine, we got off of work early and decided to go to a hotel we heard had a pool table. As we walked across the green manicured lawn our timing it seems was uncanny. About five feet from the outdoor pool table was a rectangular table surrounded the military, police, and local business men. The unusually long rectangular table created a scene akin to the last supper. Except this supper had the commander at the center of the table flanked on both sides by police in blue uniforms, the military in green, businessmen in impeccable suits (possibly the mayor?), AK-47’s, and beer.

Having already descended across the lawn, by the time we surmised the scene there was no turning around. It would be even more obvious that we thought something was up if we tu

rned around and left.

As we awkwardly began our game of pool, some UN workers happened to show up for an after work drink. They hesitantly sat at the table on the opposite end of the last supper. Pretending to focus on my pool game, I did everything I could to nonchalantly steel glances at what was unfolding before our eyes.

The scene was awkward and unspoken. We were all working each day to address the same issues in Congo it is just that we all have very different roles in everything that is going on here.

As the meeting finished, the military com

mander and a few of his men strutted over to the pool table. With guns slung around their shoulders and fingers ready to reach for the trigger, they

came over and gave a little macho display of force to make sure we had not overheard anything at the meeting.

Assured that we did not speak French, the police stood by the gate to the hotel compound. As they stood guard several "civilian" vehicles with tinted windo

ws, black as night, roared out of the hotel. That was about 5:15pm.

The next day when we arrived to COPERMA we discovered our co-worker "Joseph" was trapped in his house with his family. At 5:30pm the night before police and military had descended on his

neighborhood and set fire to the local city hall of sorts. They remind the locals if they share a dissenting political view against the majority party (the president) they would be punished. After that the DR Congo’s own military began raping, looting, and intimidating the neighborhood.

Our only thought was we need to let the UN know. Surely if they know what is going on and that women are being raped they will stop it. Wrong. Dead wrong. People fro

m the neighborhood did contact them, but even now a few weeks later, no one we talked to saw any UN enter the neighborhood. They have granted a safe house to prominent people who may be in danger, but as far as going to the neighborhood to prevent raping and looting, we have heard no accounts so far.

The top priority for our coworker once he got out of his house was to go to show up at work! We told him to go home and take care of his family that work could wait! “Joseph” moved his family into a friend’s house, but two day later he moved his family back into their house. That night the military entered his house uninvited. Very controlled, they demanded to know if there were weapons and to see photo albums. He said they were looking for photos of anyone in the military.

About five days later things had finally calmed do

wn enough

for us to enter “Joseph’s” neighborhood. Not really sure if we were supposed to be there conducted a very sketchy interview in a local schoolyard with a lawyer who lived in there. As Amy translated questions I carefully positioned my camera to only show his mouth so he cannot be identified. Everyone else looked around uncomfortably and jumped at the sound of any noise. Pretty sure the police and military would not be cool with a foreign interview, the people of the community were willing to take a calculated risk to get the word out to the world.

A few weeks ago while the world was paying attention to the Ivory Coast, the president Kabila held a “vote” to change the voting process from a primary and an election to just one election. The majority (Kabila’s party) won and parliament and the judiciary committee broke out into a massive fistfight on national television. As Amy recently described it best in one of her bogs, “The scene

would be comparable to Colin Powell punching Hilary Clinton in the face while Nancy Pelosi is kicking Rahm Emanuel between the legs.”

Since then, the capital agreed if the minority party collected 100,000 signatures they would consider changing the elections back from one final round of voting bac

k to two. The neighborhood in Butembo had collected 60,000 signatures and the majority party was worried it was getting too close to 100,000.

The frustration of the neighborhood was expressed by the lawyer. It is not that they want to overthrow the government, the just want justice. And by that they mean they want a chance for peace and the freedom to question the government if they do not agree. As is in their countries name, they would like democracy, not to pick a fight with the military.

A bit rattled, but glad we made it out of the in

terview unscathed we left with more questions than we had come with. Where is the UN in all of this and why have they not responded? Are they on the side of the government, are they apathetic, or are they responding and we just don’t know.

Looking for answers a few days later we headed

to the UN’s weekly meetings for non-profits.

In a stale cement floor meeting room with a rattling air-conditioned, I listened for two hours pretty much not understanding anything that was going on. Taking video and audio, Amy would periodically mouth to me “Are you getting this?” so I knew what he was saying must be good.

