In the northeast corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), The Bishop of the diocese of Aru was the first to say what we’ve heard several times since in the last two days since we arrived, “When you visit us, we know we are in your hearts, when you visit Congo now.” Most everyone we’ve met has been surprised that we would come, in spite of the news of this country, in spite of her reality.
Things are rough here now. Things were rough fifteen years ago. They were rough in the 1950s, and in the 1920s, and the late 1800s….for the Congolese and her visitors, it seems to have been a pretty much tragic and terrible history for the better part of the last 500 years. Reading King Leopold’s Ghost is an exercise in discipline in keeping one’s eyes and heart open to just how broken the world can be and how badly human beings can treat one another.
Since 1998, Congo has been victimized by so much war it’s very difficult to keep the players straight, to know who is fighting who and on who’s behalf. It doesn’t seem there’s a country in the region or a developed country in the world that hasn’t taken a keen interest in Congo’s massive natural resources with a view to taking them for their own projects. It’s what’s been driving the wars here for well over a decade now, and as often as not the Congolese themselves are pawns, even when they are holding the guns. Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Kony’s LRA, M23, the Belgians, the French, the US, so many Congolese leaders, the list goes on, all have some Congolese blood on their hands. And as the saying goes from another part of the world, ‘When elephants fight, the grass is trampled.’ In this case, the grass is so many women and children.
We spent this morning in the Anglican diocese of North Kivu, with another Anglican leader, Bishop Isesome. In this town of Butembo, he took us to meet women and children who have been effected by the various wars and armies.
We saw the orphans, who’ve lost their parents in mostly two ways. Their parents were murdered by soldiers, or AIDS killed them. All of these little ones, from infants to young teenagers, suffer from the trauma of losing their parents and the circumstances that took them. One of the most powerful things I’ve yet to see in this county was the prayer room at the orphanage. The staff, realizing how much trauma has affected these little ones, devoted a whole room in their orphanage simply to praying over and praying for and singing over the children. I peeked in it to see what they were doing when they were singing, and the several women were simply holding these little ones, singing prayer lullabies while they rocked them. When they stopped singing, they would softly pray for each one.
I asked the bishop how many orphanages were in his diocese. There were a couple in the big city of Butembo, but in the countryside, there were none. The church members, he explained, simply take orphans into their home, as their own children if they cannot reunite the kids with their extended family. The bishop himself had adopted two of them. One family has adopted 36 children.
We then went to a nearby home dedicated to ministering to women who have been raped. They call Eastern Congo the rape capitol of the world, and in some towns it’s estimated that over 90% of the women and young girls are victims of rape, in some places even more. Almost all their stories involve soldiers of one sort or another, for whom rape is often secondarily a function of lust and primarily used as a weapon of war. We heard their stories, and each one was terrible, different in the details but so similar in form, and each story we heard happened less than three miles from where we were sitting. In this home offered by the church, these women come (or are brought) for safety, counseling and prayer, community, and medical attention, which is often needed.
The women were in various stages of recovery. Rachel, now 14 years old, trembled when she spoke, but could still smile.
Bernadette was 18 when she was violently raped by a soldier and became pregnant. She eventually required a c-section and the baby died at birth. Not long after, she was raped again by another soldier, and again impregnated, and had another c-section, and this baby survived. Bernadette’s body survived her ordeals, but her spirit and psyche have been cracked. Another woman had to tell us her story, because still eight years after the second attack, Bernadette is barely present. She moves slowly, makes no eye contact, and is vacant. If you look at her, she looks away. Her body is alive but her spirit seems in a coma. Bernadette’s child lives nearby with a member of the church, and is doing well. One day we hope and pray Bernadette will be doing well too.
After sharing her story that included playing dead so the rape would stop, Matilda told how this home was helping her get better, and how telling her story to visitors like us made her stronger each time because it showed that people cared about her.
The American Bible Society has been working with a project for several years now, called “She’s My Sister” and focusing on trauma healing for the women of eastern Congo. It’s a profound ministry, and profoundly needed. ABS gave the gift of a Bible to each of these women at the home, and to a woman it was the first Bible they’d ever received, and they were so glad. God’s word will help them as God’s people continue to help them.
Maybe one day these women and children will come across Psalm 10, and know its meaning and feel its hope even more than I do after hearing their stories: “The Lord is king forever; the nations perish from his land. O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that the man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.” These words resonate in every nation of our earth, but few places more than they do here in Congo.