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,

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