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.