Originally written for Today’s Christian Woman
She was haggard and beautiful, pulling her sweater close as the rain clouds threatened. Fifty year-old Uwimana Marie spoke first when I asked how she and her sisters came to the refugee camp. When you are a refugee you lose everything,” she said, her hands perpetually moving as she spoke. “But the most painful part is losing your right to think. I used to think about my farm, my goats, and the education of my children. ” She lifted her head to look into my eyes hoping, somehow, I would understand. “Now, I only think about how to survive each day.” Four others nodded in affirmation and each began to pour out their own story of loss and lament.
The Nkamira Transit Camp where these five women lived is located in Rwanda, just over the border from Congo, the poorest country in the world. To say this camp is filled to capacity is an understatement. Last month, a kind but overworked camp director arranged for me to meet with a focus group of vulnerable women between the ages 40 to 80, a demographic that makes up almost 60% of the camp population. He led me past the tarp walls and tin roofs of eleven wear-house sized living blocks. I met women and children who had fled the violence and rape that has come to characterize the Democratic Republic of Congo. They were living out their lives here: cooking, washing, carrying bundles of charcoal, kicking a ball made of banana leaves and trash, waiting in endless lines. Every pair of eyes I looked into seemed to plead, “Do you see me?”
The forgotten conflict
As a “transit camp”, refugees were meant to only stay a maximum of three days. Uwimana Marie and her four companions had been here for well over nine months. The homes which they fled were miles away in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Known as “the most dangerous place to be a women”, “the worst place to be a mother”, “rape capital of the world”, and “the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster”, the conflict in the Congo is often regarded by the international community as intractable and frankly, hopeless. These five women literally comprise the “headline” statistics of war: 6 million dead, 2.7 million internally displaced, almost 450,000 refugees, a woman or child raped every 60 seconds, and 9 out of 10 refugee women between the ages of 3 and 72 have experienced gender based violence. In the Congo it is commonly said “rape is cheaper than bullets”. The numbers are mindboggling, and need is urgent. On all accounts this is an international crisis of mass proportion, yet so few people know.
God’s presence in the midst of everyday terror
In light of these overwhelming odds, what do these women think about God? What gives them hope? What do they fear? Little did I know that these questions would lead to a moment of healing and hope for each of us.
Uwimana Marie spoke again, detailing her flight from what is currently the world’s deadliest forgotten conflict. “My village was attacked at night. We stayed hiding on the farm as long as we could”. She leaned into her companions around her for support. “When the gunfire stops, you check and hope, check and hope. But the gunfire always starts again. Then you know your family must flee alone– without your goats, or your friends or sometimes your family.” Her eyes were wet as she remembered her husband and oldest son who stayed behind to guard the farm. She has not heard from them since.
All five women heard gunfire through the night and screams.. They spoke of holding the hands of their smallest children, praying their husband or mother or sister are able to lead the older ones, and travelling only at night, so the dark can hide them from those who seek to take their lives, rape them, or steal their children.
Each woman bravely unfolded her story of suffering. When I asked what they thought about God, something astounding happened. As if by some agreed upon signal they all sat straight, squaring their shoulders and boldly said “Yego!” which means yes. Nyira, at 76, the oldest of the group and married for “more years than she could remember”, spoke with confidence:. “God is certainly here, and listening to us as we talk right now!” she declared. “We each reached a place of safety, and are still alive. We have shelter and hope that our families may yet come to us. God is here because we have hope”.
Two women believed that God had actually blinded the eyes of soldiers and militia men that chased them, allowing them to safely cross the Rwandan border. One of them was able to find her lost child who slipped away from her in the chaos and dark of fleeing. All of the women were surrounded by real bullets, and none of them had a single physical injury. The credit, they insisted, goes to a God who is there for those who suffer.
They even found God in the meager food supplies in the camp. “God is in this place because the burden to feed our children is lifted, even if it is a little”. “When you finally reach a place of safety, then you can eat”, said Kamanzi Rosa, a 59 year old mother of four. For these brave families this meant three to five days of hunger. Keeping a hungry child quiet while pushing forward in the dark is truly an impossible task. I tried to comprehend how God comforts with 3.5 kilos of red beans, 12 kilos of maize, and pinches of salt and oil, the amount of good given to them as they arrived at the camp.
Unfolding forgiveness of the forgotten
God was present with them in another unexpected way: forgiveness. For each of these women, forgiving those who violated their dignity, thieved their bodies or murdered their family was a sign that God was indeed real and present with them. Each one gave testimony to the power that is found in forgiveness—God himself. “If we forgive those who hunted or hurt us, it is not from us but from God himself,” whispered Kamanzi Rosa. “If we were to continue to keep the bitter burden in our hearts it would destroy us. We must forgive them. We must not wish to kill them as they wished to kill us. Our lives were threatened, but we are still alive and so we must forgive.”
What do you fear?
To say the future of these strong women is precarious does not begin to sum up the situation. Each day they fight against two dark and sinister enemies– hopelessness and fear. When I asked them what they feared most, the question hung in the air. Their response came slowly: “We fear being forgotten…there is no hope when you have been forgotten”.
I was undone. Stinging tears came to my eyes at the answer that was a bit too close to home. I also fear being forgotten. This is not the kind of forgotten that leaves you off a party guest list, or misses a phone call. This is the kind of “forgotten” that creeps along the edges of even the most crowded room to whisper, “No one sees you, and no one cares. There is no hope”. Becoming invisible, isolated, abandoned and forgotten, even for just a moment, can sink deep into the soul leaving fear in its wake, here or half way around the world. It was true– the world had forgotten them. The world had ignored the death, the carnage the rape and massive destruction of Africa’s world war.
But had God forgotten them? No, in their stories, He was their singular hope and strength. Even though they, too, had tears in their eyes, these women believed that God had come to come to their aid. They were not forgotten. They pointed to, of all things, my presence and all who would read my words, as witness and proof that God had, in fact, not forgotten them.
To see and be seen
“When our eyes see those who see us, it gives us hope”, Nyria smiled through her dry lips. “Hope is to know that others know us”. I took her hands into my own, her wise eyes looking into mine:. “This is how we know God has not left us.”
“If we have no peace,” Mother Theresa said, “it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other”. I felt and saw the strength of women who endure the deepest of suffering and yet hope in God. They saw a woman who willingly listened to their story and would try to give voice to their pain. In the wake of war, hope rises on the wings of one another. Somehow in a refugee camp with people forgotten by most of the world, I could see clearly: we are not alone. God had given us each other.
Our lives bundled together
Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks of the very essence of being human as Ubuntu. We cannot live fully as humans if we are isolated, alone, or forgotten. It is to say, in Tutu’s own words, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours. We belong in a bundle of life.”
Returning home, my best friend and husband, Stephan, reminded me to carry my new friends in my heart– “Honor them as they honored you.” The virtue and calling of friendship lay in shouldering burdens and joys together, face to face and eye to eye, even if when across an ocean and through a war zone. As they say in this complex, conflicted region, “Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable”. I have bound myself in friendship with these brave women, for to befriend is at its root and essence different than to become a benefactor. I pray for my friends and they pray for me, and we are not alone—this I know to be true. I have seen it with my own eyes.
Belinda BaumanTen For Congo- a grassroots movement of individuals raising awareness and funds for women suffering from the ongoing, brutal civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). She is currently writing a series of articles on the themes of grassroots peace building and the suffering of women caught in conflict. Belinda is married to Stephan Bauman, President and CEO of World Relief, a non-profit organization that empowers the local church to serve the most vulnerable around the world. Together they do life together in Baltimore MD with two energetic and imaginative sons.