As the debriefer acknowledged and discussed the numerous security problems that were arising he agreed they were connected to the elections. He described the people of the neighborhood as ignorant and “uneducated”, but based on our co-worker and the lawyer we knew that could not be entirely true. Again, it seemed the UN was glossing over the important details wanting to give the impression that the situation had been handled, but really probably nothing had been done other than a written report about the incident. Cited as one of the most failed UN missions in history, even UN workers I meet are disillusioned with the agency’s mission in the Congo.

While no one has been willing to even go anomalously on record the consensus seems to be that the UN mandate and will does not have enough teeth to effectively do anything here.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Shifting my Paradigm

I have been trying to understand the DR Congo through a less “American” framework. The roles of men and women in society and their rights are just drastically different. It is hard not to want to filter them through my western paradigm, but I am trying. The thing it is difficult to ignore here (especially living with priests) is the role that organized religion plays in perpetuating the situation here and at the same time keeps women subordinate. While religious organizations have built schools, hospitals, and unnecessarily elaborate churches, I find little evidence they are involved in helping society address core issues that will allow them to grow into the peaceful and thriving society the DR Congo could be.

Every time I drive past the construction site of 1 of the 5 new cathedrals going up in the area, it is difficult not to think of other (more useful) things that the money could buy. At times I wonder if the church has become such a fixture in the Congolese good old boys network that they have entirely lost their way. Not to mention the general sense of religious fatalism mixed with the disillusion of years of war that has now seeped into the national psyche.

It seems the church has become more of a cultural norm than a religion. You just are Catholic (some Protestant and Anglican). It is definitely not your fathers Catholicism. It is a chaotic collusion of violently clashing cultures and diabolically opposed belief systems that have led to a tangled web of social norms in the DR Congo today. Traditional tribal practices of multiple wives, a culture of war, and a “democracy” run by a military regime sandwiched between hellfire and brimstone Christianity. It is like a peanut butter, sardine, and mud sandwich on rye, an inexplicable combination.

Mentioning to a few local men we know that we had hung out with the prostitutes (Post - When I grow up I want to be _______________.), they began to explain their relationship with their wife's to us. These are two upper middle class well educated Congolese guys. They are Catholic (the norm here), they practice family planning, and they both have daughters they are going to send to university. Their lives and views are quite progressive, yet when we talk about women and men I feel we are back in biblical times.

My friend’s explanation started off something like this, “Let me tell you something. In Africa, in my country, the man is King”. I said, “Yeah I have noticed, the women do all the work here”. Everyday I pass men riding their bicycles loaded with goods and the women with even heavier loads bent at a 90-degree angle walking just as far carrying their goods like a mule. Several times I have wondered aloud why I have never seen a women with a bike. When Alana and I replied in unison, “Do you think that is fair?”, they said, “No of course not, but that is how it is”. They explained, people get engaged and during that time you are not supposed to, but people do have sex. That way if the man thinks it is bad (or that is bride to be is not a virgin) they can leave her (hopefully not pregnant). In an ideal relationship the man always gets his way and the women submits because he is the man.

Our friends estimated that 80% of the men “go outside” (sleep around) on their wife, but of course without protection, as the Pope does not allow it. We asked, what about the women? Do they go “outside”? Our friend raised his voice, “If you are my wife and you go ‘outside’ I kill you”.

Immediately, despair washed over my entire soul and body. If these are the modern educated guys of the Congo, tomorrow’s brighter future, the women of the Congo are seriously screwed.

“So you both go ‘outside’ on your wife?, I replied”. “Yes, when we want”. I could not resist, “Well let me tell you, if you are acting this way I am sure your wife is going ‘outside’ on you!”. Looks of surprise followed by some reassuring glances to each other. In unison they replied, “No, not my wife”.

A few days later when I was teaching a workshop for COPERMA a local male nurse joined us. During a break when no one else was round he asked about my family and I about his. He has a wife and three daughters. He began to ask me why I did not have a baby. After several minutes of very personal questions, he said I should let him give me a Congolese baby. Caught off guard, I was taken aback. I dryly replied, “Besides the fact I don’t want a baby with you, you are married! And aren’t you Catholic?” He replied, “Well yes, but the body has needs and God will forgive me”.

