Friday, June 25, 2010

A Story of War

As I was returning in the evening from putting away stacks of soya at the farm with Clara I was welcomed by one of the teachers at Ecole Maternelle who wanted to visit with me. We sat down in our yard and started to talk about simple things and then slowly she began to share with her life story, a story of war. If you think you’ve had a rough past, some barriers and struggles think again. I have been teaching at Ecole Maternelle for 5 months now and I had no idea that this young teacher, probably 35 years old, was going through psychological trauma from the war here in Congo. She came to Aru only 9 months ago from the village of Tunda, 30km south of Faradje which edges on the national Park of Garamba and is where the LRA, Lords Resistance Army is situated (rebel group from Uganda). On Christmas Eve 2008 after the evening Mass the LRA attacked and killed people outside of the church. For 6 months she was in the middle of war between the Ugandan military and the LRA. For 2 weeks she stayed in her house not able to go out at all or if she was it was to flee to a different area. People would flee into the brush, children grabbed by rebels and killed, women raped, houses burned, people butchered decapitated with machetes infront of her etc. In the middle of her village the captain of the rebel group was slaughtered infront of her. She said they took their machetes and just butchered him to pieces. She described the rebels as having hair half way down their backs and dirty dirty dirty. Here in Congo I have never encountered a man with much more than a little afro and so I can only imagine how terrifying it would be to encounter a towering muscular African in the bush with hair half way down his back. Now whenever she hears her phone ring she gets anxious because during the war when someone’s phone rang it was to signal to everyone where the attack was and where they should move. She also cannot prepare meat because when she has to cut up the animal it brings back vivid memories of children and people being slaughtered during the war. When she hears loud noises she thinks of the bombs that fell in her village. She cannot handle blood either obviously. She said many of her friends around her age have gone crazy or are psychologically damaged. In Faradje she said there are humanitarian organizations that have come to care for the children in that region who she says are terrifying. They are aggressive almost like animals and have completely lost their minds. But she said children will recover quicker than adults. She attends once a month here in Aru a session with a psychologist along with 50 other people. Here in Aru there are many refugees who have come from areas of war like Clementine. Aru is a peaceful place, a safe haven for the traumatized Congolese people. Life is not easy for Clementine. Working with little kids who scream, cry, get bloody knees etc. does not help her in her recovery. The slightest loud noises cause her to become anxious. For her she needs to be around people and to talk about her experience to help her move on. Her life right now makes no sense and she finds it difficult to find joy. But she has faith that I have never seen before. Faith like a rock. She said there was a Bishop in the territory of her village who would travel during the night, through the bush to gather people together to pray. She said for weeks people would be in the bush with nothing. All they could do was look to the expansive sky and pray to God to save them. Clementine was lucky because just as the LRA was advancing to her village killing and ravaging homes the Ugandan military came in and started war. She said if the Ugandan military had not come the LRA would have continued to slaughter and slaughter people.
The possibilities for her now in her life are even more difficult since she is not married. This is not common for a woman her age. She wants to study and become a counselor but for her she needs to find money to go to school and before that of course become psychologically stable and healthy. She at least has some joy in her life which is found when she is surrounded by people but for many other people during the war joy has not been renewed. Many people she said live with no expression on their face, no joy can be seen at all; they are not able to forget the images and atrocities of the past and so they live in complete darkness. Clementine hides her true emotions of the gruesome sights she has encountered by laughing nervously, almost with a slight insanity to it. When she recounted the history of the slaughtering that took place I asked whether she saw this with her own eyes, for example when the captain rebel was butchered in front of everyone. She said, “yes of course” and started laughing with a her eyes looking off to the side. It is good she is able to talk about what she has gone through and that she is able to laugh about these things and not rest in solitude and darkness. I am sure there are many stories of war here. What has inspired me is the faith of the Congolese. Hiding in the bush for weeks with nothing but the expansive sky above them they pray to their Creator to help them; they gather together to pray whenever they have the chance to leave their homes; many have lost their homes, their families who have either been killed or they have no idea where they are, and yet they have the strength to carry on.

Suffering here is a constant thing. As I have been slowly melding into the community here (well not entirely of course since I will always stick out as the tall blonde white girl, “mondele”..the word for white person), I have discovered more about life here and the struggles the people face here. For example just last Sunday as Stefano and I were returning from dropping Mado (the girl with hydrocephalus) off at her house after Mass we encountered 4 boys in the street wearing rags that were the colour of the earth. Stefano asked whether they had gone to Mass and they replied no because they do not have proper clothes to enter the Church. We were both shocked by their answer and saddened by this. How many children don’t go to Church because they don’t have the proper clothes? When I walk around Aru there a street kids everywhere: popping out from the bushes, running through the fields, sitting on the dirty ground of the market, running through the streets chasing tires with sticks, up in the mango trees, scooting along the bumpy roads with bikes 2 times too big for them, and playing football in whatever field they can find with a scrap of rubber for a ball. There is also much physical suffering which I have encountered much of working at the health centre here. There are many people here who suffer from tuberculosis, meningitis, infectious diseases from injections not given properly, birth defects etc. It is not uncommon to see people crawling on their hands and knees due to defects at birth which have caused their legs to be completely twisted. At home children born like this would be treated immediately where their legs would be properly restrained to prevent further twisting of the limbs and would have equipment such as walking canes, crutches, splints etc. It saddens me to see people suffer when I know that if only they had some medical equipment it would ease their pain immensely. Seeing the calloused knees almost worn to the bone from being dragged along the gravel dirt roads, and the hands gripping thin foam sandals to ease the pain causes my heart every time to feel their suffering. There have been a few patients of mine whom I have had to say that there is nothing I can do for them and seeing their faces turn from anxious anticipated inner joy to sunken eyes of distraught is a difficult thing to see.