The Congo - Stories of Conflict and Courage
Post by Chelsea Hudson - 1MT Climb for Peace Kilimanjaro climber, 1MT volunteer and humanitarian photographer. Originally posted on ChelseaHudson.com.
** All photography copyright Chelsea Hudson Photography for One Million Thumbprints **
I have been sitting on this post for some time…
Most of you know that our team visited the DRC and Rwanda before going on to Tanzania on the Kilimanjaro climb. So many people have asked about this time and I have struggled with how to possibly share in a way that does proper justice to the experience, the women, the story .
How do I share about such an intense experience in a way that doesn’t overwhelm my audience, but rather “agitates” (to borrow a term from my teammate Leia) them into action?
How do I share about the topic of violence against women in warzones without it getting lost in the noise of every other major world issue that needs to be addressed right now?
How can my peers relate to an issue that doesn’t directly affect them?
I think the answer is in the concept of STORY.
I could throw statistics at you all day long. Did you know there are about 17 million women worldwide affected by the violence of war? Yes, this is true. But does that number help you understand the issue any deeper? Can you relate to that number in any way? No, probably not.
Let me tell you a story instead.
I have written about Esperance. I have posted her photo a few times and shared brief snippets of her story. I have discussed the courage she had to entrust her story to another, and not only that but the blatant hope she had that if the world only knew… if they only KNEW what she and her (17 million) sisters had gone through and continue to go through… the world would care. It would act. Respond.
(photo: World Relief)
But knowing about someone and meeting someone face to face is a completely different animal.
I was unprepared for the waves of emotion that washed over me after I looked at Belinda (who had met Esperance 3 years ago, and who was the founder of One Million Thumbprints) as we were walking into a church in a village 3 hours inland from the border and asked “Wait, are we meeting Esperance right now?” Her eyes welled and my eyes welled as she nodded quickly and composed herself.
You know that feeling you get when you are about to meet someone famous or important or someone you have looked up to as a hero of some sort?
That is how I felt about seeing and meeting Esperance. She is an ordinary Congolese woman living a hard but normal life in rural Congo. But she is also a hero. A legend. How many Congolese women have birthed an international movement of grassroots peacemakers? Esperance has. I was acutely aware that it was her courage to give her story to another and her hope that drew all 15 of us together with the aim of climbing Africa’s tallest mountain in her honor and for so many others like her. We were there because of her. We were there because of how her story had left such a deep and lasting mark on Belinda Bauman, who made the choice to lean in and not turn away.
Stories grab us. They change us. They move us. If we let them.
I watched as Belinda scanned the room and caught Esperance’s eyes. I saw Belinda’s eyes well again. I saw her swallow them (out of reverence to the Congolese culture where public crying is not appropriate). I photographed the hug and how they clung hard to one another.
Two women whose stories have now converged and are together birthing a new story of hope, peace and transformation.
When we arrived, Papa Marcel (head of World Relief DRC church mobilization and empowerment) introduced our team. He looked at the Congolese women and said, “You are the teachers. They are the students. They are here to learn from you.” Truer words could not have been spoken.
Thirty-three women who had been or were part of World Relief’s sexual and gender based violence support groups (SGBV), volunteered to meet us and share their own stories of trauma, rape, violence and survival. We split into two groups to facilitate as many of their stories as we could in our limited time. I did not hear most of the stories in their entirety as I was quietly moving around the room behind my camera and only caught bits and pieces. But I watched my teammates’ faces and saw the pain they were hearing.
I did hear more of Esperance’s story. And it was even more horrific that any of us had previously known. Three years ago, when Belinda first met Esperance, she told Belinda that [after watching rebels kill her husband in front of her] she had been “damaged beyond repair” when the men raped her and left her for dead in the woods. This time, she told us the raw truth (a sign of her healing to be able to speak it out). Two men raped her with machetes. Let that sink in. Don’t turn away. Just sit with it. And please hear this… hers was not the only story of being raped with machetes and guns. This is the truth of what is happening in the Congo. This is the story she needs you to hear.
Some local women found her, naked, in the forest and brought her back to the village. A World Relief team (all Congolese) had been trained in trauma care in this village and she was treated at the hospital, and given clothing, food and shelter. She was then able to receive trauma counseling and now, three years later has been trained to be a trauma counselor. She is a strong, tiny, fierce woman whose smile absolutely lights up the darkest of rooms. I will never forget that smile.
You see, I understand the concept of “violence against women as a weapon of war” now in the context of a fellow human being who has experienced the worst of it. She is a mother. I am a mother. She is a grandmother. I had grandmothers. She is a woman. I am a woman. Although I have never and probably will never experience a fraction of the sexual violence she has endured, I can empathize on the account of a shared humanity. I can imagine. Can you?
Over the next few days we heard from several other groups. We met with pastors of all different denominations voluntarily choosing to work together for the good of their communities. Choosing to care for the widow, the SGBV victim, the sick and the hungry together, rather than arguing about doctrinal or theological differences. Yes, they are the teachers. We are the students. We asked if they could come to America and teach our pastors, our religious leaders how to choose peace and service ahead of doctrine and power and status.
We met with a group of Village Peace Committee members who are actively working to stem the tide of conflict and violence on a very basic grassroots level. These VPC’s are made up of women and men, and representatives of all religions and tribes of a given area. They are trained in conflict resolution and peace building. And they are the only recognized entity that actually helps diffuse volatile situations and resolve conflict without bribes. So in essence, the VPC’s are economically empowering their communities as well.
