Tuesday, July 29, 2008
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?
Rosette 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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
With love and gratitude,
Saturday, July 12, 2008
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
Thursday, July 10, 2008
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.
Thursday, July 3, 2008
Dr. Victoria Bentley
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