Got in the Congo. Pretty shaken by the whole experience. I scribbled some words in my little journal and was reading them back to myself before and it was a load of bollocks. I’m conscious that when I write it shouldn’t be: “I did this” or “then we did that”. I imagine the whole thing is like that as I can’t write for toffee. From looking over my journal the whole thing resembles a dictionary put through a shredder then thrown into a box of scrabble with loads of bouncy balls in it – basically all over the place and as much structure as half set jelly. Anyhow.
Last Tuesday we spent the afternoon in Panzi, just outside of Bukavu where Women for Women have a project site there. They do some amazing work there and to see it on the ground is so inspiring. The aim is to empower women by bringing them together, teaching them skills, getting them to know their rights and making them financially independent. Sounds a bit bra burning, but it is these things that we take for granted in the UK. Like all communities women are the backbone of it and this is the case for the DRC, but over the past decade their position in society has been reduced and decreased.
Many of the women that WfW work with have been caught up in the conflict. By caught up, I actually mean that they have seen their children killed in front of them, don’t know where their children are, watch their husbands killed and tortured in front of them, forced from their homes, suffered a level of violence which goes beyond a normal person’s comprehension, and raped, often repeatedly and kept as sex slaves.
I’m not going to run through all the stories and experiences I heard from the women I met. It isn’t my place to piece together their horrific experience. In a few weeks time you’ll see the women speak for themselves. A number of the women were keen to tell their story and were happy for us to record them talking about their life in the DRC. When you hear what they have suffered through it will break your heart.
All the women I spoke to looked so strong, proud and determined. But you sat there talking to them and asking about how they got involved with WfW and you can see there body language change. Hands would shift under shawls, eyes would flare up and bulge with tears and then shift their focus on to the floor. For a few of the women when they talked through their account of rape or violence they’d rub or touch an injury that they had sustained during the attack. It must be so hard to drag those memories back up. You are probably wondering why I choose to speak with them about this if it caused them such pain? It is a fair question and one I asked myself as I sat there with a lump in my throat and the odd tear running down my dirty cheek.
But these women for all that has happened to them are still strong. By talking about the past it helps others who have had similar experiences know that they are not alone. By showing that there is no stigma attached to these experiences it stops the perpetrators of these crimes lose one battle – because that’s what they want – to destroy these women’s lives, societies and families. I can’t comprehend what it must be like for them. But if these women never spoke of what happened then you, I or anyone would never know it happened. When you hear that 5.5 million people have been killed in the DRC it is hard to take in, but I promise you when you hear the account first hand of someone losing their children and husband then you start to appreciate the scale and depth of this war.
For all of you who have read this blog or passed on messages of good luck I just wanted to pass on a thank you from the women of the Congo – thank you. I told them about the run and explained that thousands of people in the UK are aware of what they have lived through and are living through and it brought a smile to their faces, because they felt slightly less alone and were pleased that other women and men in the UK were thinking of them. You may not know them and they may not know you, but at least at the very least you are aware of what is happening to their beautiful country.
I made a couple of observations when chatting to the women.
The first is probably a massive generalisation but like in England, women in the DRC talk about their weight a lot. From speaking with them they were so eager to look smart and well presented they all commented on their weight – be it in their opinion to big or too small. For a lot of the women the change in weight for them sprung from when they were attacked. It may sound stupid but simple little things like the impact of an attack on a persons weight makes it feel so much more human. I suppose we all weigh something, but at least we can control that by exercise and eating. Don’t know what I’m getting at here but it seemed quite interesting and another aspect that many of the women had to deal with.
Second. You have these women who have literally gone through hell and back and rather than concentrate on themselves for a second their main priority was always their children, every time. Some were completely unaware if their children were alive or dead, some had lost custody of their children to husbands and then their was this one women, she was incredible, who was forced to watch her child shot in the head because he refused to obey the demands of a cruel and despicable soldier who asked this child to do the most unimaginable thing. I can’t type what this lady’s family went through. But still all these women could think about was getting the best future for their children.
From where I’m sat the DRC and largely in the east has lost three generations to the conflict. Some may still be alive but they carry scars both physical and mental that will probably never heal. But what we can do and what we should do is make sure that their children do not suffer the same fate as their parents, brothers or sisters. It sounds obvious, but it isn’t right that innocent people are killed and assaulted on a daily basis with the aim being to destroy the lives of those who they target.
Please spend a few minutes to listen and watch the women of Bukavu share their stories with you, then in a very small way you’ll know what they are up against. It wont be easy watching, which is probably why it is so rarely covered on mainstream TV, but once you do you’ll understand why I’m so determined in getting more people aware of the DRC and to ensure that there is peace in this amazing country with amazing people.