Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Bukavu Women Survivors (2)

Hotense says Hello.

Hortense, my translator, and I interviewed three more women survivors in late June. We met in Dr. Florimond's office on a Saturday afternoon and spent over an hour with each woman, witnessing their pain as they broke silence.

The interview: We first determined their age, marital status, children, and living situation. Then we encouraged them to describe "the event" as these atrocities are euphemistically called. This takes time, as what happened is so personally shameful that they don't want to utter it. Next we emphasized that they are strong survivors, and most important of all, that it is not their fault.

Lastly, we discuss what they can do right now to make their lives better. We identify their strengths, which are many. This is everyone's favorite part of the interview, and it's why you see them smiling, despite all that has happened.

I believe each of these women possesses individual talents and abilities, things she loved to do and was good at before the tradegy occurred, things she could do again given the chance-- and some financial aid.


Rosette is 33 years old and has seven children. Her youngest, GuyRoger, who is seated here with her, is 7 months old. She is from Walungu, a rich mining area a day's drive south of Bukavu. Rosette was a housewife, her husband a miner who made good wages and provided his family with their own home. Their older children attended school. Rosette was taken into the bush three times: the first time she escaped, the second time her husband was killed to avenge the escape of others.

The third time she spent 8 months as a sex slave to Hutu soldiers. The women were stripped naked and left without clothes, a humiliating experience for any woman. They were made to eat a spoonful of feces each day; if anyone resisted, she was beaten. Rosette still has problems swallowing today, almost two years after her release. The women were called by whistle and raped at least three times a day: morning, noon, and night, a ghoulish meal for the soldiers.

When Rosette returned to her village, her home had been burned and all her possessions stolen. She had nothing, and she was 2 months pregnant. Because having a Hutu child is considered a curse, she was unwelcome in her village. Her in-laws told her they would care for her other 6 children if she gave the baby away, but she could not do that. So she brought her children to Bukavu, where she struggles to support them all by selling bread. Sophie's choice.

The family sleeps wherever it can, the older children blaming the baby for their miserable circumstances. Because they resent the baby, Rosette always keeps him with her. When I asked why she doesn't send the other children to her in-laws where they won't grow up as street children, she answered that a woman's children are like the trunk of an elephant; she cannot be separated from them.


Nyassa is a name that means "mother of twins" in her language: she has three sets of twins and two other children, eight in all. Nyassa was also captured by Hutu soldiers and kept as a sex slave for 3 months. She said they were big men, "gangsters" who repeatedly raped the twenty women captured from her village. Her husband died trying to stop the soldiers from raping her; after he was killed, they still raped her and in front of her children, a memory that haunts her and makes her ashamed to look at her children.

She said the women were treated like animals, without pity. She said her suffering was so great that her skin turned black. She has had surgery for fistulas, but her womb continues to weep.

Nyassa escaped with all her children when she went to fetch water and a guard relaxed his vigilance. After that, they lived in the bush for several months eating wild food. They all got smallpox. Her youngest child, who was 3 years old, died from the hardship and had to be buried in a borrowed cloth they had so little. When she returned home, she found that no one was left in her village. Gold miners had taken over the homes, and everything of hers was gone.

Nyassa supports her family by carrying heavy loads, up to 50 kgs, of charcoal and rocks. Because she is able to do this, four of her children attend school, but her body is giving out.


Marcelline is 29 years old and has nine children. Her husband was a successful businessman who bought and sold tools to miners. When first asked, she said they were separated, but after some talking, we learned that he was murdered by Hutu soldiers, buried alive while she watched. She still sees his face, sweating, terrified, as they covered him with dirt.

In the Hutu camp, soldiers lined up to rape the women, morning, noon, and night. Each woman was put on a sheet, and water was thrown on her vagina after each man finished. They were given no food, only cornmeal mixed with the men's urine; if they did not eat it, they starved. The weak ones were sent to the creek to get water, in hopes they would die away from camp and not have to be buried.

