A difficult story to tell
'On the entire planet, there is no place more terrible at the moment than eastern Congo. Except now, after arriving and taking pictures, I am completely frustrated at the thought that maybe you can’t even hear this story. Everything here is just too much.' Itai Engel explains why it is hard, and sometimes impossible, to explain suffering and pain that are so far and so plentiful
Unfortunately, we leave all of those behind as we enter a small room at the “Fanzi” hospital in Bukavu in east Congo. This is the office of the psychologist who treats women who have been raped. This is the only place where they will talk.
They sit on a wooden shelf in small rooms. Their eyes are downcast. They don’t even cry out their stories, they whisper. I turn up the microphone as much as possible to record them because I can barely hear a word.
The psychologist eases their mind and tells them we’re from Israel, which is a very distant country, and there is no chance anyone in Congo will be able to see it. They don’t want their surroundings to know they were raped. They do want the world to know. That someone, somehow, will do something.
But God forbid anyone in their village will know, because no one in the village will understand or sympathize. On the contrary, there will be shame, a scarlet letter. People will point at them and move aside. Even their husbands left them after they were raped.
This is not about the rare case of a single victim. In the terrible civil war ravaging the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), hundreds of thousands of women were raped. The story usually begins in the middle of the night, when the Interahamwe militias, the same militias which committed the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, break into a home.
They usually loot the home, burn it down, and murder the rest of the family. If the husband is quick enough, he sometimes escapes alive. The wife is raped by the militia men, one after the other, sometimes ten men. Then they forcibly take the wife with them, and make her carry their equipment, heading into the forests.
Sometimes they walk for three consecutive days. In the forest, she will be their sex slave for a few days, weeks or months. If she is lucky, she will take advantage of a time when they are too drunk to notice and run through the forest until she reaches a village which is willing to provide temporary shelter.
She wants to go home, to the place that will help her get better, but a new chapter of suffering and frustration awaits her now. It turns out her husband does not want to see here, she has brought shame on him. She probably got some disease. Until she reaches the clinic, she will worriedly inspect her palms and feet. I did not understand this at first.
Later, they explained that the skin on the palms ages abnormally. A sixteen year old girl reaches out palms that should belong to a seventy year old. She is afraid it’s a sign she has contracted AIDS. I have never heard of this symptom, but over here they believe it. What is worse, it often proves true.
After a few months more women come out of the forests. The militias have held them there a few months, long enough to make an abortion impossible. They agonize at the thought that the fetus in their belly is a devil spawn.
What chance does a child like this have? A child created from a rape, everyone will know, everyone will mark him. The child will know nothing about his father except that he is a murderer and a rapist. His mother will not be supported, because she will be ostracized by her surroundings.
A story with no hero
On the whole planet, there is no place more terrible at the moment than eastern Congo. In a six year war, close to four million people have dies. This fact is so terrifying that the phenomenon of women being raped seems insignificant. If I chose to be a journalist, and I try to tell the stories most important for the world to hear, then Bukavu in east Congo is a place I have sworn to come to for years.
Except now, after arriving and taking pictures, I am completely frustrated at the thought that maybe you can’t even hear this story. Everything here is just too much. I mean, six women who have been raped, their lives shattered, is a tragedy. Thirty rape victims is madness. Hundreds of thousands is incomprehensible. You cannot process it. You cannot relate to it.
You cannot comprehend the series of horrors which follow this rape. I enter a large hall in the hospital with dozen of women with IVs, and mosquito nets above them. Each of these women will undergo surgery to recreate their genitals, destroyed by the rapists’ spears.
I hear the testimony is Swahili, and then the French translation. I think I may have misunderstood the translation, but someone explains things more clearly and I understand. I understand, but I cannot accept it. I get dizzy. I want to stop, to go out to the lawn, to get a drink of water.
We are told that reporters rarely come here anymore. When I was in Israel it only made me want to go even more. It sounds terrible, but now I understand their reasoning. If I can barely hear and shoot these testimonies, why should the viewers at home be able to?
This is not a classic television story. There is no hero or heroine. There is no uplifting story of someone who rose above the circumstances to become a super model and uses her status to further the issue. There is no victim who has become the cross-barer for these women and carries the masses after her. They are all quiet, held-back, silently weeping. Traumatized, with no idea what will happen next.
Forget about It, It’s Africa
The most frustrating thing is remembering what people have told me before I came here, some of them friends: forget about it, it’s Africa. Rape and murder are part of life there, part of the culture. It’s not really a story over there.
It is hard to explain how far this stereotype is from the truth, how unfair. Normal people, like us, fell into this hell all of a sudden, and there is no one in Congo or out that can help, or is capable of changing the situation, or really wants to change it. It is hard to explain that the trauma of a rape victim in Bukavu is the same as the trauma of a rape victim in Tel Aviv.
I deliberately try to find characters that will seem “normal” to western eyes for our series on the Congo. For the first part, the one about the genocide in Rwanda, a massacre that affected the reality in Congo and accelerated its tragedy, that aired three weeks ago, I chose Bernard, a friend, a musician. He dresses like us, dances like us, is sensitive like us, is shocked like us, and more importantly, he is charismatic and has an impressive ability to express himself.
When Bernard tells the story of how they murdered his wife, how he had to pay the murderers to use guns instead of knives and machetes, people in Israel cried with him. We can relate to his story. But even in this case, if you try to multiply this story by hundreds of thousands, our mind gets blocked, something prevents it from sinking in. There is no way to comprehend this.
In contrast with Bernard’s story, the women here will do anything to stop themselves from seeming charismatic or expressive. They will only speak in a closed room with no one they know listening behind the door. I hope people in Israel will listen to them and watch them as much as possible.
When I look at the footage I have I get a sense that more that any detailed account, their expression will stick in the minds of viewers. A noble, unusually strong expression. Even those who will not be able to withstand this story, the horrible documentation of their experiences today, in that part of the world, will remember these faces.