I walked out the room to find Amy. I told her what had just happened. We walked back into the room and she began berating him in French. I only understood a bit of what she said to him, “Aren’t you Catholic and don’t you have a wife? H-A-P-A-N-A (NO)!”. As he insisted, it was OK and not a problem, she came up with the only line she could think of that could usurp his predetermined superiority to us and all the women in Congo,

“You are going to burn in hell if you treat your wife that way”.

I nodded my head in disgust. I could not have put it better myself. Knowing we had no say in what ultimately happened to his soul, it did feel like a momentary victory for all women in Congo to put a brother in his place.

When I grow up I want to be _______________.

A) Jobless

B) A mineral runner

C) A soldier

D) A prostitute

E) A cultivator

As we zoom down the broad dirt road of the frontier style town of Butembo shrouded in a cloud of red dust, I always try to make a mental note of all the businesses.

There are a lot of small businesses here as there is no development. Wooden kiosks a bit taller than a child’s playhouse, that sells everything from use of an outlet to charge your cell phone to a “Saloon” to get hair extensions. There are few jobs for non-entrepreneurs.

The main road is about three miles long and every inch on either side is full of vendors. They sell everything from my old Nike “Airs” that I donated to Goodwill after 8 months of running to the blue tattered bleach stained bathmat you donated to Value Village the last time you moved. There are entire blocks dedicated to old curtains, ski jackets, t-shirts, children’s clothes, belts/socks, and old pants. All of the vendors selling like products sit side by side for city blocks at a time; I guess it makes the comparison shopping easier. The things that America and Europe have discarded after a few years come here for a second, fourth, and ninth life. They will be used until they are threadbare rags. An old pair of men’s red plaid boxers will be worn as a little boys shorts and he will wear them every day even when crotch or buttocks no longer exist. I am not sure when clothes get washed as few people seem to have much more than one set of clothing. As I pass a man who is 5’4” in a suit jacket that looks like it was designed for an NBA basketball player, I could not help but think he looked like a child whose parents bought his clothes big enough to grow into. Only this man well into his 40’s and he is not going to grow any taller.

I always wonder how are the business owners doing and are they making enough money to survive? The majority answer seems to be “No”. But still the vendors show up every day and sit side-by-side selling the same goods in hopes of making some money to help them survive.

So what are the job options here?

My best guess by power of observation is that the highest paying job would be to be a mineral runner (diamonds, coltan, and gold among others). The only problem is the payoffs are big because the danger and death rate among the mineral cartel is high. Also, it is not the most ethical business model. The minerals are largely responsible for funding the war. But since a million dollars of minerals a day leave the DR Congo on the black market, someone is getting rich. I am just not sure whom.

The next option would be to join the military or police. When they get paid the make good money, but there is risk associated. With the political instability the “in” party of today can be gone tomorrow and their alliances are shaky at best. There is a great reason you are not allowed to take a photograph of their face, they are all guilty of something and most of them have reformed alliances and melded with former opponents several times.

It seems three really great legitimate businesses are being a major cell phone company, owning a gas station, or owning a hair “saloon” as everyone in the country has a cell phone, all cars and generators need gas (there is little electricity in this part of the Congo), and most women have extensions.

The next most profitable career seems to be a technical skill like being a mechanic, seamstress, a moto driver, or a cook. The pay varies widely, but at least it is a job that usually offers subsistence living…depending on how many mouths you have to feed.

Then you could be a cultivator and sell vegetables/fish at the market. This is hard work and at best subsistence living. If you run a business like this on a one family scale you can bring in approximately $20 - $100 a month depending on what you sell.

Considering that school fees are $60-$90 a month plus a uniform and notebooks, no wonder the average family cannot afford to send one child, let alone 8-10 kids, to school.

So if you are a single woman whose husband died or abandoned you, a young woman who is a single mother by consent or force, and you have no resources, but mouths to feed you can sell banana beer from your home. And if you are a “woman who lives alone” - you sell sex.

Sex. It is like the most versatile and powerful tool in the world. Depending on how it is used, it can be a symbol of love, an income generator, and an tool that takes power from another. In its extremes it can be used to create a future or destroy the fabric of an entire society.