Marcelline escaped when a soldier took pity and sent her to the creek, knowing she was strong enough to get away. She walked home and found her children safe with relatives; however, her in-laws rejected her because her husband was dead and she had been raped. At Panzi Hospital, her "heart broke" when she discovered she was pregnant. She begged them to abort her during vaginal surgery, but the doctor refused saying he was there to save lives, not take them. Her youngest daughter is 1 1/2 years old now.

Eventually, Marcelline was able to get all her children back. Her in-laws closed their houses to her and the Hutu child, but her children snuck out and fled with her. Sympathetic neighbors raised $10 so she could start a business, wherein she first bought fish and exchanged them for cassava, then walked 15 km to sell the cassava for a small profit.

So far she has been able to feed her children, but she in increasingly unable to walk long distances due to her prior injuries.

So why are these women smiling?

wants to be part of the governing committee made up of women survivors at BWC. She also plans to buy and sell food (beans) with her children helping her.

Nyassa loves to sew and has been making clothes for the sewing teacher at the Center. She wants to sew for outsiders who bring their own fabric, eventually getting her own stash of fabric to make clothes for profit.

Marcelline also loves to sew and goes everyday to the Center to practice. She wants to make children's clothes and sell them through the Center.

What I most love about these women is their lack of bitterness. Yes, they are very sad about their lost lives and lost love, but they are also able to look to the future with hope. They still love God. Their smiles are real and so beautiful. . . I am blessed to know them.

With love and gratitude,

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Nyangezi Women Survivors (1)

Nyangezi women survivors.

Several months ago, Dr. Florimond, his sister Bellah, and I went to the local UNICEF office to tell them about the medical services available at Poll Health Center and Shilo Hospital in Nyangezi.

The UNICEF manager curtly told us those services were not needed in Nyangezi. She went on to say that people were healthier there than other areas of Congo, and that Dr. Florimond should have built his health facilities where they were really needed.

Apparently, she spoke without knowing much about the Nyangezi area.

Wesa Academy, another victim of war.

The day we visited Shilo Hospital, we drove over to Wesa Academy, once an excellent school with over 1000 students, now sitting empty for almost 10 years, another victim of war.

The women wait to hear how we can help them.

There we met over 60 women survivors of sexual, gender-based violence (SGBV), who live in the area. They were brought to the meeting by Jon Pierre, a young Pastor who acts as their intermediary.

Jon Pierre (white shirt) introduces Dr. Florimond.

The women elected Jacqueline to speak for them. Also a SGBV survivor, she explained that these women are the sole support of their families, as they have been widowed or deserted by their husbands during the war. Due to injuries stemming from sexual violence, many are unable to do farm work or carry heavy loads, the only work available to country women such as these. What household belongings and animals they had were stolen by soldiers, so they are unable to pull themselves out of poverty.

Jacqueline describes the women's situation.

Jacqueline emphasized their lack of medical care; some have not received treatment after being raped. Many are in pain and have difficulty walking. They are unable to take their children to the doctor when they are ill.

Thinking that Dr. Florimond is a medical doctor, the women hoped he would treat them today.

Dr. Florimond explains he is a psychologist and cannot treat them medically.

Deeply moved by their situation, we both said we would help. Dr. Florimond offered them access to medical services at Poll Health Center. I said I would find investors to make small loans so they could buy and sell food-- this is an excellent way for the women to make money, provided they have the initial investment to get started.

The women applaud their appreciation.

Needless to say, the women were overjoyed, showing their happiness by singing, clapping, and yodeling, African-style.

A happy moment.

Taking advantage of the upbeat moment, I tried to show them how to use abdominal breathing to make their painful memories go away. Something must have gotten lost in translation, because the more I explained how the belly rises and falls with each breath, the more they laughed. In fact, everyone was laughing . . . it was a great moment of connection with these amazingly resilient women.

