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 . . . 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,

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