My Journey To Report On THe Horrors And The Hope In The Congo Part V

Port Goma -

Joseph tells me once again to put away my camera-- "You're not allowed to take pictures at the port. It's considered a military zone." A shame because the port is full of action--orange sparks fly as men weld giant fishing vessels supported by rusty steel girders and blocks of rotting wood. Customs officials roam the docks scanning the crowd for their next bag search. Kids trying to make a buck compete for the luggage of overloaded passengers. I, of course, am one of those passengers, and by the way, so is Joseph. He packs like a woman.

We are leaving Goma for Bukavu-- a two-hour boat ride across beautiful Lake Kivu. Bukavu is built on five peninsulas and has been described as "a green hand, dipped in the lake." Its green hills and cascading gardens stand in sharp contrast to the black volcanic rock of Goma.

Shortly after our arrival in Bukavu we are met by Padjos Lokeka, a quiet, lovely man with a sweet smile and fleeting eyes. He is a friend of Joseph's and will be driving us around for the next week.

Padjos and his brother started Centre Kitumaini after a group of soldiers broke into his sister's house and killed her husband. Thankfully, his sister, Elizabeth, wasn't home at the time. After the death of her husband, Elizabeth went into a deep depression. In an effort to try and revive her, Padjos and his bother started Center Katumaini, a small grassroots NGO that provides medicine, legal services, livestock, seeds, and transportation for women living in the more volatile provincial areas.

Padjos and Paul, our other driver, load our bags and we head to Lodge Coco.

Lodge Coco -

Once at the lodge we are greeted with a hearty welcome by Carlos Schuler. His wife, Christine Schuler Deschryver, is a human rights advocate and one of Eastern Congo's most outspoken critics of the war and the horrific toll it's taken on women. Christine's father founded Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the early seventies and was later murdered (poisoned) when he stood up against well-to-do gorilla poachers.

After hanging out with Carlos for a while Joseph and I head to the restaurant and order lunch--I order Tilapia and a green that I LOVE called lenga-lenga. Joseph orders the same as well as some weird concoction called Fufu. It's made out of cornflower and looks like bread dough when it's rising, like a substance that could take over the earth if left unattended. Yuck!

Minutes later we are joined by Christine Deschryver. Christine has lived this nightmare for over a decade now-- Ten years ago her best friend was raped by 20 men, her body found with 100 knife holes in it. Her Canadian husband was made to help, then he was killed as well.

I first laid eyes on Christine when she was being interviewed by Lisa Jackson for her documentary, "The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo. Christine spoke of the horrors, her worldly eyes had seen too much and were weary, but piercing-- just as they are today. I was immediately drawn to her.

Christine now heads V-Day/Congo and oversees the building of City Of Joy (COJ)--a joint venture by V-Day, Panzi Hospital, and UNICEF. City Of Joy will shelter female survivors--many of whom have been shunned by their communities, lost their families, and land rights because of the deep stigma against rape victims. COJ will be a transitional center where women will stay for 4 to 6 months. There will be therapeutic programs through dance, music, and art, as well as leadership training.

On this day Christine tells Joseph and me about a woman who came to Panzi Hospital after she was raped. "She was operated on, recovered, then returned to her village. A year later she was raped again, this time by a soldier with AIDS. She had the baby, a little girl, who was born HIV positive. The woman died when the little girl was three. She is five now." Christine smiles at the thought of the young girl, "Dr. Mukwege tells me not to get too close. Of course I can't help it." I want to meet this little girl, I think to myself. Christine shakes her head, looks to the ground, disheartened, "There are so many stories; hundreds of thousands of stories like this. Some so horrific they can't be told." I blurt, "I want to work for you." I do. I want to do anything to help relieve Christine Deshryver's burden.

Tomorrow Christine is taking the Vice-Governor of Bukavu to visit The City Of Joy and invites Joseph and I to join her. Of course we accept.

Next day--

Before the City Of Joy ceremonies, Joseph and I visit AFEM. AFEM is an association of women journalists working on good governance; democracy; human rights; and HIV/AIDS education. We are met by Julienne Baseke, AFEM's Program Officer.

In 2006, a provision was added to the Congolese constitution that consecrated equality between men and women, but these laws are rarely enforced. In fact many women in rural areas don't even know their rights. AFEM broadcasts news intended to empower women, reminding them of their constitutional rights in both rural and urban regions.

Close to six months ago three female journalists received threats after their reporting on Kimia II - the botched Congolese Army/MONUC (UN Peacekeepers) military operation that ended with 62 civilians dead. In spite of the threats, AFEM continued their denunciation of the Kimia II operation. At a press conference in Kinshasa, AFEM received threats and orders to deny any information they received about the ill-fated Kimia II. AFEM continued to report, and more death threats followed. Julienne said journalists are now so afraid that they quit reporting on Kimia II and today write under pseudonyms.

City Of Joy -

After a brief stop at the Vice-Governor's house we are on our way to City Of Joy. In the car Christine turns to me, "Do you remember that little girl I told you about yesterday?" I nod, about to ask when I can meet her. Christine's eyes blur, "She died last night." I stare out the backseat window and for the first time on the trip I numb out.

We arrive at City of Joy.

The first thing I notice is men and women of all ages working together. Happily!

Christine introduces the project; refers to Secretary of State Clinton's recent visit to the area; and suggests the word "rehabilitation" be replaced with "reconstruction." She tells the press, "City of Joy will change pain into power and teach women leadership. It's a revolution without taking arms."

Dr. Mukwege, director of Panzi Hospital, addresses the crowd. He expresses gratitude toward the governor in making the trip to see evolution of the construction.

The Vice-Governor thanks Dr. Mukwege, the V-Day foundation, the visitors, and the construction company. "It's great seeing female engineers working with your company." He wonders why the International Media is not talking about the Congo crisis, "where like at the time of the Holocaust more than 5 million have perished."

As the Vice-Governor continues, Joseph and I talk with Dr. Mukwege. We put forth our idea about helping women mobilize. Dr. Mukwege likes the idea. He is disgusted by the way women are treated in Congolese society. "People need to understand that the power of women is misused. The male oppression on women is a loss to the community. We don't need 10 years to change this country. We made a mistake the first time, calling this a women's movement. It's unrealistic to separate men from women. They are complementary to each other. Men and women need to hold hands for a positive outcome. This will expedite a change in views. Together they're stronger. And, absolutely you should get some men to join in the rallies. Get men that can articulate a message of unity."

I go back to Lodge Coco inspired by Dr. Mukwege: I, with Joseph's help, can organize this. Justine Masika Bihamba, from Synergie des Femmes contre les Violence Sexuelles, is on board. The amazing men and women at Centre Olame offered a few suggestions and like the idea too. And I will mention the idea to Christine and I hope she will join in once I tell her of our plan.

All we have to do now is establish a delegation of Congolese men who will unite with Congolese women's rights leaders and join them in speaking out against violence against women. To do this Joseph and I need to raise enough money to send that delegation to Kinshasa (where the President resides). Meanwhile, we need to help local leaders organize simultaneous protests on the ground in Goma and Bukavu; figure out a way to keep them secure; and keep all the organizations in alliance. That's all we have to do.

That night I snap at Joseph.