Now first I guess I have to address my own personal bias against prostitution, by that I mean the beliefs I hold about the career and people who work in the profession. And wrongly, my view used to be that the women involved in it are dirty and they had a career choice. That perspective was blown out of the water in Phnom Phen in 2000 on a balmy Cambodian night. As I zoomed down a three-mile stretch of road in the back of a pick-up truck, the entire stretch was lined on either side with wooden shacks. Teens and young women of all sizes and shapes stood on the porches bathed in colored lights. As we slowed to our destination we met an entire family sitting outside in lawn chairs, as their daughter/granddaughter/sister stood five feet away dressed in black tight western clothes and heels “for sale” below a red light bulb.

It happens in every country in the world and it has been a viable career for women for centuries. If it is a woman’s choice to sell sex, she is not kidnapped or forced into it, well I guess she is just being a good business woman working with the most valuable asset she has. Her body. It is just that most of the time if a woman does not have an education, a husband, or there is no job economy it is not so much “a choice” as it is “the only choice” if she wants to eat.

COPERMA has discovered through the grapevine that many of the girl mothers (young women who have children as the result of rape – a few of them by consent, but the man left) with a child to feed they are now accepting money for sex. The girls have little to no education, they have a child, no technical skills, if they go work in the field they face the risk of rape, so I guess they figure they may as well get paid for it. Upset for the girls and wanting to know more about the state of women in Congo in general, we set up a meeting with some local prostitutes.

Amy ran into a guy at our “expatriate” mini-mart who runs a NGO for prostitutes in Butembo. Later, after we had spent the day with him, he revealed his motivation for being the only man who runs a currently unfunded NGO for 6,000 women. When he grew up his mother was a “woman who lived alone” and his mother, brother, brother’s wife, and uncle all died from AIDS a few years ago.

He let us know that in this city of approximately 800,000 there are 6,000 sex workers they officially know of. There are probably thousands of others they have just never met. As we met to interview several of his members in a sort of round table format, we were not sure which questions were taboo, so we just asked. How many clients a week do you have? Where do you work? Are you worried about STD’s? Have you been tested for HIV? Do you have access to condoms and do you use them? How much money do you make per client? How much do you make a month? Are you happy? Do you want to continue doing this business? What would you tell your children if they want go into this business?

Kindly and patiently, they answered all of our questions no matter how stupid or rude they may have been. The women spoke articulately about their situations. “No of course I do not want to be a sex worker, but what other choice to I have? My children need to eat”. Most women had 2-3 clients a week, but some who were quite resourceful businesswomen had up to 5 clients a week. The prices are set individually by the women (there are no pimps or Madams here) and they charge anywhere from $1 - $5 per client. Sometimes they agree on more and they guy does not pay or he pays them less.

The women also commented on the fact that many of them had been raped in the course of every day activities and during work. In fact, the problem is so prevalent that when they have them, they wear female condoms when they travel or walk alone at night. So if they are raped at least they will not get pregnant or infected with STD’s.

After what could have been a heavy interview, we asked the women if they had any questions. “Yes, will you promenade with us?”. After we clarified what “promenading” is we agreed to parade around walk the neighborhood and be seen with them so everyone could know they were hanging out with Mzungus. After, I agreed (or was it that I was suckered?) to buy the women lunch and a drink. I explained when we ordered that I only could only spend $20 for lunch, but the bill was $38 for fried goat meet, fried tilapia, and copious amounts of French fries. A ridiculously expensive for the Congo, that is more than most people monthly wage. Thinking I had a $50 budget to buy the condoms, the lunch left me with $12 to buy 10 prostitutes condoms. It was however a great informal chance to visit and get to know the women personally. Actually, it was a little in reverse asking extremely personal questions and then getting to know then after, but they took it all in great stride.

All in all it was one of the most my most fascinating days in the DRC. It really drove home the point for me that women bear the brunt of war in so many ways. The “women who live alone” are some of the most proactive and articulate women we have met here.

Savvy businesswomen we did leave them with two suggestions use condoms anytime you can and raise your prices.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Light and Dark of Congo - Part II

In the mud hut all day.

We listen to testimony of survivors. Amy interviews, one of the staff members translates, and when I get permission from the interviewee I film and shoot stills. Most of the interviews are palpable. Since the survivors rarely show emotion you do not want to be the one to grimace or cry. No matter the story or my emotion, I have to contain it. The older women’s stories are sad, but somehow less desperate. Most of them are already married and have children. They are traumatized and need help, but they have a level of emotional maturity from the hard life here that helps them seems to help them move on. The testimony that gets me is the young girls. Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen.

