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A week with the women of the DR Congo

Lorraine McIntosh of Deacon Blue travelled with SCIAF to see work with women affected by sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo – the focus of SCIAF’s 2020 WEE BOX BIG CHANGE appeal. Each day, Lorraine captured her thoughts. She wanted to share her experiences and the stories was told to let these women's voices be heard.

Saturday

The Rwandan/Congolese border is no country for old women like me. Police with machine guns, checks for Ebola, and the people keep coming. Women pass us as we wait for clearance, huge bundles carried on their heads, babies strapped to their backs, flapping chickens upside down in their hands. Border officials don’t like journalists which includes two of our group. This one is refusing entry until a call comes from the local priest. Suddenly we’re on our way. Crossing a bridge over the Ruzizi river, I realise this is another first for me. First day in Africa; first time crossing a border on foot.

Chaos and poverty in the Democratic Republic of Congo are immediately apparent. No road – just a mud track.

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I’m here to see the work of SCIAF and its local partners who are helping thousands of women affected by sexual violence. First, to the Olame Centre, where women come from miles around seeking help: medical, financial, post-trauma counselling and legal aid. Here they focus on the most vulnerable and desperate. It’s estimated that 40% of women in the South Kivu region where I am have been victims of rape and sexual violence. They are overwhelmed.

Inside the grounds, two young girls aged 14 and 15 accused of being witches wait for us. They are supported by the Director of the centre Thérèse Mapenzi. She will feature hugely in our trip, translating every interview with patience and compassion. The women trust her.

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The younger girl’s head is a criss-cross of machete scars inflicted by her uncle who thought he could beat the evil out of her.

The older girl, accused of causing her father’s blindness, hands me a piece of paper. It’s a drawing of a young girl on a platform, addressing an audience through a microphone. There is a speech bubble above her head:

“May peace reign all over the world, and especially in the DR Congo.”

 “That’s me,” she says.

Sunday

6am Mass. 2,000 people singing and dancing. Joyous.

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The parish priest, Fr Justin is hugely charismatic and plays a central role in the lives of his congregation. Living among them, he is open to all. Being a voice for the voiceless, as the Director of the local Justice and Peace group, has resulted in two assassination attempts against him. His house is defended by barbed wire and an armed guard. When we need to leave the church grounds to take photographs, he comes with us as our security. Women wait to share their stories. I sit with Marina, mother of eight children whose husband was murdered by rebels. Her 10 year old daughter was raped and infected with HIV. Through SCIAF’s partners, she is given antiretroviral medication and money to start up her own small business. She saves a tiny amount each week in the local cooperative savings group and this has changed her life. A family with two children tell us their story. The father speaks of how gender equality education has changed the way he behaves. He says he is ashamed to admit before the training he ‘acted like a rapist’ in his home but no more. His wife sits beside him. They have named their first child SCIAF.

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Saffi tells how she was beaten and raped by rebels and how she managed to hide her rape and injuries from her husband for four years, before finding out help was available. She walked to the hospital and her surgery was performed the following day. After years of double incontinence, she says coming round after the operation was like coming out of hell. One of the women is Albino, a persecuted people in the DR Congo. She has been trafficked and raped. As the bones of Albinos are reported to possess magical powers, they tried to kill her. She escaped and now receives help at Katana Hospital. Her skin is cracked and burned from the Congolese sun.

She asks the translator to ask me if I have any cream I could give her. Unfortunately, I don’t. She nods and turns away. We leave before dark and the threatened rain, as the road would then be impassable.

Feeling overwhelmed.

Monday

Spent last night unable to sleep, reading over the information I was meant to have already read.

Today we visit Katana Hospital, two hours’ drive from Bukavu and a place the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) states as a ‘no travel area’. Maybe it’s good I didn’t read it before we left!

We travel in convoy. People everywhere. Children at the side of the road breaking rocks. We have travelled back in time. Told to keep our windows and doors locked. A makeshift roadblock brings us to a stop. A group of young men gather, banging on the window. They want money. The driver ignores them, eyes straight ahead. Eventually they let us pass.

In Katana Hospital Congolese doctors trained by SCIAF work to repair the bodies of women brutalised by rape. Many of the women live with fistula as a result of these rapes and are rejected by their communities and their husbands. These doctors are transforming the lives of thousands. Often these operations are carried out by torchlight from their mobile phones as the electricity supply cuts out.

The wards are crowded with women and babies. Conditions are basic.

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Tuesday

Today we visited the site of a devastating landslide in the shanty town in the hills above Bukavu.

Fr Justin is our guide. Suspicion turns to welcome as the locals see we are together and soon I am being led up the hill by the hand, through the mud and running sewage to the scene of the disaster.

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We stand in cleared ground. The previous week four makeshift houses once stood here before being washed away by heavy rain. It is here that the bodies of five children and one woman were buried under the mud for days. The local young people dug them out with their bare hands and a few shovels. No outside help came. No ambulance, no rescue service, no police. These people are all but forgotten. They are desperate to show me video footage of the dead children. I can’t look. The people stand around, waiting on our reaction.

It is the first time I have seen Fr Justin despondent.

‘How can I help these people?’ He says, arms reaching out to the thousands huddled on this hillside.

‘What can I do?”

We look above at the houses already precariously perched at the top. We all know it’s only a matter of time before it happens again. It starts to rain. We leave to cross the border back to Rwanda.

Wednesday

Rwanda

We leave Cyangugu to drive out to Lake Kivu. We have arranged a safe place for the women who are appearing on SCIAF’s WEE BOX appeal to be interviewed.

The landscape is beautiful. They call Rwanda the country of a thousand hills. The lake stretches as far as the eye can see, all the way across to the Congo. I talk to Angela one of the women on SCIAF’s WEE BOX. Raped by nine rebels, her children forced to watch, and her husband killed in front of them.

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She is now HIV positive and needs life-long medical care. She says with SCIAF’s help she has made some sort of life for herself and her children. She grows crops and has a couple of goats which is a huge help.

I ask how she views her future. She says she doesn’t care if she dies, but that it’s important that Thérèse (from Centre Olame) doesn’t die because of the work she is doing in helping the other women. Thérèse is translating this. It is the first time I struggle to control my emotions. Thérèse has tears in her eyes but keeps on translating Angela’s words.

Before leaving Angela asks for one of the WEE BOXES to take home with her.

Thursday

This morning we visit a traditional village of the Batwa people. Previously known as pygmies, they were a highly persecuted minority in Rwanda and continue to be desperately poor. We are warmly welcomed by them. The women sit on the ground making clay pots.

The level of poverty is apparent. Behind the brick exterior of their homes, there is no running water or electricity. It’s only with the support of SCIAF that many of the children now attend school.

We are introduced to an immaculately dressed young woman who is the first person from her village and only one of four Batwa to attend university in Kigali. She sits in her home devoid of any furniture except for a wooden bench brought in for us. Her parents sit on either side.

Their pride is palpable. She says she is studying finance as that is the best way she can support her people. It’s hard to imagine when dropping coins in the SCIAF WEE BOX at home that this is the outcome. Those coins are paying for this young woman’s university fees and changing people’s futures. 

As we leave, the villagers gather and sing us a farewell song.

Friday 

Fly back to Kigali and drive out to Bugesera district. A group of beautifully dressed women farmers gather in the village waiting for us. Support from SCIAF has totally transformed their lives.

One woman describes herself as having been “the poorest of the poor”.

Now she has food, a home and most importantly for her, savings in the bank. These women have control of their lives. It’s good to hear women laughing.

It’s been a while.

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