Internally Displaced Persons Camp Interview, Kiwanja, Rutshuru, eastern DRC
A typical camp, dried mud, ribbed with ditches, tiny dwellings fashioned from plastic, sticks, fabric, some thatching. The residents are mostly women and children. Everyone is dirty and looks weary.
I sit in the office and do not hear a word that is said. A small, sweaty child named Durika, who coincidentally is the child of my first home visit, had extended her arms to me, and I immediately scooped her up. She clings. She is limp and frail. I rock her and sing to her. I re-position her from how she is draped over my shoulder to a better sleeping posture. I pour water in my hand and wipe her face; she is blazing hot. Sweat still beads on her very black skin.
Muntuzu Angel: Interview 1
Muntuzu Angel is sitting in her tiny, make shift home, the only home her 7 children and she have known for 2 years. She is nursing Naomi, who as conceived in rape, as she welcomes me and we begin to visit. She is intimate and confidential with me right away; she let’s me know she doesn’t tell most people that the baby was conceived in rape; she does not want her to be stigmatized.
She has been raped 2 different occasions; the first time, she was 3 months pregnant. The second time, she conceived Naomi. The baby is lovely, clearly adores her mother, and goes back and forth between playing and nursing. When I indicate I might hold her, after I put Durkica down, she howls. It’s all about mama.
Muntuzu Angel’s Her home is tidy and her few possessions, dirty, odd sized US cast off clothing, are stuck in between poles tied together and hung with plastic. She had a piece of fabric hanging between the “sitting room” (her word!) and the rear room. The space altogether was about 6′ l x 4′ w. There was no furniture. When I ask where they sleep, she uses her hand to gesture that they all sleep together on the floor.
It was the FDLR raped her.
Her mother, father, and husband have all been killed. I am unsure during which rape her husband was killed. After she was raped the first time, she fled to the forest. But after months of living there and not surviving well (amongst other hardships, she mentions mosquito bites and multiple episodes of malaria), she returned to her village. Her first night back, that very night, she was raped again. She has heard different things about what became of her husband, before he was murdered, such as that ran to Uganda. She was told when his remains were found in the forest. I offer her my condolences for her many griefs. She says thank you.
Her concerns are for her “primary needs,” as Solange so aptly calls them: food, medical care, water, education for the children, and income. All the while she has been in the camp, she tries to walk to a field and do some work as a “cultivatrice,” but she bleeds prodigiously from her vagina, which impedes her ability to be out. She never once cites physical discomfort or emotional stress as obstacles.
Muntuzu Angel has a beautiful, soft presence. She tells her story gently. I love her.
I thank her for the honor of receiving me in her home and trusting me with her story.
I tell her I may not ever see her again in person, but I will never forget her, and I will tell her story. I tell her I do not know what God has in mind for Congo, but I believe American women care for her, and want to help improve her circumstances.
I have a child on each hip. They each have an arm around me, and an arm around each other, something that makes me very, very happy. When I leave, this is who they have: one another.
I walk up to the hut of the next Mama I am going to visit with. Children swam around my legs. I feel an unseen hand stroke my forearm. I freeze.
That is the moment that kills me. The moment I sag under, predicting it will be the one that wake me up at 2 am, broken. The unseen child, stroking my arm, to shy to be held, perhaps not up for struggle to get to me, but wanting to connect, to touch me.
Who was she?
Mukamusoni Florence, Interview 2
Mukamusoni gives me a thrill every time I say her beautiful name. 41, from Nyanzali, she has also lived in this camp for 2 years. We sit in the back room of her hut, a stifling hot affair with even less provision than Muntunzu Angel’s. She sweats prodigiously. I offer that we sit in the front room, where there is more air. She says it is actually her illness, her lack of well being, that makes her so hot. Children swirl around the outside of the hut, peering in through the cracks. She does not seem to notice them; she is very open about her story, yet she is not very relational. She is glad I am here; she just can’t express it very well.
She shoes me the scars she bears from the beatings during the rapes.
Her 9 month old, conceived in rape, is sick a lot. She cannot get any health care for the child. Just recently, she went to Heal Africa and the fee was 5,000 francs. She could not afford it and came back without the baby having been treated. I ask where the baby is.
She tells me her12 year old daughter provides for the family. I ask if I can meet her. A serious girl steps in, and infant tied to her back. I tell her I admire her hard work, the pan of fresh herbs she picked. She does not speak. She does not smile. She passes her mother the baby
Now holding her infant, I ask Mukamusoni Francine about the baby, acknowledging women can have complicated feelings toward a child conceived in rape. “I could never mistreat a child. He is my child, no different from any of my other children.” She says it simply, with unmistakable clarity.
