Sunday, February 1, 2009

V-Day!



It’s always a difficult trip back to work, knowing that after a long and uncomfortable journey I will descend into a veritable war zone & the chaos of developing countries. My holidays had been so lovely, I was reluctant to let go of the safety and ease of home. Somewhere over freezing waters there was terrible turbulence on the plane and I took it as a bad sign. There comes a time when you worry that all your luck has run out.

To distract myself I read the New York Times – a proper news source made of actual paper, a rare commodity since I moved to Congo. The article that immediately drew my attention was about girls in Afghanistan. The story told about men who threw acid in young girls’ faces to punish them for daring to leave their homes to try to learn at school. The story centered on their return despite the risks, but despite the positive note, my stomach tightened and I put the paper away, folding it in near the air sickness bag.

It is difficult to be confronted by things that are so disturbing, things that we have no control over and feel powerless to change. Sometimes I feel as though this is the story of my life, of the work I have chosen. Yet, I know that these things do and can change. I am not idealistic, or an especially good person that dares to dream about ‘a better world’. Look at us! The United States has gone from a country with state sponsored slavery & no voting rights for women to having a black man as president that makes signing an equal pay bill for women one of his first acts in office. Why shouldn’t I believe that this kind of progress will happen for the oppressed everywhere?

Today is February 1st which means we are coming up on V-Day. Not Valentine’s day but V-Day, the day to publicly combat violence against women and girls around the world. The 'V' in V-Day stands for Victory, Valentine and Vagina. It is the day to host The Vagina Monologues - a day for women to own their sexuality, to stand in solidarity with one another and acknowledge that there is more work to be done. I have always loved V-Day: the outrageous performances, the chocolate vaginas, and bold reclamation of female sexuality. I love the feeling of sisterhood and having strong male allies. I love the activism and unity of purpose.

This year’s campaign targets the Congo, perhaps the worst place to be a woman in the world. (Learn more at http://newsite.vday.org/) Ensler, the controversial founder, speaks of ‘femicide’ - rape being used as a weapon of war, deployed in a campaign of terror. This, one of the greatest crimes against humanity, is committed at shocking rates here – it is the weapon of choice in Congo’s conflict.

I am attaching an article that I am asking you to read. It is a powerful call to action and I hope it will help inform your personal decision on what you will do to help end violence against women and girls. http://www.womenscommission.org/pdf/lewis_speech.pdf

Recently, there are rumors spreading here in Goma. The expatriate aid workers speak about it in huddled groups at social events, in quiet pairs, in lowered voices. Rape. One of the expatriate residences was attacked last week. Rape. Official reports say the attack was ‘violent’ and the victims evacuated to France. Rape. The attacks seem to be happening with more frequency and after what happened to our office in October, I am not naïve enough to believe it can’t happen to us. Rape. We have increased our number of unarmed, napping gate openers who are suppose to serve as guards. Rape. We’ve posted emergency numbers throughout the house. Rape. We’ve also discussed what we would do if it happened to us…rape. How we would probably rather just be shot, killed, that somehow rape is more frightening than death. I know we are not supposed to think this, that it betrays all the amazing survivors who go on with the hard work of living after so much devastation. However, it doesn’t change the truth of our feelings.

Even if it didn’t happen here last week to a colleague, that dark imaginings have gotten the better of us in troubled times – it doesn’t matter.

I know that it is happening and happening right now. Whether it be date rape in Europe, marital rape in the Middle East, raping of children in southeast Asia, rapes in public parks in the US, and perhaps more than anywhere else in the world - rape in Congo is happening right now. It happens in the camps, in the schools, on the roads, in the farms, in homes, there is no escaping it. It is happening now, it is killing little girls and women right now. It is a dark shadow of fear casting darkness every day for women everywhere.

Why? Impunity. A culture of violence. Apathy.

Women are not equal here; they do not have access to power and they spend their energies taking care of their children. They are consumed with the hard manual labor in fields that may soon be looted, caring for children who won’t live to be 3, cooking over fires that burn their eyes, blacken their lungs and barely feed the family. They are cheated out of opportunities to learn to read and write, limiting their access to and realization of their rights. We can do something about this. These wrongs can be righted.

Our work goes on. I visited schools today, monitoring the return of students after recent fighting in the territory. The children were beautiful. The smallest ones were so in love with learning, delighting in the chance to show off their knowledge to guests. Their smiles made the dark stick and mud classroom shine brightly. Their laughter, eagerness and potential could barely be contained in those walls.

