Repairing our broken world: Stories from the Congo

A mother of five was robbed and raped by a village pastor; when her husband heard of the rape he abandoned the family, as did the victim’s parents.  A nurse who works in a hospital specializing in the care of rape victims was abducted, assaulted and left for dead, probably as part of a  campaign to intimidate the hospital's medical director who has become a global advocate against the rape of Congo’s women and who himself was the target of a recent assassination attempt.  A 14 year old boy was heroically retrieved from the jungle, having been forced into militia service since his abduction some seven years ago; after spending every day for the past seven years killing with his AK47, he is hoping to reunite with his family, be accepted back into his village and just be allowed to “live in peace”.  Nine female babies were raped by bayonets — two died and the other six are fighting to survive.

These are just a few of the stories I heard and the people I met this week on my fourth visit in as many years for Jewish World Watch (JWW) to the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  I am currently at the airport in Goma waiting for the plane that will take me on the first leg of my 36-hour journey back home to Los Angeles.  My head is spinning with thoughts and feelings about what I witnessed this week.  The stories are almost unbearable to hear, and the extent of the depravity and barbarism shock me anew with every visit.

As I sit and listen to the horrible stories and wonder how human beings can commit such vile acts, I always find myself remembering Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis’ words—“Godliness is found in the response to evil.” If that is the case, as ironic as it might sound when referring to one of the most violent places on earth, Godliness abounds in Congo.  The most amazing work being done in Congo is being done by a panoply of non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), some of them founded and run by local Congolese, and others run by international non-profits.  JWW has found its partners here, mostly with local organizations, with the exception of our partnership with International Medical Corps with whom we just completed building the Chambucha Rape and Trauma Center. (more below).

[Related: Violence in Eastern Congo is our problem]

Since my first trip to Congo, I have seen important changes in the nature of the services provided by our partner NGOs.  Where once the programs were limited to relief and service, they now include components addressing the core societal issues — the cultural values and social mores — that lie behind the conflict plaguing Congo.  It is a tall order to produce change in a country that is essentially a failed state; Congo is teeming with corruption; it is continuously being invaded by foreign militias nad has a military that arms but does not train or pay its soldiers. It also has huge a huge problem of gender inequity, which leads to horrific violence against women.  But, those who are bravely taking the first steps towards addressing Congo’s complex problems must be supported, or the chances of their success will be severely thwarted. 

Women survivors of gbv at Chambucha

This past week our JWW team visited 11 different projects. One of them is a series of local gender-based-violence community leadership councils through which local leaders, with the counsel of skilled staff, are charged with addressing the violence against women, the attitudes towards rape victims and the overall issue of severe gender imbalance in their communities.

We met with all of the members of one of the local councils; many of the council members shared stories of very personal transformations, such as the admission by one of the men that he was shocked to learn during a council session that forcing his wife to have sex was a form of rape.  This notion had never occurred to him, and he vowed to stop that practice.   

At a transit house for liberated child soldiers and sex slaves, we met with a young woman, Maryam, 22, whom I had met on a prior visit, several years ago, not long after her liberation. When we first met, Maryam spoke almost inaudibly, never making eye contact; I remember her telling me of her dream to become a lawyer so she could help to develop a system of accountability in Congo by advocating for other girls who had been abused like her.  This past week I cried when Maryam told me that thanks to this amazing organization in Bukavu, which housed her (and her daughter of rape) and which paid for her education, she is now almost finished with law school and is looking forward to studying for their equivalent of our bar exam.  She plans to work for one of several NGOs that are trying to have rape victims testify in court despite the grave dangers associated with doing so.

One key purpose of my current JWW trip, which I took with fellow board members Diana Buckhantz and Diane Kabat, was to help dedicate our largest and newest project in Congo, the Chambucha Rape and Trauma Center.  The Chambucha Center is located in a very remote village, which required a treacherous four-hour drive each way from Bukavu that we had to complete in one day due to security concerns in the region.    JWW built the center, which serves a regional population of 29,000 women, in partnership with International Medical Corp, and the Center not only provides all forms of rape trauma care, including surgical repair of fistula, and contains a well-equipped maternity ward, it also houses a comprehensive gender-based violence clinic that offers women's economic and social empowerment programs.  The Center has instituted programs designed for the entire population of the region that are intended to shift cultural mores away from violence against women and towards gender equality.  The quality and scope of services provided at the Chambucha Medical Center makes it the finest of any rurally based medical facility in all of Congo.

The Chambucha Women's rape and trauma center

Congo is a country that must emerge after hundreds of years of exploitation by foreign as well as domestic powers. For years, King Leopold of Belgium held Congo as his own private property, depleting the country of its massive rubber resources and murdering millions. Since independence in 1960, Congo has endured a succession of either cruel or weak — but always corrupt and kleptocratic — heads of state.  The countries surrounding Congo, most notably Uganda and Rwanda, have invaded eastern Congo, raping, murdering and pillaging, as their proxy armies continue to steal Congo’s minerals. Minerals that, by all rights, should have made Congo one of the richest countries in the world.  Against this backdrop, are Congo's women and children, who have been targeted by all of the various militias, factions, power seekers, and authorities at all levels, for the greatest abuse and exploitation.  Human Rights Watch has repeatedly named Congo the most dangerous place on earth to be a woman.

[Related: New violence in the Congo: Having a conscience means working overtime]

The problems are extreme in Congo, and the solutions are complex and will take years to achieve.  The work Jewish World Watch and others are undertaking in Congo is a critical part of the tapestry of services and funders making a significant impact towards planting seeds of justice and reform.  What makes our work truly unique is that via Jewish World Watch, the voice of the Los Angeles Jewish Community is also making a resounding impact in Washington D.C.  The recent appointment of former Senator Russ Feingold as the new U.S. special representative for the ongoing crisis in Congo, is just one example of the impact of our advocacy, and a victory for which our community can claim partial credit.

As I board my plane, I am thinking about all of the people I met this past week and about their sad and painful stories — the babies and the nurse recovering from last week’s brutality, the young teen just liberated from years of forced “service”, and the hundreds of others who have similarly suffered.  Rather than feeling overwhelmed by their painful stories, I rely on the ancient wisdom of the Talmud, which teaches us that we are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it (Pirke Avot 2:21).  Together we will perform the other ancient mandate– to repair our broken world.

Janice Kamenir-Reznik is coFounder and president of Jewish World Watch (JWW), which fights against genocide and mass atrocities worldwide. JWW’s work is currently focused on the ongoing crises in Sudan and Congo. Janice is currently traveling along with fellow JWW Board Members Diana Buckhantz and Diane Kabat to Congo’s eastern provinces to meet with JWW’s on-the-ground project partners, to participate in the dedication of JWW’s Chambucha Rape and Crisis Center, and to work with survivors of Congo’s decades-long conflict to build innovative new partnerships and projects.