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The Princess and The Pea

Jun 18, 2011 Posted Under: Commentary, Congo Current Events, Featured

One night this week, after working for twelve hours straight, I was lying in bed trying to sleep. Despite the fact that I should have been overcome by exhaustion and easily floated into my subconscious, I kept flipping from side to side, putting the pillow in between my legs, taking it out and whipping it above my head, rolling over onto my stomach, curling up into fetal position. Nothing felt comfortable. With one last groan I flung myself over onto my back, arms and legs stretched out. My eyes fixated on the ceiling. The occasional car passed, casting shadows onto my ceiling. I took in a deep breath and just as I went to exhale, it hit me. I felt the sudden drop of my stomach and the realization sank in that I was not going to find comfort in my mattress tonight.

The questions started flying in, “Who am I to deserve this life? Who am I to avoid a fate such as the one of a Congolese woman?” The reality of what I was dealing with in my newly formed relationship with Women In War Zones was beginning to sink in. Every woman in my life came to mind. My mother, my sisters, my friends, and relatives all could have the same experiences as these women. Maybe at this time some sort of patriotism should of set in to offer me relief for the privileged circumstances I was born into. In its place, what I felt was shame and anger. How can I be a citizen of such an apathetic country? Why do we continue to perpetuate the rape and mutilation of babies, children, and women? I cannot begin to explain the sadness I feel toward the complex circumstances surrounding the war. Even my personal experiences with racism and sexual violence do not begin to compare to the deeply rooted seeds of anger imprinted by colonialism in Africa and the Congo in particular.

In the past few weeks a series of events have occurred that somehow changed the way I see the situation in the Congo. It is no longer just a topic of conversation, something for me to sigh and shake my head at. It has become real to me. I can only pray that other people begin to wake up around me in the same way and feel even a fraction of the urgency that I do. After some time has passed, I understand that I was asking myself the wrong questions the other night of “Why me?” What I know in my heart to be true is that no woman, no child, no person should ever have to live or die at the mercy of another human being. The damage done to the DR Congo is not irreparable, but it will take a very long time to repair the effects of violence, rape, and racism that has occurred and still is occurring. I know there is no happily, ever, after moment in the near future, but all that’s left for me to do is roll my sleeves up and submerge myself in this, because there’s no turning back now.


Marie J. F. Targonski-O’Brien


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Too Many Chiefs, Not Enough Braves

Jun 16, 2011 Posted Under: Congo Current Events, Featured, Media, Wamu Project

Infrastructure is the basic organizational entities needed for nationbuilding. This includes road maintenance, sanitation, energy, and numerous other things that we probably take for granted. In America, quite a bit of our infrastructure was established by our colonial forefather, Britain, or our constitutional forefathers. The government, today, simply needs to regulate an already established infrastructure. Sometimes disputes arise about the size of the role government plays in infrastructure, but these arguments are only able to take place because of the solidity of the roads and the rigidity of sanitation schedules.

The Democratic Republic of Congo lacks adequate infrastructure, and has lacked one since gaining independence in the 1960s. Belgium cut ties with the Congo rather abruptly, while internal struggles ensured that prime example of African Big Man, Joseph Mobuto established a kleptocracy. He ravaged the material and mineral wealth of his country, but failed to establish the necessary roads, transportation, regulation, sanitization, or energy required to make him a real leader. By doing this, Mobuto established the tradition for politicians and powerful men in the Congo. Take, take, take. No one got a head in the Congo by creating a solid foundation for the country. The goal was to use the people below you to climb to a more powerful rung on the social ladder. Everyone in the Congo was trying to be a leader, to push their own agenda, and nothing was getting accomplished.

A country with nothing but leaders will never achieve their goals, and there is nothing is admirable about being another bad leader among many. However, Women in War Zones (WWZ) and other organizations in the Congo have recognized that the Congolese cannot improve their country until they improve their infrastructure. WWZ’s emphasizing a micro-business program that will allow the women in the Wamu Center to start their own small businesses, businesses that are needed in the community. WWZ recognizes that a true country is made up soapmakers, tailors, bakers, technology mavens, plumbers, architects, engineers, shopkeepers, etc. A country is not defined just by those who lead it, but by those who make up the heart and soul. The women of the Wamu Center can help begin a revolution the likes of which the Congo has never seen. They can ensure the new Congo has a strong, unbreakable infrastructure, the likes of which no revolt could shake.