Who amongst these precious faces will grow up to be a rapist? Which of these gorgeous smiles will be dimmed by sexual violence? I want something better for all of these children. They want something better. I know you do too.

Please join us in the Congo campaign –
Stop raping our greatest resource: Power to the women and girls of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

I can’t explain to you why I have chosen this work. Certain aspects are hurtful and ugly, the violence is too close and too much. Yet, the good parts are so good – I feel closer to real life, my days are full and I use all ability I have been blessed with, both physically and mentally. I cook and clean and hug and laugh. I train and negotiate. I find defeat and triumph in everyday. In fact, I have never fallen or fought so hard. I wish I could explain myself better; it is just too beautiful and too terrible. I’m going to keep pushing forward and I am asking you to help.

Please share this message with someone you love. Please support V-Day events in your area: host a Congo teach-in, go to The Vagina Monologues, support the International Violence Against Women Act. Do something and get a friend to do it with you. Talk about it… help give a voice to those who go unheard.


Saturday, January 24, 2009

Almost censored...

I realize it has been awhile since I have written but I have been facing some difficulties. It was unofficially 'suggested' to me that I cease and desist with my blog. However, after consultation with some professionals (among them legal experts) - I feel confident in moving forward with my writing. I have notes that I will be transferring to my site soon so stay tuned.

As for why I haven't sent any email updates - laziness, tunnel vision at work and a lovely vacation in Nicaragua! Forgive and I promise to do better...



Monday, November 3, 2008

Walking, waiting, wanting - November 3, 2008


The sunset is gorgeous. Soft palette of blues & lilacs touched by pale pinks cast a shimmer over the lake, abnormally calm. I see the hills of Rwanda to the left, a shadow of earth pushed up by ancient forces. The fishermen are out in their handmade boats, singing their songs, their repeated motions all a beautiful rhythm. This is my favorite time of day, when I usually feel most at peace, most connected with life. Like much in Africa though, dusk is hurried and taken away too quickly – it is gorgeous but never lasts long enough.

These half days, split by the equator with equal day and night, share no lingering evenings, late mornings or other evidence of movement in the universe. Things here remain the same no matter how we wish they would change and that we could change them.

It is hard to believe that this was the scene of chaos a few days ago. Hard to acknowledge that the hills beyond are full of armed fighters, that the still waters are haunted by the bodies of many many dead; that the roads away from my own are full of people walking, waiting and wanting. Somehow, in these moments of quiet I am the most affected, the most saddened and the most overwhelmed by the great human tragedy playing out around me.

I can’t comprehend the situation, it alludes me while haunting me. All my dreams are the same; you might be surprised at how many of you are in them. Those I love, loved, lost and re-found, you have been there, whenever I have found a troubled sleep. You are slipping away from me, being ripped out of my arms, never strong enough to hold you – again and again these visions of being powerless to save the people I care about. I know it is a manifestation of my anxiety, images representing my powerlessness and fear. But still I dream…

At first my story came out all in broken and disjointed pieces, the burning accusations, the shocking revelations, the unimagined horrors. I needed others to know I had suffered that I have been to the bottom of fear and am climbing my way back up. It was an indirect way of asking that they be gentle with me, understanding and accommodate my fragility. I made detailed reports, kept working working working busy busy busy to occupy my mind and control the memories. However, simultaneously, I can’t stand to be hugged too long, to be comforted too much. The slightest bit of self-pity could lead to my slipping out of control; out of the disciplined space I’ve constructed to protect myself and that has allowed me to protect others. The well of tears could be too deep and I am afraid to drown. I can imagine the gasping, the closing of my throat, the burning and so I stay away from the edge, unable to look down.

I will tell my story, but not yet. I will tell of the horror, disappointments and cowardice. I need to tell them, to put them away so that they stop poisoning me with their anger, pushing me to blame and condemn. I need to stop hiding behind the anger so I release the despair. The anger burns and the despair creeps, I don't know which is more dangerous. Then, hopefully, I will be free to leave part of this behind me. To only take away the lessons learned, the strength discovered and the compassion cultivated. I want to remember... smiling little ones, acts of kindness and sacrifice, hard working mothers, brave friends and most of all, the protective power of love.

Trouble in Congo - November 1, 2008


Hello everyone,

I know that many of you have been worried about me as North Kivu has fallen into anarchy. The rebel groups expanded taking over a great deal of new territory in North Kivu. This caused panic among the rag tag militias and dangerously undisciplined government troops. As they fled their posts they went on a rampage, killing, raping and looting innocent civilians along their roads. I wanted to write just to let people know I have made it to relative safety.

