Posted by JewishJournal.com
by Janice Kamenir-Reznik
We are taken by convoy on an impossible 3 hour drive, high up in the mountains where the Congolese Tutsis control the terrain. The “roads” are indescribable. Half the time our vehicle is gliding through the mud and the other half it feels as if it is almost on its side. Torrential rains fall, the wheels of our land rover spin in the mud at one moment and get caught in a crevasse of the boulders that purport to be part of the roadway. When Naama and I are not holding each other for dear life (no fear of violence, just of the lack of infrastructure that would have provided roads suitable for driving—but, it is definitely starting to feel like the violence and infrastructure failure are two sides of a single coin) we look out of the windows to see magnificent mountains, valleys and rivers which give new definition to the word “green.” It’s Maui on steroids.
When we arrive at the International Medical Corps clinic in Kausa, a village where 17,000 Congolese Tutsis live and control the land the territory, John, Diana , Naama and I were stunned by many things. First, we were stunned that we had safely arrived. (To myself I did say a sort of “shehechiyanu” blessing thanking whatever spirit had safely guided our drive.) We were stunned by the torrential rains and by the sheer beauty of the cliffs. We were stunned by the welcome speech which Sebastian, the IMC clinic director gave—he welcomed us with a booming voice, words rehearsed, as if he was giving a speech in front of the United Nations to dignitaries who were powerful enough to change the very direction the earth is spinning. And then after Sebastian led us to the birthing room where two women had just given birth, we were once again stunned to find out that nearby lay a young teenage girl who had been raped just a few hours earlier. We do not feel prepared or equipped to speak to this young woman lying just behind the door. They open the door and the beds in the small room are full—one with a young woman who laid silently, her head covered under a blanket. Next to her lay a woman who had been severely beaten by her husband, and in the middle was a woman and her very young baby—something about rectal bleeding…we did not ask. We then proceed to the small covered porch where a hundred or more male villagers and their village dignitaries are seated to receive us. Several of them give nice speeches about how grateful they are to IMC and how without IMC they would have no care at all for their people. Now they have nurses, some very basic medicines, a few hospital beds and a birthing room.
They are right to be grateful to IMC—it is a miracle, given the terrain, the political climate, the war, the weather, and so many other variables, that IMC has actually built and staffed a medical clinic on this remote cliff. I suspect that they might not even realize how lucky they are to have people with the extraordinary humanity and quality of Giorgio, head of the IMC Eastern Congo team and Lorenzo, the Projects Manager for this and other clinics, living here and working here and risking their lives here to bring services to remote places like this
I am then, as I am so often on this trip, invited to say some words and to offer some prayers or thoughts. So, I thank them for welcoming us and agreed with them that they should feel gratitude to be working with IMC and its spectacular staff. I wish them peace. Then, after I completed my 2-minute “thank you for inviting us” speech, I felt a rage building inside of me. I had already relinquished the floor, but I ask if I could address the community one more time. I am not quite sure what I am going to say, or if it is even appropriate for me to express myself in this context, but I decide that my conscience requires me to say something honest to these men in light of everything we have seen over the past four days, and specifically, what we had seen 2 minutes before in the room right next to the porch on which these men comfortably sat.
I am so shaken as I speak, that I do not have full recollection of what exactly I said, but it went something like this: “We congratulate your community on the birth of the new beautiful babies, and we share your joy in this gift of life. But, we cannot leave this place without expressing our profound sadness about the violence being done to the women in this community. The tragedies which lay before your community and your country will not be solved by foreign relief workers or donors alone; these problems can only be solved if the people of your village are willing to take responsibility for your actions and make violence unacceptable amongst yourselves. When the day comes that your community wants to roll up its sleeves and confront the issue of gender based violence and wants to protect rather than victimize the women, we will be first in line to forge a three way partnership between IMC, the Kausa community and Jewish World Watch.”
I simply could not ignore the culture of rape and violence and their responsibility for the 13-year old rape victim and all of the others.