-Ashley Pfeiffer

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The Privilege to Work

Jun 15, 2011 Posted Under: Commentary

Many people in developed countries think of work as a hassle, a daily chore at which they cannot wait to retire. Most of these individuals spend their working hours sitting on a cushioned chair in an air-conditioned office gossiping to their friend in the neighboring cubicle. They don’t know how fortunate they are. Jobs that are reliable, pay at least minimum wage, have a sexual harassment policy and are in comfortable environments are expected by many people. They don’t realize that having a job with even one of those characteristics would be the opportunity of a lifetime for many others around the world.   

Women in War Zones is currently researching job opportunities for the women who graduate from our program.  Providing these Congolese women with jobs would be giving them an opportunity that many others in their villages do not have. I hope that through these jobs these women are able to provide for themselves and gain the privilege of independence.

Charli Strassman

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…sow in their hearts…freedom.

Jun 11, 2011 Posted Under: Congo Current Events, Featured, Wamu Project

Refugee without hospitality


She became a refugee without hospitality.

She hoped to get hospitality, security by men, carriers of guns, wearing military uniforms but these men that have the job of securing people and their possessions, raped her.

She turns her face now toward marriage hoping to get hospitality there, but when her husband saw her, according to him, she is just a machine he bought with his own money and that must be now at his service.

She found herself polygamy, because according to that man, the woman is not a human being equal to him, but a machine of pleasures and when the man has got enough pleasure from her and gets tired of her, he has now to look to another for the same service.

Disappointed by the wedding that made her a slave, she comes toward the church hoping to get hospitality, but she finds herself in some sects that advocate doctrines that reduce a woman to a weak instrument totally dependent and offer her kitchen and motherhood as the only opportunities for her life.

Disappointed by the church that limits her skills, she decides to go to school to be empowered by education and get hospitality but teachers oblige her to exchange sex for grades.

Disappointed by studies that rape, by a school system that rapes, she decides now to work hoping to get independence and hospitality but the boss asks her also sex if she wants to remain working.

This is the Calvary of which the Congolese woman is victim.

She has no choice anymore because everywhere she turns, she is surrounded by violence.

Now we live in a scientific world, a World that is piloted by English and science.

But the education right is not given to all women. Some of them do not go to school.
All of us know that in Congo, a woman is the agriculture peasant; she raises animals for her family to survive.

Today she is victim to several problems and solutions to those problems are written in books, diaries or in internet but most of these women do not know neither reading nor writing.

How will her future be? How will family’s future be? How will the female gender’s future be?

Women around the world protest for these others tired by heavy works for the surviving of families. Think of these others traumatized by polygamy and violence in all its forms. Speak up for these others that are too ashamed to speak because they didn’t get the opportunity of studying. Unfortunately the same opportunity is not offered until now to all African women.

If you are a teacher woman and you have girls in your class, if you are a journalist woman that speaks to girls, if you are a pastor woman that preaches to girls, if you are a family mother that has daughters……… sow in their hearts freedom, independence, pride of being woman, tell them that they are also useful to modern world.

Despite all sufferings of which women are victims, they can laugh because they love, because they have love; love that raised all of us, love that wants to change the world.

Thank you for what you are doing for the world.

Thank you for what you are doing for your families.

( Murhula Zigabe Guido)

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Why Should I Bother?

Jun 11, 2011 Posted Under: Congo Current Events, Featured, Media

Do citizens of more fortunate countries of the world have any responsibility to aiding the citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo? The short and easy answer is no. In our modern world, we have disavowed our past and owe no debts to the peoples of countries that our ancestors may have wronged. It doesn’t matter that Americans helped put Mobutu Sese Seko, the leopard-loving dictator of the Congo, in power. It doesn’t matter that Belgium was able to use Congolese rubber money to fund The Royal Galleries, The Triumphal Arch, and the Palace of the Colonies. We are not our ancestors; we live in the present. It’s an easy answer. We don’t owe the people of the Congo anything.