Trouble in Congo

I checked my email this morning and that was the first news feed.

No kidding!

I am not sure what to say. I am not sure I can explain what has happened to us here. I want to say we are ok but I think it is a bit too early. The good news is that my entire team will have been evacuated to Goma by 3pm today. Goma is calm for the moment and we are trying to pull it together.

Anarchy descended upon us Tuesday. Tensions were high and I posted an entry on my blog that morning then went to work as usual. I arrived at the office without incident and then tried to leave again on an errand. A drunk government soldier began yelling at my driver and waving his gun at us, forcing us back into our office compound. That was the beginning of the end. The rest is a chaotic nightmare of attacks, tanks, abandonment, gunfire, assaults, fear, rationing, helicopters, and anger. Our convoy was attacked and I was slightly injured when our windows were blown out of the car. Our offices were violently raided by armed militias and everything was looted. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say we barely escaped with our lives.

A complete failure of humanity and coordination contributed to the disastrous attempts to rescue us. I don't think I, who has always had a critical point of view, has ever been so disappointed by so many. At the same time, I was blessed to be supported by a handful of people who were brave and strong, who kept me encouraged, laughing and hoping against all odds.

Now the de-briefing and hopefully, healing, begin. Then we will see what happens next... and where. We are trying to mobilize our emergency response teams while constantly assessing the security situation.

I feel very loved and supported and in all the madness; I have never ever felt alone. Thank you so much for all your love and support. I hope to publish more soon.

As a favor to me, please go hug all the people you love right now - as I am still awaiting the opportunity to do so...

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Sounds of the morning…


7:16 AM Tuesday, October 28, 2008

This is the text message I received:

Explosions have been constant since 6:30 AM. Info from hcr (rcvd from monuc) is fighting in Rubare (11km). Monuc, “not to panic”

[HCR= UNHCR, UN High Commission for Refugees/MONUC = UN mission in Congo]

The sounds of artillery have been consistent for two days now and began this morning before 6:30am. I know because I can here them from my abnormally large and uncomfortable bed. I hear the rattle of gunfire, the light blasts of bigger arms just as often as not, both at night and some mornings. Military bases are near by and the sound carries well with no real buildings or structures to capture the waves.

Am I panicked? No. Is it because I am brave? No. I have just become accustomed to this heightened tension. It's like a jacket that is a bit too warm, but I don’t want to take it off because I know I would be cold and exposed without. I don’t want to fall into the rumors, naïve analysis and unfounded speculation that many have already succumbed to. All the discussion focuses on which armed group is where, the movements of fighting and where they might be next.

The truth is this is not war. This is not real fighting. There are almost no casualties, there has probably rarely been such an extended ‘war’ with so few combatants dead. These are probably the least committed ‘soldiers’ in the world, it’s a game of capture the flag. Push the lines, make a lot of noise but don’t hurt people because them you might actually get hurt! They are only strong against the unarmed weak, can only kill the spirits of already broken people. The victims are primarily women, mothers traveling to farms to take food for their families – raped and beaten going and coming. Families’ little mud houses are raided, their meager belongings taken and their food eaten. The death is slow, it steals children in the night from malaria, after they are forced to sleep in fields to escape the militias. Sickness, like the soldiers, targets the sick and weak, the young and old.

I want to be angry but I just can’t muster up the emotions. Who can we blame? Not the soldiers, who are mostly forcibly recruited in their young teens – little boys with big guns. I saw a skinny band of them Saturday, their smiles an eerie contrast to their oversized weapons. There are no other jobs and the military provides clothes, occasional pay and a measure of power, all things in short supply here. Should I blame the government? They are a world away in Kinshasa and I have lived in Africa long enough to know better than to expect anything from them. No expectations, equals no blame and no accountability. You might not have realized, but this is how they have gotten away with so much for so long!

I could blame Rwanda for sending their young boys here to be trained, for their genocidal history whose blood has seeped across our borders. They export Congolese minerals and monies and import rebels and instability while they enjoy unprecedented development. When it really comes down to it, I blame myself and oh - all of you too. For being ignorant and complacent, for not keeping our own governments accountable, for not using our voices for those who no one chooses to hear.

Who buys the raw materials? Who supports the corrupt regimes, gives most favored nation status to China, builds, sells and reaps the profits of all the rocket launchers, machine guns, tanks and grenades I see every day, the tools of terror that haunt my neighbors? The big men who run this mess, who profit from this disaster live in the US and Germany, their considerable finances are protected and increased in our financial institutions. The invaluable coltan they take from the land with slave labor and then sell for influence and arms, power the cell phones we will all use today. Forgive my anger but it is the only safe feeling. Hope feels ridiculous and fear seems so weak.

