On our second day in the DRC we visited a camp for Internally Displaced People — men, women and children who had to flee for their lives because of encroaching militias and violent warfare. Through a translator we talked with a woman named Charlene. Two years ago her husband, a civilian, was killed in the crossfire of the warring militias. After his death, Charlene and her eight children had to flee for their lives, traveling on foot toward the city of Goma.
Like hundreds of thousands of displaced Congolese, she ended up in a makeshift camp in a temporary tarp-covered shelter on a lava rock hillside. In these tiny, one-room "dwellings" entire families sleep side by side on the rocky ground. Each family is given a month's supply of food that actually lasts for little more than a day. Her three oldest sons—teenagers—left the hopelessness of the camp and joined the crowds of angry, desperate, violent street children who roam the city. Now Charlene grieves the disappearance of her older sons and cares for her younger children and her disabled mother.
In order to supplement their inadequate food supply, many women of the camp walk each day to the forest where they gather wood to sell. For many of these women the search for wood has become a sort of death march. Soldiers haunt the forest, waiting for the vulnerable women. "If the women refuse to sleep with them, they rape them," Charlene told us. "They want to make them pregnant." Charlene did not speak quietly. She spoke on behalf of her sisters who have been violated with the strength and volume of righteous anger. She told us that victims of rape are often stigmatized with shame in the Congo, so many married women refuse to tell their husbands they've been raped, fearing rejection and abandonment. But unmarried women confide in one another and take each other to the hospital to get treatment and form a community of support.
We were all reeling from Charlene's story, but with darkness approaching we knew we had to take our leave so we could get back to our hotel under the safety of daylight. After praying with Charlene, we left her, but just as we reached our cars, she hurried to catch up with us. This time she had a tiny, two-week-old baby snuggled in her arms—a beautiful baby boy—her baby boy. She had been speaking not only of other women's pain, but her pain as well. She, too, had been raped and impregnated. In showing me her baby, she told me the part of her story she had not put in words. I was stunned with the overwhelming tragedy of her life, compounded now with the emotional and physical trauma of rape, and with a newborn to care for—in a setting where day follows day, and the only thing that changes is that each day gets harder.
I was also stunned, however, with the beauty and holiness of the moment when our eyes met above the head of her tiny baby boy, and our embrace wrapped him in a full circle of mother love. It is always a powerful moment when women meet soul to soul.
I cried myself to sleep that night, grieved by the realization that I could do nothing to change life for Charlene. I could cry, I could tell her story, I could advocate for her cause. But tomorrow her life would be just the same. Then I woke up in the middle of the night, remembering why I had come to the DRC: to see the role churches are playing in the DRC. I can’t personally help Charlene—and that continues to break my heart—but the heroic Congolese church leaders and volunteers we met are helping many women like her find healing and hope for a new future, and in the days and weeks and months to come they will help Charlene. Charlene isn’t the only woman we talked with who was raped. In some rural communities, leaders advise women what to do when they are raped—not "if" they are raped, but "when." Truly, in many ways the DRC is the worst place on earth to be a woman.
But thankfully, that is not the whole story. Tomorrow I'll write about some women who are living out transformation and hope in a beautiful, uplifting, delightful way. You will love hearing their story. In the meantime, please pray for Charlene.