Unfortunately, that easy answer is the wrong answer, at least partly. We don’t owe the people of the Congo aid because of crimes committed by our imperial forefathers; rather, we owe them as fellow human beings that are suffering. The people of the Congo are suffering and we can help. We can help easily by donating time, money, or even interest. Just recognizing that a crisis in the Congo exists and spreading the word can help. It is true that we live in a modern world that has disavowed our past, and by doing this we look continuously to the future. Let us hope that groups like Invisible Children, Women in Warzones, Heifer International, and Falling Whistles demonstrate a trend for relations between the well-off and the impoverished of the world. Let us hope that these groups give us a future to look forward to.

Ashley Pfeiffer

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2min Clip from Women In War Zones

May 21, 2011 Posted Under: Featured, Media

Women in War Zones: Sexual Violence in the Congo, documents two friends who are fistula patients in D.R. Congo.  Women travel to Panzi Hospital from all over war-torn eastern Congo hoping to regain a normal life.  After the long wait for surgery and physical healing they face rejection from their society and often their own families.

2min Clip of Women In War Zones from Women In War Zones on Vimeo.

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Mar 10, 2011 Posted Under: Featured, Wamu Project

Un Produit du Viol

Infanticide is the murder of an infant and/or one’s own infant. Infanticide proliferates particularly in times of war, when rape is used as a weapon of war and women are left with babies that will forever remind them of the rape.

It is difficult for me to understand how a mother can desire to kill her child. But it is also incredibly easy for me to understand. As humans, particularly as women, we do not want any reminders of the bad things that have happened to us. We avoid places, foods, people, items and even our own memories just to escape the pain of having to relive those moments that we wish to forget. A child is unavoidable however. It is almost frightening…no terrifying to listen to these women speak of killing their children, some newborns, some toddlers, some even older that, without so much as blinking an eye. It is easy for us to think, well these women are criminals. They are terrible people to even consider that. But we do not understand the pain and the brutality that these women have survived. They are no more killers than you or I. They hate their children because of what they represent. They hate that they had no choice in the matter. They hate that they must raise these Sons/Daughters or Interhamwe on their own. They hate that these same children prevent them from being welcomed into their homes/villages ever again. They hate the pain that these children caused them during labor, before they have even healed from the rape. They hate them.

*Cherie is a doe eyed toddler of about two years old. Her skin is chocolatey smooth, her hair is kept low like a boy’s, and she wears a blue dress that is too big for her, with polished white sandals. She clings to her mother’s arm, as she recounts the terrible tale of her assault, the murder of her family members, and being kept as a war-bride in the jungle for a month. Her mother stares blankly ahead, occasionally breaking down in tears, keeping her head low as she hides her culture-inflicted shame. She brushes her daughter’s tiny fingers off of her frequently, and when the little girl hugs her she does not even touch her. I sit across the table from these two girls, intently listening to the mother’s story, but never missing a detail of her behavior toward her child.

Finally, she drops the bomb. I will kill this baby before long. I cannot keep her for much longer. She only lives because Mama Z. has convinced me to let her live this long. The silence after she says that is almost too much to bear. We go on to talk about other things, I casually mention her daughter a few times in our conversation. Cherie is very beautiful. She looks like you. The mother replies: She looks like Interhamwe. Toward the end of our meeting I pointedly say, I will be back to visit you and Cherie very soon. The mother replies: Take her with you.

I would if I could, I think to myself. There is no Child Welfare department in Congo, at least not as far as I know, and if there is, it is certainly not effective. And even if they were effective: what then, remove these children from their mothers? Who would take them? No one here wants a rape-child, and the government has put stricter controls on overseas adoptions. Reasons unknown.

Number of babies killed by their mothers before they turn 5: numbers unknown.

Wamu Center is beginning to lay its foundation. Our room is still bare.  We have not begun the material preparations, but have begun building relationships with the women we will first serve. I am tentative about this stage. I am no therapist, no psychologist, and even my experiences with working with marginalized women have not prepared me for dealing with talk of infanticide. When talk like this comes up, I can only think of the ABSOLUTELY desperate need for trauma-focused therapy here, and of the absolutely desperate need for trained counselors and social-workers for these women. Even lay-counselors, as effective as the concept is, have their limits.

