After experiencing the Women’s Rights Training and listening to their stories and shared learning, our DRC Country Director, Christine Karumba, took us to the one of the five IDP camps where these women are all living, some for three years now. Trying to wrap my head around these women’s reality—being forced from your own home, displaced in your own country, with no way of knowing when and if you can return—made my eyes tear in angry confusion. I feel as if I experienced the camp in short films across my eyes, each one it’s own, yet connected to the others. For this reason, I cannot write a narrative, only the short reels that could not and will not ever do these women justice. My only hope is to share this horrific yet beautiful moment in my life that forever will be burned into the flesh of my heart.
A four year old girl carrying a stack of wood, three times as long and heavy as she, on her head. She has on a faded Big Bird shirt on.
The ground is a chaotic wreck of jagged volcanic rocks piled at unstable angles and we must go slowly, carefully, and anxiously across the camp. More than once I stumble, scrape my foot or lose my balance.
Children with clothes so dirty you cannot tell what their original colors or designs were, some with their clothes hanging off them by a thread, naked underneath to expose their swollen bellies. They are curious and follow us through camp, we gather more as we moved along, giggling and smiling.
A young boy about 2 years old with a ball made of rags. I kick it to him.
Rows of shelters, tightly packed, harsh rocks piled around their perimeters to keep them in place, tattered plastic sheets cover their frames, some have wooden panels, tin, cardboard; rags hang in the entrances, a makeshift door. They no more than 8-10 feet long, 3 or 4 feet wide. I cannot stand up in them.
We are greeted by the camp manager. He explains there are 7,000 women in this camp, 5,000 children, and 2,000 men. I wilt to think about the other 6,000 women.
A market has materialized in the center of the camp. Potatoes are stacked high on concrete platform where a woman gets ready to wash them. Other women sit in small groups, selling grilled cord, reused pain cans full of orange cooking oil; a smoking fire, a boy with no pants. The smell of smoke, something rotting, human waste, fills my nose. I think about vomiting.
The sounds are deafening: babies are screaming, wailing and crying; people are talking hurriedly; women wash dishes and clothes at a wash states; little boys drink out of water spickets; mud sticks to the bottom of my shoes. A young girl, face down on a bed of jagged rocks, wails, her arms limp at her sides; no energy to move. I give her a banana. She immediately stops. She is starving.
I notice no men, just young boys and toddlers.
Long lines at the humanitarian aid tent. Christine explains that goal is to provide a Women for Women International tent inside the camp, as soon as possible.
I see our women, gathering with their notebooks clutched to their chests from the Literacy Training class. They have made the long walk and want us to see their homes. I watch how they never release their notebooks, even when they are talking to each other. They bow their heads with a shy grin when I smile at them and say, “Jambo” (Good morning).
A woman’s home, her tent, her seven children spilling out, their bodies entangled. Her t-shirt reads in French, “I want kisses.” The irony is crushing.
We are all in a small alley, about 5 feet across, separating one row of tents from another. There is hardly any space between them. A young boy across the alley washes a bowl in soapy water, staring at us, two babies peak out of the tent he’s in front of. I feel squeezed in. Our women surround us, excited and so happy we have come. Children are under our feet, their hungry eyes breaking my heart into a million pieces. I wish I had more bananas. I think of Judithe’s home in Rwanda.
A stunning young girl is in front of me. Her t-shirt is powdered blue. It reads, “Girls Rule With Love.”
One of our women explains she doesn’t know when she can go back to her home. Her dreams are to build a house, but she is scared for her life. She has been at this camp for three years, but she has hope.
Christine translates a large sign for us, posted near the center of camp. It has pictures of men with guns, in military uniforms, arresting other men with no shirts on. There are women in the background raising their arms and yelling. It says that rape against women will not be tolerated in the camp and will be punished. I think about this sign anywhere else.
I think of the other 6,000 women in this camp, their 5,000 children.
I think of the four other IDP camps in Goma.
I think how, in the women’s rights training class, the women said they keep their letters under their heads at night.
I think how our women learned A, I, and O. I think how they will clutch their notebooks.
I think I am hollow.