The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.—Flannery O ‘Connor
She seemed to materialize from somewhere behind the mud houses and blue tarps full of dried beans. At first my eyes only took in the obvious: orange shirt stained with work; pink and blue tie dye skirt wrapped around her very tiny waist; yellow head wrap advertising the local church tent revival in ’84; and neon green flip flops with white daisies. High cheekbones, deep set eyes, her lips pulled tight as if she had a pain at her temples, her feet were planted and calloused like the roots of a tree.
The first to speak, she patiently led us into her story with a quiet voice. Eyes down cast, hands folded at her stomach, she spoke her name, her age, and the number of children under her care. She is 50. She has four children.
She unfolded her story, slowly, like a new garment, opening each sentence to the light that filtered through the windows of the Kiwanja church where we sat. She and her husband went to find cooking wood. “It must be done,” she said, “even though it is dangerous.” They met a militia in the bush; each man carried a machete tucked inside their fatigues. Each had a gun. In a clearing, they bound the hands of her husband; he struggled. Involuntarily, she threw her hands to the top of her head in surrender. She knew what they would do. They shot him. Then they threw their fists at her face. They bound her, flung her to the ground, and stripped her clothes. They raped her, leaving her torn, bleeding and paralyzed. She lay for three days in the forest, bleeding, and crying.
She did not say how she was found. She did not say how she struggled at the hospital with the month- long treatment for HIV, pregnancy, and STD’s. She only said that the violence she endured was so traumatic she could not be repaired with surgery. She lives with unobservable scars to her body and to her soul.
She would have despaired if it were not for Mama Odile and the counselors. She went to see them at the church. They clothed her, cleaned her, and took her to the hospital for a rape treatment. They came to see her often. They brought her children food. They helped her work.
They reminded her she was still human.
As she finished her story, slowly the shadow of pain eased, and the tightness of her lips relaxed into a smile.
Still human. Still a woman. Still a sister.
Note, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, an estimated 2.1 million women have experienced gender based violence, as young as 18 months and as old as 73. In Eastern Kivu, nine out of ten women have been raped.