As we lay our foundations for the Wamu Center I am convinced that educating our women will only be effective if we can also help free them from the pain they feel they cannot get rid of. If we can show them that their education and new knowledge can help them overcome the consequences of them being raped. If we can slowly show them that, as another one of our clients said, they are more than what has happened to them. If we can counsel them into realizing that the rape does not have to define their lives, that there was life before the attack and that there can be even more fulfilling life afterward…even with a child.

Infanticide does not have to be the norm, neither does it have to be the only solution to recovering from trauma that these women have access to.  Access to other solutions, to help, to long-term therapy, to education, to empowerment, to business-capital, to knowledge of the world, to a chance at new life and new beginnings can change this norm.

Dominique Vidale-Plaza

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Dispelling Lies

Feb 21, 2011 Posted Under: Featured, Wamu Project

First Wamu Book

“Maybe women have something to contribute to the world other than their vaginas.” …Unknown.

The first week in Congo has come to an end and already it feels like I’ve seen more than enough poverty and suffering to last a lifetime, or at least until my next deployment. This week at Panzi passed by in a flurry of paperwork, research, introductions, moving around, searching for materials and information, awkward pseudo-French conversations, interviews and the like. I was able to meet with several of the women and the social workers at the hospital, most notably Mama Esther: a character with a big heart. Her smile can lift even the lowliest of spirits, she gesticulates when she speaks in an effort to cross the language barrier and hugs and kisses you when you say something she treasures, or just agrees with. She dresses in the vibrantly colored dresses that the local Congolese women wear and wraps her hair in traditional scarves.

We spent some time talking about the social assistance program at Panzi and how the social workers here serve the women from the time they enter the hospital, until it is time to reinsert them into their families and communities…if they will have them. Mama Esther also told me about some of the treatment techniques she and the other social workers use at the hospital to assist women whose bodies and hearts have been ravaged.  Singing and dancing is used as a means of de-traumatization and is also used to measure how far the women have come along in the psychological recovery process. The premise behind it is that, a woman who is still experiencing some form of depression will not sing or dance or want to participate in the games and activities that the program facilitates. I was invited to participate in one of the song and dance therapy sessions and I think I was a source of a lot of amusement as I tried to play the instruments they gave me, listen to my translator, dance and play all at the same time. The women also learn trade skills while they are at the hospital, learning to make purses, shower robes, slippers, make-up bags and baskets for sale. Mama Esther went on to explain that they try to provide the women with enough training and education, so that when they return home they can not only use their skills to provide for the families but also teach the other women in the community to do the same.

But not all women go through a few weeks at the hospital and then leave, presumably to live fulfilling lives. Some women have to stay indefinitely at the hospital, or in the houses that Panzi rents in the area, to undergo months of surgeries to repair fistula (tears between the vagina and the anus, resulting from the sheer brutality of the rape, or in young girls whose bodies are not remotely prepared to handle a pregnancy from their assault). Some women contract HIV, and stay in the Panzi area, to receive treatment and counseling from different NGO’s who have set up shop at Panzi to serve the women who have contracted this taboo disease. Women who became pregnant as a result of their rape must also struggle to find new life in the Panzi area. The hospital which is a Christian organization cannot condone abortions and so part of their treatment, is convincing the women that their babies are innocent and deserve a chance at life, just as they themselves deserve a chance at new life after the assault. Mama Esther explains that the hate felt towards these children, who are often HIV positive is almost palpable. They call them “Son/Daughter of Interhamwe” – the worst name that they can possibly be called in Congo-Kinshasa. Many women want to kill their children even after they are born, and oftentimes even those who allow their children to live, emotionally reject them, leaving the children to play around the hospital unattended to.

My time with Mama Esther, joining in the sessions with the women made me think a lot about the worth of a woman and the brokenness that has become characteristic of Congolese culture for women. Even amid the singing and the dancing, there is an air of resignation around some of the women, resignation to the lie that they have been told – that they are no more than laborers and vaginas.

