On my first visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2009, I met a woman named Charlene in a massive camp for displaced people. Like hundreds of thousands of others, Charlene and her family had been forced by the violence of Congo’s civil war to flee for their lives, leaving their homes, their fields, everything they owned. Ending up in camp shacks made of sticks and tarps, these displaced women had to forage in the forest for firewood to trade for food. While they searched for wood, many of these women—including Charlene—were brutally raped by rebel soldiers. Charlene’s story broke my heart and bound me to the Congo.
Three years later, I returned to Congo with a group of friends.
One of the women on that trip was Belinda Bauman, who was so impacted by our experiences that she started a grassroots organization called One Million Thumbprints (1MT) to raise awareness and funds for women like Charlene. In early March Belinda and I and a dozen other women will launch the 1MT movement by climbing Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. We’re pretty excited about the climb, but what makes us even more excited is that on our way to the famous “mountain of light” we’ll be stopping in Congo. We can’t wait to see our dear Congolese sisters again.
The following blog describes the day in the 2012 trip when we met with a gathering of women like Charlene, whose broken lives were being healed by the ministry of World Relief Congo. On that day we saw hope in the midst of the horrors of war–and the dream for One Million Thumbprints was born.
It is Sunday morning before church. If we left Congo today, we would feel that we have received what we were meant to receive on this trip. Undoubtedly, we will receive more in the days to come, but it will all be bonus. Yesterday, we fell into the pure center of why we came.
In the simple sanctuary of the Baptist Church in Kiwanja, we sat in a circle of women. One after the other, eleven women who have survived brutal rape trusted us with the details of their stories. These women, aged eight to fifty-eight, had been raped by uniformed soldiers, armed rebel militia fighters, or “bandits.” Some were raped by men who broke into their homes at night, but most were attacked when they went into the forest to collect firewood they could then sell to buy food for their children.
Most were widowed; some saw their husbands killed by the same men who raped them. An eleven-year-old girl tried to cry out against her attacker, but the man said, “If you cry, I’ll kill you. I killed my mother and I’ll kill you.”
We have beautiful photos of these girls and women who have been lovingly and wisely cared for by counselors empowered by World Relief. In time, we will tell the details of their stories, but not until we’re sure we can do that without endangering them further or violating their trust. They want their stories told to the world, but for their welfare we must do that carefully.
It was holy time we spent with them—in fact, it was beyond holy. To be trusted with the suffering of one person is holy. To sit in a circle and receive the gift of the suffering from so many is beyond words.
At the end of our time together we knelt before the Congolese women as they sat on a long wooden bench. We joined our hands with theirs and prayed for them. To touch them and pray for them felt like a high privilege.
If you have followed our Congo Journal you know that one of our prayers was that somehow our community of ten would create a space of healing for the women we would meet. In a small way, I believe that prayer was answered. One of the last women to speak was also one of the oldest, slight and delicately featured. Before she even began her story she said, “Thank you for coming here today. You have reminded us that we are still human beings.”
We’re all still kind of a mess after yesterday. After worship in local churches this morning, we’ll have time to think and pray and talk through the holy moments of yesterday. In the meantime, I feel trapped in the disconcerting paradox of joy and sorrow. Joy because the women we met have been lovingly cared for. We also had the joy of witnessing the positive transformation in the demeanor of each woman as she spoke and knew she had been heard. But, oh, the sorrow, the anger and the despair we feel as we think of the many, many others like them who have never told their stories and have not yet received the help that can lead them toward healing.
For them, we weep.
Photos by Christine Anderson