Raped first by FDLR, she was also raped by Congolese militia, which grabs my attention. She is the first rape survivor with whom I visit to admit she was raped by Congolese men. Her story speaks to the urgent need for security sector reform and the immediate responsibility of the state for the rape epidemic in Congo. I translate this into English, telling a rather long policy story for the documentary camera. My host vagues out, not quite nodding off, but she goes away. Fidel and I look at each other. We understand Mukamusoni Francine does not have a lot to give.
I ask her what I can do for her. She is unable to conceive of anything beyond her immediate, primary needs. Mukamusoni Francine is low energy, lethargic. Her affect is dull. She talks about the hunger her children and she live with. She is hungry right now, not having eaten since yesterday. That is all she can think about. Also, she leaks urine, which indicates she has fistula.
I close with her as usual, letting her know I may not see her again, but I will never forget her, and I will speak her story, to women and to power (most happily, I might add, when the 2 are 1 and the same).
I thank her, and when I ask if I may hug her, she says simply, “Of course.” Her smile, the first one I have seen from her, is beautiful and wonderful. We embrace a long, long time. I tell her I will pray for her.
Edging the smaller children who dash, rush, surround me, adolescent girls keep pace but also keep a certain distance. They are as hungry, as delighted, in their faces as the littler ones, but their physical presence is more guarded. I don’t know if it’s the universal need for teen-agers to play it cool, even in an IDP camp, or if it’s the beginning of a hardening, a cynicism. One did stick out her hand, palm up, and said to me in French, “give me.” What? Anything, I am sure, would suit her, she who has nothing.
When the teen girls and I make eye contact, I can see their stories and the precipice on which their lives currently teeter. I reach out my hand and in response they swirl with shrieks, no different from the 5 year olds at my ankles.. I wish they would let me hug them, too. Even big girls need love. I know I sure did. There is simply not enough time to cultivate their trust.
Tonda Magdelene, Interview 3
Tonda Magdalene looks ahead, eyes partly down cast. Her voice is even, low, soft, Her sentences short. Her home is one room. It is made of cardboard boxes with English print, patched together with ribbed tin, also American packaging. I wonder how it got here. I admire how short pieces of rag are used to tie it all together. I think of the unending resourcefulness of the poor. Her roof is see through in places. It thunders. I shudder. The only thing worse than a dry camp is a camp in the rain.
We sit on short benches, a few inches off the dirt floor. There is a small girl folded 4 ways behind her mother, where there simply is no space. She wears a dirty faded polyester dress. Her mother rests her hand on her back; I extend my hand, wiggling my fingers. She emerges, and goes straight for the lap. I cradle her and she positions herself how she wants to be held. I ask her name – Furaha Justine. I say it kind of loudly, sing songy, like a mother does when she calls her kids in for supper, to come home at dusk when they’ve been out playing. I say, “Oh, now I’ve got you, now that I know your name.” She smiles the most precious, most pleased smile, and buries into me.
Her mother has been raped 3 times. Her husband left her after the 3rd, saying, “This is absurd, I cannot handle all these rapes.” She has severe vaginal injuries.
The first and second times, she was gang raped by FDLR. She described how they came into the house, helped themselves to all the family’s possessions, shone a flash light in her eyes to blind her, then blindfolded her, and raped her while holding a gun to her throat.
The third time, she says, was very harsh.
It was FARDC the first two times, then, Congolese military. They raped her 10 and 14 year old daughters, too.
She he has been at the camp 2 years. She is 50. She is proud that she can read and write her name.
She wants food, medical care, water, and education for the children, and to be re integrated into society so she can access loans. Right now, as a camp resident, she does not qualify. I think of Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $@ a Day, and how it outlines both the tremendous ingenuity of the poor, and the need for greater flexibility for financial instruments for them. Indeed.
I am still holding her child. I have been crying some. She tells me I am not like other white women. I confide in her, telling her I have chosen not to have children because I believe the children who are already her are really mine, too. I do not need to go making “my own” baby when so many of my babies are already here who need love, attention, time, care. I have felt this way since I was 18, at least. That is the first time I remember arguing with a friend about it. My belief has never changed, never budged. It is a big part of who I am.
I don’t tell many people this. But she has trusted me with so much, all she has, in fact: her story, her child.
It is very, very difficult to leave her hut. She, Fidel, and I share a long moment. I pray the Serenity Prayer. It is clear one of us will have to buck up. I say, “I have my marching orders. Back to America, and to work. I do not know what God has in mind for Congo. I do not know that people in power will listen in a way that improves your life. But I will take all the action I know how to take on your behalf.”
God lives in the heart. God lives in the space between people, in relationship, is acted out through our interdependence. God has been with me today.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?
A little boy in nothing but a long blue polo type shirt wants to be held and yet struggles to reach me in the throng. A snotty nosed brat type kid with energy spare…. there is always one in the crowd, I remember each one I’ve met, I think…..heckles, taunts, otherwise harasses the 30 or so kids and me, especially Blue Shirt. He wants to be held, but is too high-strung, too proud. So he picks on Blue Shirt, and it doesn’t seem like the first time.