Dr. Victoria brings western behavioral therapy to the Congo,

With love and gratitude,

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Nyangezi - Shilo Hospital

Nyangezi is a small country town about 15 miles south of Bukavu. A lush tropical paradise that abounds with gardens of cassaba, corn, beans, and banana, it seems far removed from busy city life to the north.

Life moves slowly here, much as it has done for centuries. Women and children carry water from the communal well, and laundry is still laid out to dry in the sun after being washed.

It is in this beautiful rural setting that Dr. Florimond Kabanda has chosen to build a hospital and health care center. He plans to treat the local population as well as women survivors of sexual violence and other victims of war.
Dr. Florimond checks the newly installed running water system.

The fully equiped Poll Health Center was completed in October 2007 and has the capacity to treat most of the area´s health care needs. Currently, it contains a laboratory, operating room, pharmacy, neonatal and acute trauma care facilities, a general ward and intensive care room.

Lab tech at work in the Poll Health Center.

Shilo Hospital is located a short walk from Poll Center and will be able to provide services for both short- and long-term patients. It will contain a general ward able to treat over 100 patients, private rooms for 20 people, a kitchen, and space for physical therapy and literacy training.

Here Dr. Florimnd stands in front of the private wing with its shiny new roof. It is scheduled for competion mid-July. Surrounding him is the hospital garden, which is already producing calabasa, yams, sweet potatoes, and pineapple.

Pineapple and sweet potato fill the hospital garden.

He plans to make the hospital a self-sustaining complex, producing much of its own food in the gardens, supplemented by pigs, rabbits, and beef, which will also be raised on the grounds. Already in 6 months, the pigs have had 3 litters and are bursting out of their pens.

A new litter of piggies are part of the hospital farm.

As idyllic as this setting may be, statistics collected by the Poll Center after 6 months in operation show that a startling 45% of their women patients have AIDS. This is because the area was occupied by rebel troops 5 years ago, and rape was rampant at that time. Additionally, two IDP camps (Internally Displaced Persons), where women are always at risk, were located nearby at a later date. Apparently, no private or government agency has come to this area since then to help the local population, so the AIDS patients have gone untreated.

Because this is the only medical health center within 25 miles offering help to this large rural population, Dr. Florimond has his work cut out for him.

With love and gratitude,

Friday, July 11, 2008

Bukavu Women Survivors (1)

Dr. Victoria, Bernadette, and Pasqualine.

I have begun speaking with women survivors from Bukavu Women´s Center. This was difficult in the past, because Congolese speak their local dialect first (such as Mashi or Lingala), Swahili second, and then French. Few speak English, and I speak none of their languages. Yves has been interpreting for me since I arrived in Bukavu, but I wanted a woman interpreter so the women would be more comfortable talking about these very private matters.
Dr. Florimond was instrumental in finding a Congolese woman who speaks fluent English. Please meet Hortense. She has been interviewing SGBV survivors for 4 years in the capacity of Program Director for Women-for-Women, a highly effective NGO that educates and retrains women survivors in Congo http://www.womenforwomen.org/ . . . so she is no stranger to the horrerdous stories these women have to tell.

Hortense, my interpreter

I developed a 3-step, information-gathering, therapeutic process that I plan to use with each woman, tweaking it a little after each interview as I learn more about the culture. My plan is to interview all 20 women survivors at the Bukavu Women´s Center, as well as women at Dr. Florimond´s Nyangezi Hospital.

Hortense and I spent 3 hours sitting on a blanket by the lake getting to know Bernadette and Pasqualine. We talked about their husbands, children, families, and communities, as well as the "event", which is what they call being dragged into the bush, beaten, starved, repeatedly raped and tortured for months at a time.

