Democratic Republic of Congo: the life of a displaced woman, finding the strength to carry on
Mweso, 8 March 2014 – Fuelled by competition for rich minerals, war, violence and instability have ravaged the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo for nearly two decades. With the devastation of the economy and infrastructure, impunity has reigned. Sexual and other forms of violence against women, particularly displaced women, are commonplace. Mapendo is just one of the survivors; this is her story.
Mapendo (meaning love) comes from Mihara, a small village in the North Kivu province of eastern Congo. Having fled the violence of the FDLR rebels, she now lives in Mweso camp.
This is also the story of Sifa, Vumila, Maniriho, Dusabe. The names of the women change, as do their villages and their aggressors. Yet their suffering does not, nor does their desire to start again each day, their strength to survive, and especially their desire to provide a better future for their children.
It was 2009 when Mapendo and her family fled for a few nights seeking safety in the rainforest. The FDLR rebel forces had reached her village and other nearby towns. They had begun pillaging property, killing men and raping women.
Many families had already taken refuge in the camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Kashuga, Mweso or Ibuga. Hoping peace would return in a few days, Mapendo and her husband did not go far. One day they were found.
Mapendo had been repeatedly raped, and her husband killed, in front of her three children. She was 27 years old at the time. The next day, in October 2009, Mapendo left her village to go to Mweso camp. Life is not easy in the camps, especially for a woman alone.
The homes – made of mud and straw – are certainly not comfortable. In fact, the roofs leak unless they are covered by plastic sheeting. The lucky ones have a mat on which the whole family can sleep, and maybe even a blanket to protect them against the cold and dampness of the night. Families have few household utensils: a plate on which everyone eats, a water container, and a bucket for washing. Few people have much else.
The most important thing Mapendo had to learn when she got to the camp was how to find food. It was easy in Mihara. She had land to cultivate. The land in North Kivu is very fertile. Food can be harvested four times a year. One could live well, if only there was peace.
Life is much more difficult in the IDP camps. There is no land to cultivate and, therefore, no food. The UN World Food Programme distributes food, but there is never enough; and they haven't distributed any food rations since last November.
Ever since the Congolese army (FARDC) defeated the M23 rebel movement, it is assumed that IDPs can go back home in safety. But this is not true. The M23 was not responsible for the displacement of the population in this part of the world. It was other smaller or larger groups whose destructive presence continues as before.
In exchange for a couple of potatoes, some corn, or a handful of beans, Mapendo must start each day by asking locals to allow her to work in their fields. She travels ... for miles, on foot, of course, with her youngest son strapped to her back and the other two jogging along beside her. There is no money to send them to school. After working all day, she must walk even further to get firewood; and of course return home before dark. On her way home, she will have to carry the firewood on her back and her child around her neck.
When she is lucky, she may get enough food and firewood for two days, which allows her to take a much-needed rest the following day. Likewise, there are days when she receives very little food in exchange for her labour. There are also days when she finds little wood or when she comes across men from one of the armed rebel groups.
Almost all displaced women have been victims of sexual violence at some time in their lives. Most have been victims several times; many consider it a necessary evil, almost normal, especially for single women. In search of protection, some displaced women, who have been raped in the IDP camps, become the companion of a man who already has another woman.
The next day begins in search of someone who can give her a job.
Sr Paola Paoli RSCJ, JRS Project Director, Mweso, Democratic Republic of Congo