The War that Never Ends
By Paula Donovan. All photos by Paula Allen / vday.org.
February 24, 2008
“I don’t want my story to become just a song that I sing over and over,” says Alfonsine, a tiny, soft-spoken 30-year-old who survived an unimaginable rape, and has just been invited to be a spokesperson at the launch of a national campaign against sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Her objection is entirely valid: although I am meeting her for the first time, I already know that a man abducted Alfonsine in the forest, raped her and fired a bullet into her vagina, destroying her insides. I know that despite several operations to reconstruct her bladder and colon, she will always need a colostomy bag, can never again have intercourse with her husband, will never bear children. I know that during her recovery, she somehow summoned the strength to earn her high school diploma and is now working with rape survivors, here at the Panzi Hospital where we’re meeting, and that she is studying to be a nurse. I also know from my research that the saintly man to my right, Dr. Denis Mukwege, Managing Director of this medical refuge in the Congo’s conflict-ravaged eastern region, has played tour guide and host to countless aid workers and journalists, donors, assessment teams and researchers over the past nine years, and that he has few resources to show for it.
“What good has it done to tell my story?” Alfonsine asks activist/playwright Eve Ensler, whom I’ve accompanied on her second trip to the Congo in six months. Well, in fact, Eve reports, it set off a whole chain of events: Alfonsine’s story was included in a magazine article that Eve published in the US and circulated worldwide; the article sparked new media interest, and Eve was twice invited to speak to the UN Security Council; V-Day – the global anti-violence movement that Eve started ten years ago – has teamed up with local women’s rights activists, UNICEF and the Panzi Hospital to end violence against Congolese women. In a few days’ time, the First Lady will launch a national campaign called “Stop raping our greatest resource: Power to women and girls of DRC.” That’s where Alfonsine’s help is needed; her ordeal was a dreadful one, but her triumph over it is an inspiration. The young woman nods. “That’s good,” she says.
And best of all, Eve tells her excitedly, we raised enough money to purchase a plot next to Panzi for a “City of Joy” – a transitional housing complex for post-discharge rape victims who’ve been banished by their husbands or communities, or are too psychologically damaged or fearful to return to their villages. “Very good,” Alfonsine says with a small, reserved smile. “I’ll speak with the press.”
It’s complicated, but not impossible to deconstruct the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s long armed conflict, a war that has ended or ruined the lives of tens of millions of civilians within the region, but is only sporadically noticed beyond it. The conflict can be illustrated on timelines and maps. Its combatant groups have names and objectives. This is reassuring for the international community, since peace is easiest to broker when you know who’s fighting whom, where, when, why and with what weaponry.
Diplomats know that the turmoil began in 1994, when perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, fearing capture, hid themselves among the very people they’d been targeting for extinction and fled with them across the border to refugee camps in eastern Congo. Militia groups, sponsored by the new government of Rwanda and its ally, Uganda, moved in to ferret out the “genocidaires” and depose the man who was protecting them, Mobutu Sese Seko – a dictatorial head of state who, propped up for years by the United States and such giants of global financing as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, had brutalized his own country throughout the Cold War and beyond. Other African nations leapt to Mobutu’s defense, and a multi-country conflict erupted. Conflict brought chaos, and chaos attracted hordes of opportunists – different militia men, fanatic rebel groups, poachers from within the Congo and from neighboring countries – who saw a chance to do what western corporations have been doing since the late 19th century: a chance to plunder the country’s copious natural resources. They took up arms, donned uniforms if they could get their hands on any, and went to business.