Before she was taken, Bernadette and her husband bought and sold cows, owned a home, and were able to send their older children to school, not a small achievement in rural Congo. Her husband died trying to save her, horribly beaten while she watched, his heart cut out while he was still alive. Three of her ten children died in the bush. Although these memories continue to haunt her after 4 years, she is most upset that her children suffer from malnutrition and have to live in one room with three other families.
Bernadette and Pasqualine

Pasqualine was a primary school teacher, and is the only literate woman at the Bukavu Center. She was kidnapped by a company of Hutu soldiers, who staked her naked to the ground with other women captives. They were raped morning, noon, and night and rarely fed. She still has scars on her ankles and wrists where the rope cut her skin. Although still living, her husband is estranged from her and the children, believing they are all cursed by what happened to her.

So why are these women smiling?

Well, first of all, they are amazingly strong, determined women, true survivors who lived through horrific experiences and are here to tell about it. . . also they have children to support, so they cannot give up.
But they weren´t smiling until Hortense and I asked them what they do well, and what they could do to make their lives better right now.

Bernadette is a shrewd businesswoman. She has survived since escaping her captors by buying and selling small items, such as bread and fish. When we spoke about starting a food cooperative at the Center, she burst into this smile.

Pasqualine loves to sew and is already an accomplished seamstress; she made the dress she´s wearing in the picture. When we spoke about buying material so she could begin to make clothes to sell, she broke into this smile.

What amazes me about these women is how very little it takes to help them get back on their feet and make them happy. Above all else, they want work to support themselves and their families. As you can see, these women are real people, just like you and me. Great smiles, huh?
With love and gratitude,

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Bukavu Women´s Center & Soap Making

It´s good to be back in Bukavu, here looking north and east across Lake Kivu toward Rwanda.

I´ve missed the colors and chaos of this busy town.

For those of you who have followed the growth of the Bukavu Women´s Trauma Healing and Care Center, I have good news: The Center is well and thriving.

I met with Committee members Kishi, Natalie, Irene, and Cristelle (l. to r. in photo below). Yves, who was voted in as a Committee member, was present at the meeting but not in photo. Committee member Mama Martha was not present.

These are some of the good things happening at the Center right now:

1) For one, they hired a well-qualified accountant, Irene Nagas, to keep track of all financial transactions and be accountable to an outside auditor on a monthly basis.

2) It turns out that 13 sewing machines, situated in a dry building with a roof and cement floor, are quite a luxury in Bukavu. . . so much so that the machines can be rented to professional dressmakers on a per item basis, bringing in a tidy passive income. The women survivors will continue their sewing classes in the morning, and the machines will be available for rent in the afternoon. Everyone is happy with this prosperous turn of events.

3) The Center will be making soap to sell, an experiment that has good incoming-producing potential. So Yves, Natalie, and I went to visit a small factory where the soap would be made in an industrial section of Bukavu. The factory owner, a Pastor and friend of Yves, has allowed the Center use his facilities for a reasonable sum ($30 per batch) to help the women survivors.

Yves had just returned from the bush, where he bought palm nuts for the Center and had them delivered to the factory.

Soap making is a seasonal activity as palm trees do not produce nuts during the rainy season; it takes sun to make palm oil. The process takes anywhere from 4-7 days, from nut to soap bar, and this factory is able to make one batch at a time.

First, the palm nuts are laid out in the sun to dry for several days.

When dry, they are crushed into palm oil by a machine that looks like a funky coffee grinder.

The pressed oil is mixed with dye and caustic

then poured into a mold where it sits for up to 48 hours while it solidifies.

When the soap has become a solid block,
it is turned out . .

and sliced into large slabs,

which are chopped into small squares that can be sold individually in stores, or by street children who want to make a few pennies . . .

or by street vendors, such as this woman.

Due to the worldwide recession, prices for everything have doubled in Congo in the last 3 months. For this reason, the Committee is not sure how much profit can be made from making and selling soap. As I mentioned earlier, this is an experiement, and I will let you know if the project was lucrative when I know next week.