I take turns holding kids. Some ask directly, tapping my hand, holding my wrist, tugging my dress, catching my eye. I love it. So do they.
In America, I dream of these moments. I have so much love to give. These are my favorite kids to give it to.
They get a little jealous of each other from time to time. One will slap another, trying to get him or her off me, free up a hand or a hip for him or herself. I try to reassure them I have enough love, that love never runs out, that love comes from God, the Endless Supply.
I ask to see their toilets. Plastic stalls with UNHCJHR logos stand around a flat piece of plastic with a square hole. There is no disinfectant. I think of Ambassador Sally Cowall, a great woman at PSI, who spends all her time dreaming up a way to improve sanitation. Her hope, when she retires, is that she can go out as the Shit Queen.
We go to the camp water source. Pipes with 4 spigots, surrounded by mud, are used to fill the ubiquitous yellow jerry cans. I try to lift a full one. I can, but just barely.
At times, I carry 2 kids at once. My arms ache. I think of Amy Tan’s book, The Joy Luck Club, and the stunning moment when the mother says to her daughter, “you are not m y only child,” and tells how during a forced migration, she carried a child as long as she could, before she had to abandon her.
How do the women here carry as much as they do, as long as they do?
I have read a lot about camps, and I wonder about the society that arises, both for good and for ill. The solidarity, friendship, cooperation, understanding amongst residents. And, the misdirection of resources, away from those for whom it is intended, the spread of disease, sexual coercion, especially of adolescent girls,
Furuha Justine is always nearby, sticking to my right thigh. She knows she is my special girl.
Some residents have a small market, displaying potatoes, peas. A few chickens scratch. Ever more children appear. I feel for Fuhura Justine, she is there, but do not look at her. My departure is soon.
At the “office,” i sit with the camp director and thank him for the amazing chance to be here, to get to know people, to perhaps in some small way be useful. I confirm the facts of my friends’ stories. Muntuzu Angel, who by far had the most energy of the 3, rests her head on her forearms within the cut out window and watches me. We smile at each other. A lot.
There are so many kids. I sing a “la la la” melody for them, trying to suggest they sing for me. Instead, they perfectly echo my la la la, showing impeccable call and response. I sing “Amazing Grace.” They watch, riveted. They sing something back in French. I teach them how to take a bow.
I tell them that though I may never see them again in person, when I close my eyes at night and say my prayers, I will see them in my heart and remember them to my
God. I say, “I love you,” in Swahili and Kinrwanda.
I get in the car.
We drive away.
I think of Furua Justine. The panic begins. My throat closes, my chest constricts, my eyes burn, something shoots through my legs. They want to run back to the camp.
Will she ever know that I love her?
Did I do the wrong thing, not singling her out for a special good bye?
Was I wrong to think it would be easier, just letting her be by my side. not taking her into my arms again, giving her more tenderness, having someone share secret words from me to her, that she could hopefully remember? Was I avoiding the ordeal of parting for her, or for me?
I doubt everything.
At the hotel, my clean, damp wash is handed to me. I order supper with Michel, and smile at him when I pre order breakfast. Later, I will exact a petty revenge on him when he calls to let me know supper is ready; I am in the shower and I let the phone ring interminably, without answering.
In my room, I think I am just going to organize my stuff, wash up, before dinner. Instead, I am on my knees at the edge of my bed, sobbing, “God have mercy, God have mercy.”
I hang my wash out. I shampoo my hair, aware of how far I am from the clean, clear running creeks of the Smokey’s. It’s like babies, when they continue to poop the barium poop, mother milk poop, after they’ve been born. To me, that is really when the cord is cut, when the barium poop is all gone. The blessed creek water is gone from my hair.
My cord feels cut. I remember the green acorns the squirrels loaned me. But I am also connected. Just not how I used to be.
I will eat. Go to bed. Probably be up in the night to check on Dario’s race, as well as do the usual, well, whatever it is I do when I am up in the middle of the night in Congo.
I feel pain, yeah, and I feel joy. I am excited to take Solange and the other young rape survivors from Heal Africa shopping tomorrow for their “primary needs.” I keep looking at Mr Rabbit. He’s a good rabbit, been with me a long time, gone a lot of tough places with me. I want to give him to Solange.
I talk to Dario, and tell him I almost gave away my wedding band. A child asked for it. I said to her, sincerely “Oh, I don’t know how I would explain that to my husband,” but I have since felt guilty for not just giving it to her, for thinking twice. A part of me wonders, what would that say about me, if I gave away my wedding band? I did not give it away because of him, not because of me. Does that say something about to whom I am married?
Yet Dario, when I ask him directly how he would feel if I gave my gold wedding band away to a child in a camp in Congo says, and I would have predicated this response if I had a multiple choice answers to choose from, “Ultimately, doll, that is up to you.” What I make up what his response means is that he trusts me.
Joy filled, pain filled, joy filled pain, as Mennie would say.