After days of waiting, I was able to finally trek over to Maison Dorcas, which houses women recovering from fistula surgery and women who cannot return to their villages because of their stigma attached to rape or because of the possibility of violence. There I met Mama Zawattie, Dr. Mukwege’s sister – a graceful and almost regal woman. We discussed the plans that WIWZ has for the women in the area and she gratefully explained how much the services we will provide are needed, she even jokingly added that she herself will probably need counseling soon. We walked through the compound, visiting the classroom, and the trade-skills room, where I was quickly distracted by the handbags on display for sale. We then walked to the room where the Wamu Center will be built surrounded by curious stares from the women around the compound. Finally I got to see the room that will probably consume my every waking though over the next few months.

The room right now is piled up with bags of rice and corn, old kitchen supplies, boxes of papers and other items, the walls are shabby, the yellow paint is peeling, it doesn’t smell all that great…but as we peered into the what-some-may-call trashed room, I saw only opportunity. Visions of fresh walls, curtains, carvings and paintings on the wall, shelves lining the walls with French, English and Swahili books, little desks and chairs with laptops, couches at the back for group sessions, a cupboard for bottled water and snacks. A room for hope, laughter, joy, tears, successes, learning, singing, dancing, talking, understanding, prayers and love. A room where lies that are older than the women themselves… lies about who they are and what they are worth, will be dispelled.

My translator told me today before visiting the project-site, how wonderful it would be to teach the women about their rights. He explained it more eloquently than I ever could….

“Our culture and our customs tell women that they are bound to their husbands, bound to violence and to pain. Even their husbands rape them. They do not know what their rights are. They should know.

Dominique Vidale-Plaza

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On Location – It’s not OK

Feb 14, 2011 Posted Under: Featured, Wamu Project

“When a woman is raped, how do you expect her husband to take her back? This is bad. Very bad. Who will want her?”

-Mr. X

Rape is the norm in Congo. Hundreds of women are raped every year and only a handful of their rapists are prosecuted. Rape was used as a weapon in the decades of civil wars and conflicts that plagued this beautiful country until a few years ago. Now, although peace has been officially declared, and the country’s dirt roads swarm with military personnel, UN forces and the air-conditioned four-wheel vehicles of NGO’s, brutal and heinous acts of sexual violence continue, barely concealed under the thin veil of impunity.

I arrived in Congo only a few days ago as a representative of Women in War Zones, and am already overwhelmed by the beauty of the country, and the startling nonchalance toward the war against women that still rages on. As a WIWZ volunteer, I was vaguely aware of the crisis in Congo, and the seemingly hopeless situation that face the women there, but since being here, my eyes have been opened to all new dimensions of the issues, that had been hidden from me by the LCD screens of my computer and my television while I was in the US.

Already I’ve met an elderly woman – Ms. A. whose hands were cut off by the Interhamwe after they gang raped her. She walks around the village with her baby swaddled around her in brightly colored tribal cloth, presumably the offspring of her rapist. When she introduced herself smilingly to me, my heart broke for this woman who in one act of violence, was sentenced to a life of helplessness, of begging for money to support her and her rapist’s child and of continually having to seek medical assistance that she cannot afford.

Mr. X’s opinion of women who have been raped is commonplace in the DRC, it is shameful to a man if his wife is raped. It is a disgrace to the family’s honor and even if the husband admits that his wife was a victim and did not wish it upon herself to be raped, he will still divorce himself from her, in order to save face among his peers.

The habits that are adopted during periods of war and conflict continue on even when the war ends. Instincts and beliefs do not change at the drop of a hat, and even though peace declarations have been signed, this has not changed the instincts and the beliefs of the rebels that still roam this country. The culture of impunity that has festered like a disease over the years only encourages the notion that rape is OK, and now the perpetrators range from the militia to the average civilian.

WIWZ has many plans and many goals we hope to achieve to help the women of the Congo. But perhaps the most important message we can bring here is that…rape is NOT ok. It is NOT okay for the women of the Congo to live in fear, or to have the expectation that they will be raped. It is NOT okay that HIV positive children flock around the hospital, unwanted and very often…unloved.

The needs here are great, and I hope that you will read on as I continue to bring you news about Congo, about the issues, the women, their children, rape, love, the needs, the funny stories and the heartbreaking ones.

Dominique Vidale-Plaza

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