Not only are they traumatized; many of the hopes for the future have been devastated. They are now stigmatized. ‘Used goods’. They are not eligible for marriage. As an angry 13-year-old put it, “What man would want me?”. In this society marriage does not only mean a life partner (hopefully), it means economic stability, social standing, the ability to buy/sell land, and some level of protection. Women cannot do many things socially and legally without their husband’s permission. Without a husband to serve as the intermediary with society, women have no place, no rights, and no future.

I try not to feel their despair and hold the space for a brighter future, but then my anger seeps in. One careless soldier trying to regain an ounce of his misplaced masculinity in this fractured society just effected the entire course of this young girls future. I want to hug the girls. Tell them it is not their fault and that we will try to catch the man who did this to them. We know the soldiers name and his commander, but I know he will never be caught. The commander will just deny it, even if he was there. He is the supreme authority in the area. Even if the soldier is caught, he won’t get in trouble. And the girls will have to deal with this mostly on their own for the rest of their life. And then I wonder what am I really doing here? It is not like I can give her anything tangible beyond food or take them to the free clinic. What is the point of acting as a voyeur into someone else’s pain?

Always more girls/women waiting to meet us than we have time for, Mama Marie usually walks into an interview and tells us it is time it is time to go because it is getting late or because soldiers are near. Racing against the dark of night. It is usually raining on the way back to Butembo. Sometimes we listen to hip hop music as we bump along the road. Wyclef. Acon. Backstreet Boys. N’sync. We have heard the same tape about 100 times. When we have the energy, I ask questions about observations I have made that always seem to stir a great debate. Kinande , French, and an occasional English translation spewing across the car on the way to Butembo. Everyone has a different opinion as to why all this is happening. Since we cannot stop the war on our own, arm all the women, or get rid of all the soldiers, the only solution that we can immediately come up with is we need more money. How can money help? To send the kids to school to school, give girl mothers vocational training so they do not have to become prostitutes, so the families can buy seeds to cultivate, so they can eat, and replace what the soldiers have looted. Everything seems equally important. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs we work daily just to try to meet the bottom rungs. Most of the time we aren’t even able to address those. The thought of being able to work with the survivors’ emotions and personal enlightenment seems an ever evasive glass ceiling.

Once in Butembo we hop on motorbikes and race against the darkness. If we have time we stop at the only “Expatriate” mini-mart in town. Look for something edible and recognizable is my general plan. An apple, a can of tuna, some peanut butter, or a Guinness. As we drive past fruit stands we hunt for a tomato, avocado, or an egg. We pass the soldier barriers before nightfall. Making it home in the nick of time or a little too late…

At the Crossiers we search for cold leftovers white rice, maybe cabbage, and if I am lucky beans, if not some mystery meat. If there is electricity I rush to check my email and connect with another reality before it turns off.

The evenings are precious because it is our only time to try to relax and decompress. If we have the energy, we spend time discussing the traumas of the day.

One fifteen year old just told us today that there are other girls who were captured by soldiers and taken to the bush. She was there for a week and escaped. Right now as you read this the girls are still trapped at the soldiers camp in the bush. Even though we know where they are we can’t get a hold of the UN to report the situation. Even if we can get a hold of the UN, there is no guarantee they will or can go there. Usually full of ideas, I am at a bit of a loss as to a plan that would actually rescue the girls and not put us into serious danger.

We usually end up drinking a beer and singing/playing some music. Voice therapy releases our emotion and lightens our spirits. You have to be able to joke and relax. Being serious about everything would kill you here. It is yet another contradiction of the Congo, laugh in the face of fear.

I fall into bed at night. Waking up intermittently in the night to download and transfer files so my gear will be ready the next morning.

As the day breaks my alarm clock is a mother goat bleating for here babies. Her call sounds like a human woman in the midst of an excruciating birth. Finally the babies answer back. She stops. I check my watch. It is anywhere from 6-7am. I open my cabin window over looking the taro patch. I gaze out on the forest of green trees enveloped in mist as the warm morning light filters past. I take a deep breath inhaling the beauty of the Congo.

It’s time to do it all again. I hope today we can really help.