Lastly, we met with a Savings for Life group who enacted a SVL meeting from beginning to end. The attention to detail, cross checking numbers and figures, cheering each other on as they contributed (singing a song for the person who contributed the most) to the fund was something to behold. They even donate towards their own benevolence fund to help others in their community. They are the teachers, we are the students. We have much to learn from this kind of accountability, diligence and generosity.
Our time in the Congo was so helpful for all of us climbing Kilimanjaro to have the WHY of the climb seared into our hearts and minds. Faces. Hugs. Stories.
It was also not without some Congolese excitement. On the second night, as we were preparing for bed at the Catholic Sisters Guesthouse, I heard what sounded like firecrackers. But I didn’t see any firecrackers. I was staying in a tiny little room in the outer courtyard while the rest of the team were in rooms in the inner courtyard. There were several UN workers staying in the rooms next to me and I listened to see if they were acting nervous or agitated, as I suspected it was gunfire that I had heard. They were speaking in French but didn’t seem concerned. So I continued preparing for bed. Belinda came knocking on my door soon after and smiled sheepishly and confirmed that it was automatic gunfire and that we are “most likely fine and safe” but that I might want to pack a little “getaway” bag in case anyone comes knocking on my door so I could just grab it and run to the inner courtyard rooms. Welcome to the Congo, yo. The next day, we found out that the shooters were bandits trying to rob the very vehicle we had just been traveling in that day. Our driver and a local pastor ducked heads and sped past the bandits.
The next morning, after driving the 3 hours back to Goma, we stopped at a local fistula hospital World Relief is helping to support. We were ushered into a tiny room with 4 beds in it, each with a patient who was recovering from recent fistula surgery. I think each of us had a panicked moment of “WHY ARE WE IN HERE? SURELY THESE WOMEN DON’T WANT US IN HERE!” I mean in our American culture, we hide in our pain and discomfort. The last thing we want is for another person to see us at our lowest and worst. I assumed they felt the same and although I will not pretend to know the ins and outs of Congolese culture nor presume to know the thoughts that crossed these womens’ minds, I will only say what I saw.
I saw a woman in the corner nearly levitate off the bed with outstretched arms to us. Her face lit up. She was the only one next to a window and so light filled her face when she tried to sit up a bit for us. The staff at the hospital explained to her who we were and who we were with. They asked if she would like to share her story with us. She said yes.
Another woman on the far side of the room also said she would like to share her story. Isaw a small little girl sitting on the end of her bed and my first thought was “I am so glad her daughter can be here with her.” Then I noticed the IV piece taped to the little girl’s hand. NO. It can’t be. But upon hearing her mother’s story, we found out that her 5 year old daughter, Mary*, was also a patient. She had just been raped the week before. Her mother had been raped twice while tending her garden in the village. When I asked if she had any family or neighbors to support her post surgery, she shook her head and said, “No one wants anything to do with me because I keep getting raped.” We tried to ask some sensitive questions about her daughter and she told us (through an interpreter), “She can talk. She is 5. You can ask her.” And that is when I nearly bolted out of the room to hide the tears that I just couldn’t keep back. No 5 year old should ever have to be asked those kinds of questions. I sat there and thought about my own 5 year old daughter and I couldn’t stem the tide of emotion. Gut-wrenching. About an hour later, I asked if there was anyone that could help that woman and her daughter. I kept thinking, “Please don’t send her back. Don’t let her go.” I was told that when women like her come through the doors at this hospital, they are automatically put into a vast system of care and support. After surgery, there is physical therapy and trauma therapy for her and her daughter. There are vocational training programs and other forms of support and assistance. Although my heart breaks every time I think about her, I feel better knowing she is surrounded by those who can ultimately help her rebuild her life and heal.
And then we ate lunch and walked across the border and into the land of a thousand hills, Rwanda. After Congo, Rwanda looks like a first world nation. Rwanda’s roads, the tin roofs, the clean paved streets make Congo look and feel like what the Wild West must have looked and felt like. Rough, harsh, lawless, violent. And yet, I keep coming back to the stories of healing, transformation, peace and courage that we heard from so many people. It is a place of unfathomable conflict… and also of unmatched courage.
As the women shared their stories with us that first day in the Congo, they kept talking about finding these groups of women who were sharing their pain with each other and that their healing was birthed through the sharing of their stories. And now they have entrusted me, my team members with these stories in hopes that when the world hears and understands, they will respond.
I don’t think the world is going to respond to statistics and numbers and news reports of rape and pillage, trafficking and conflict. But I do think that the world will respond to a story of a fellow human being who has suffered. I do think our stories are what will elicit awareness, empathy, action and change. And in the telling and hearing of these stories, perhaps we fan the flickering flame of hope. Hope for peace. For equality. For security. For all of our sisters around the world.
Has someone’s story resonated with you? Esperance? The Village Peace Committees? The Savings for Life programs? The women at the fistula hospital? Hold on to it. Don’t turn away. Do something. Today.
Have you given us your thumbprint yet? By giving your thumbprint you are telling us, and eventually the UN when we present our petition to them, that this matters to you. That as a concerned citizen of the world, you want to see more being done for women like Esperance, women in fistula hospitals, women caught in the web of violence in war zones.
Would you consider donating to One Million Thumbprints? Perhaps you have a tax refund coming (yes, I just went there)?? I have personally seen the kinds of programs we are funding with World Relief in the Congo and these programs also exist in South Sudan and in Syria/Iraq. These programs are saving lives (as in the case of Esperance) and helping women and men restore their lives after the devastation of war. We would be so grateful for your financial partnership.