With love and gratitude,

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Getting Back to Bukavu

Hello Friends,

I returned to Bukavu in mid-June for two weeks, first flying from Los Angeles to Nairobi, which took two days and left me exhausted and nearly deaf. I was fortunate enough to spend several days in Nairobi with my new friend, Johara Bellali, a lovely woman who fed me, provided clothes when my suitcase disappeared, and let me sleep a whole day and night. Johara´s two daughters were great company, too, and reminded me of my own girls when they were that age.

Johara has been putting together a grant to submit to Global Fund for Women http://www.globalfundforwomen.com/ for the Bukavu Women´s Center (BWC). To send it off in style, we created a little ritual, said a prayer for the women, and clicked the "Send" button. Let´s hope the grant is funded, because it would cover BWC rent, salaries, and supplies for 6 months. This would be a real blessing, allowing the women to concentrate on self-sustaining, income-producing projects instead of survival issues.

From Nairobi I flew to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, where I waited another day to catch the bus to Goma, DRC. For those who haven´t been to Rwanda, you should know that it is beautiful, clean, and prosperous. I literally did not see one piece of litter anywhere; the roads are paved and planted flowerbeds line the road. Kigali has towering new commerical buildings and malls, and the small, traditional country homes are clean and recently plastered. Rwanda testifies to what other parts of Africa could be with good leadership.

The bus ride from Kigali to Goma was another 4-hour careening tour of the countryside that I have grown to love-- and fear equally. Goma lies east of Kigali across the border in DR Congo, at the norther tip of Lac Kivu, a 55 mile long lake of volcanic origin. In fact, Goma has its own active volcano, Mount Nyiragongoan, which erupted as recently as 6 years ago. Luckily, no one was killed then, except looters who misjudged the lava as it flowed slowly through town down to the lake; it can still be seen glowing at night.

Goma was hosting an international conference on sexual gender-based violence (SGBV) in the Great Lakes Region, which includes Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda, and DR Congo. Delegates from each country gave suggestions about how to stop SGBV, which continues to be very difficult despite the enormous amounts of money that are poured into DRC each month. One obstacle is judical impotence, due to the common practice of murdering magistrates who rule against powerful offenders. Another big problem is military commanders who give their tacit approval by not opposing it; apparently, troops will stop raping women when their commanders stand against it.

I noticed that the only country with military personnel (6 officers) at the table gave the least helpful suggestions about how to stop SGBV. Guess which country?

While there, I met with Francesca Morandini, Protection Specialist with UNICEF in DRC. We spoke at length about Eve Ensler´s V-Day Foundation campaign to stop SGBV in Congo. http://www.vday.org/contents/drcongo

In conjunction with UNICEF and Panzi Hospital, V-Day plans to build City of Joy in Bukavu, a self-contained safe village where women survivors will live with their children while receiving counseling and job training. But the key to the project lies in the leadership training these women will receive. V-Day has the vision to train violated women to be leaders, not just survivors but powerful women who inspire other women to stand up, become independent, and change their lives and country for the better. It is an ambitious project, one that I believe has great potential to stop the brutality against women and children here in Congo.

Francesca and I also spoke about me developing a counseling program for City of Joy, one that combines western psychology with the spiritual therapy (prayer) now being used. Because neither Congolese women survivors nor their caretakers are psychologically-minded, I am creating a program that integrates behavioral therapy with their cultural values, while building on the women´s already existing strengths. I have already initiated this program with women survivors at BWC, and will continue later this summer at the Shiloh Hospital in Nyangezi. Wish me luck-- it´s a great challenge!

Getting from Goma to Bukavu, which is at the southern tip of Lac Kivu, involved a 6-hour boat ride on the lovely Miss Rafiki (meaning "friend" in Swahili). What fun it was as we passed fisherman and chugged past beautiful countryside on both sides of the lake.

Passengers crowded into the forward section sang for hours while a Pastor preached.

I was happy to be returning to Bukavu.

Stay tuned for the next installments when I interview individual women survivors, visit a soap-making factory, and go to Nyangezi to meet women in the bush!

With love and gratitude,

Dr. Victoria Bentley

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