The explosions have quieted in the last hour and now the predominant sounds are babies crying and children laughing. So I will pack up now and head for work. I’ll get into my big land cruiser and drive the bumpy road to my office. I will wave at the children who run too close to the car, with special smiles for my favorite girls next door – Tantine, Alice and Sylvie. I am knitting their little brother Alliance a sweater and have already made a knitted bunny for Tantine. The streets will be packed with people, stuck here in Kiwanja as the major transport route has been blocked. I will follow up on proposals, continue working on our sector strategy, I will sit at my desk doing paperwork while awaiting the newest developments. I will go on with my day to day life just like the other people in North Kivu. Even in just a few months, I have, like them, become accustomed to this conflict.

I am safe for now and I will not panic. I will write and I will hope for relative peace, the only kind of peace this battered land has known for so many years.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Capturing positive thoughts... living with fear

Loss has been getting closer and closer to home; fear has been creeping into my life. I asked a brave friend how he had survived his years of service in Iraq and Afghanistan. I asked Mike how he dealt with fear.

Colleagues in our program in Afghanistan were killed in mid-August. Two of the women were my age and they all worked in my sector. Given the lack of adequate security measures in North Kivu, recent plane crashes and the flare-up of hostilities I asked Mike how to know when the risks are too great...

Here is an excerpt of what he wrote -

I was driven by emotion- joy, love. Two
emotions that spawn miracles, one by it self can move mountains. Yes I
had fear, but fear only worked as a reminder to why I was afraid in
the first place. I need to fear to overcome my fear. Fear doesn't only
claim us when we feel weak, injured or defeated. It grabs us when
we're confident, relaxed or happy. When I was in Iraq I was 20 years
old. I feared my leaders more than I did the enemy. I had very little
to live for, so I thought. When I enlisted I locked and forgot
everything I did before I joined. I was the token soldier for the
army, listened, learned and executed. I bleed green. Fear wasn't a
factor my first 2 years in the service. I wasn't living, I was
functioning.

After Iraq I went to ft bragg, in between that time I had
30 days of leave. And it wasn't til about a month at bragg when I
really started thinking about how much freakin' danger I was in when
deployed. With Afghanistan I didn't even want to go. I had the feeling
of - I got something to live for. I had something Wonderful to return
too. Now I had a cause, it was a good cause. Good enough to live for,
survive for, fight for. I didn't know what to expect but I knew if
there were going to be any fulfillment from my cause I would have to
deal with fear. Fear in cunning, powerful, baffling. Who is to say how
someone's to act in a traumatic situation, can one control themselves
at the height of their own fear as they understood it. Can knowledge
and understanding prove hostile to your thinking mind, do your
thoughts wager dangers to protect or maybe cower.

If you didn't know about the unfortunates with IRC would fear drip
from your thoughts like sweat of the brow. Does your fear dance because of
similarity to your fellow employees. If so would the same be said if
all your minds as one captured positive thoughts sharing joy for one
another. Acknowledging fear and sharing the feeling with others can
lighten the load for a human mind. Anxiety attacks quickly and can
easily engulf your mind with worries beyond imagine. When something is
out of my power, when danger lingers, I would immediately acknowledge
my current state of feeling. Can I change it or will this ride out.
The cunning part of fear is; the more fear one has experienced or the
unexpected fear to come will never determine how one is to feel when
fear presents itself. Yes you can numb yourself or scream yourself,
it'll catch up to you, fear is powerful.

Lisa all around you is
danger. I know this mostly for what you have told me. When are the
risks too great you ask? I believe a risk is too great when it is too
late. Meaning, believing in something greater than yourself, living
for the cause, surrounded by obstacles without measure a risk is
merely a fly in the house, no great concern because your concern is
not of yourself but of the greater cause that makes you.

Ms Bender acknowledge your fears, remember your choices, be ready to
share them and already fear will weaken its power over you. I am but
just one person sharing to another. I would be lying if I said I don't
think and pray for you each night. Being afraid all the time is not
fun, but knowing a friend that is afraid I can help by praying for
safety and sharing my heart for your comfort.

Miss you Lisa, the cause is greater than you are but the cause
wouldn't be as great without you.

Thank you Mike.
I am grateful you made it home to us safely. I am praying for all of those still serving...