JWW in Congo: Ready When You Are

by Janice Kamenir-Reznik

We are taken by convoy on an impossible 3 hour drive, high up in the mountains where the Congolese Tutsis control the terrain.  The “roads” are indescribable.  Half the time our vehicle is gliding through the mud and the other half it feels as if it is almost on its side.  Torrential rains fall, the wheels of our land rover spin in the mud at one moment and get caught in a crevasse of the boulders that purport to be part of the roadway.  When Naama and I are not holding each other for dear life (no fear of violence, just of the lack of infrastructure that would have provided roads suitable for driving—but, it is definitely starting to feel like the violence and infrastructure failure are two sides of a single coin) we look out of the windows to see magnificent mountains, valleys and rivers which give new definition to the word “green.”  It’s Maui on steroids.

When we arrive at the International Medical Corps clinic in Kausa, a village where 17,000 Congolese Tutsis live and control the land the territory, John, Diana , Naama and I were stunned by many things. First, we were stunned that we had safely arrived.  (To myself I did say a sort of “shehechiyanu” blessing thanking whatever spirit had safely guided our drive.)  We were stunned by the torrential rains and by the sheer beauty of the cliffs.  We were stunned by the welcome speech which Sebastian, the IMC clinic director gave—he welcomed us with a booming voice, words rehearsed, as if he was giving a speech in front of the United Nations to dignitaries who were powerful enough to change the very direction the earth is spinning.  And then after Sebastian led us to the birthing room where two women had just given birth, we were once again stunned to find out that nearby lay a young teenage girl who had been raped just a few hours earlier.  We do not feel prepared or equipped to speak to this young woman lying just behind the door. They open the door and the beds in the small room are full—one with a young woman who laid silently, her head covered under a blanket.  Next to her lay a woman who had been severely beaten by her husband, and in the middle was a woman and her very young baby—something about rectal bleeding…we did not ask.  We then proceed to the small covered porch where a hundred or more male villagers and their village dignitaries are seated to receive us.  Several of them give nice speeches about how grateful they are to IMC and how without IMC they would have no care at all for their people.  Now they have nurses, some very basic medicines, a few hospital beds and a birthing room.

They are right to be grateful to IMC—it is a miracle, given the terrain, the political climate, the war, the weather, and so many other variables, that IMC has actually built and staffed a medical clinic on this remote cliff.  I suspect that they might not even realize how lucky they are to have people with the extraordinary humanity and quality of Giorgio, head of the IMC Eastern Congo team and Lorenzo, the Projects Manager for this and other clinics, living here and working here and risking their lives here to bring services to remote places like this

I am then, as I am so often on this trip, invited to say some words and to offer some prayers or thoughts.  So, I thank them for welcoming us and agreed with them that they should feel gratitude to be working with IMC and its spectacular staff.  I wish them peace.  Then, after I completed my 2-minute “thank you for inviting us” speech, I felt a rage building inside of me.  I had already relinquished the floor, but I ask if I could address the community one more time.  I am not quite sure what I am going to say, or if it is even appropriate for me to express myself in this context, but I decide that my conscience requires me to say something honest to these men in light of everything we have seen over the past four days, and specifically, what we had seen 2 minutes before in the room right next to the porch on which these men comfortably sat.

I am so shaken as I speak, that I do not have full recollection of what exactly I said, but it went something like this:  “We congratulate your community on the birth of the new beautiful babies, and we share your joy in this gift of life.  But, we cannot leave this place without expressing our profound sadness about the violence being done to the women in this community.  The tragedies which lay before your community and your country will not be solved by foreign relief workers or donors alone; these problems can only be solved if the people of your village are willing to take responsibility for your actions and make violence unacceptable amongst yourselves.  When the day comes that your community wants to roll up its sleeves and confront the issue of gender based violence and wants to protect rather than victimize the women, we will be first in line to forge a three way partnership between IMC, the Kausa community and Jewish World Watch.” 

I simply could not ignore the culture of rape and violence and their responsibility for the 13-year old rape victim and all of the others.

I am so grateful for the people at IMC and those at Heal Africa, and those at all of the other NGOs who have the humanity and courage to be here every day, exposing themselves to the sadness, grief, and disease.  I am also so grateful to my dear travel mates for agreeing to make this very difficult and trying journey.  Diana, Naama and John are amazing human beings, each of whom is guided by an oversized heart and a supersized conscience.  I am also incredibly grateful to YOU, the Jewish World Watch constituency, which has enabled us to fulfill the lessons of our rabbis and our Torah by not standing idly by while the innocent are destroyed.