I am so grateful for the people at IMC and those at Heal Africa, and those at all of the other NGOs who have the humanity and courage to be here every day, exposing themselves to the sadness, grief, and disease. I am also so grateful to my dear travel mates for agreeing to make this very difficult and trying journey. Diana, Naama and John are amazing human beings, each of whom is guided by an oversized heart and a supersized conscience. I am also incredibly grateful to YOU, the Jewish World Watch constituency, which has enabled us to fulfill the lessons of our rabbis and our Torah by not standing idly by while the innocent are destroyed.
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November 10, 2009 | 10:29 pm
Posted by JewishJournal.com
by Naama Haviv
Yesterday I felt completely engulfed by sadness. I wrote a blog entry that I will not post with you now, crushed by what I had seen and heard during a long day visiting clinics with International Medical Corps.
I had hoped that when I came here, I would be able to focus on the stories of survivors, the stories of strength and resolve. But I realize that I have fallen prey to reducing the people of Congo to their victimhood. I have given in to the faces of the starving children, the raped and burned women. I think anyone would have.
It is true that Congo is a place of brutality and atrocity. But it is not the only truth.
I have seen pain – in the eyes of hundreds of malnourished children, their bellies swollen and their hair turning orange, their mothers desperately wanting to return home and make a life for themselves and their babies away from the clamor of the IDP camp. But I have also seen healing, the kindness and warmth of Mama Gisele, the head nurse at the IDP camp’s clinic, who with tenderness and concern in her eyes shows us where children are fed, where women and girls are counseled. She tells us about doing home visits for girls that have been victims of sexual violence, trying to get to them within 72 hours so that pregnancy and HIV infection can be prevented. She and her team of nurses – all Congolese, mostly female – counsel families to ease their fears and educate them not to reject their daughters, wives and sisters that have already been violated once, and do not need more violation.
I have seen destruction - of a young teenage girl who had been recently raped, lying alone in her bed at one of the clinics we visited. But I have also seen incredible strength and recovery – of mothers collecting as associations, helping each other pay for prenatal and maternity care. Of a little girl (a rape survivor herself) who told our friend Christine, when she had lost all faith in her work caring for victims of sexual violence, that she needed to remember that even when it was cloudy, there were always stars in the night sky – so too with God.
I have seen atrocities that have made me doubt there could possibly be a higher power – women broken and destroyed, their communities destroyed with them, their children displaced, growing up without a home, raised in exile and resentment. But I have also seen amazing faith – in the beautiful children in bright yellow “Love Not War” t-shirts, singing praise with arms outstretched to God. In the women and men who have been preyed upon by armed groups time and time again, that nevertheless thank God and heaven for the blessings that they do have, the food around their table and the community around their hearts. In the grace that these same men and women show us, we offer them our prayers, from our hearts to their community.
The people of Congo are not solely victims – you and I have to break out of this routine, of pain and destruction and despair. They are survivors. The people of Congo are its greatest resource. They are not waiting for us to speak for them – they need us to speak with them, in a strong, unified, amplified voice.
November 10, 2009 | 4:07 pm
Posted by JewishJournal.com
by Diana Buckhantz
I thought it couldn’t get worse. Yesterday listening to Renee and Sabine tell the stories of their rapes I felt my heart begin to splinter. But today my heart was shattered. Today we visited one of the last remaining IDP (Internally Displace Persons) camps where 3500 refugees live - men, women and children who are either too afraid or too ill to return to their villages. They live in squalor and filth with minimal food and only the most basic medical care. The children suffer from chronic malnutrition, their bellies swollen from starvation. I know of no words in the English language to describe what we saw.
The children look at us with beautiful piercing eyes. They want their pictures taken. They want our attention. Our visit is a diversion from the endless days of nothingness - no school, no toys. This is all those Sally Struthers World Vision commercials, except it is real and in front of my eyes. I am afraid I will burst into tears, and I don’t want them to see the hopelessness I feel. It is impossible for me to describe my sadness.
And then, we meet five more women who have been victims of rape. Two are about 14 years old; two have babies, which I assume were babies of rape. We do not ask their stories this time. We don’t want to make them relive their pain, and frankly today we are not certain how much more we ourselves can hear. But they all want to tell us something. They want to tell us about what they need. They want to tell us that we have given them hope. They want to thank us for coming. I feel so inadequate.
At every project, the staff and community has prepared for our visit. They greet us with songs and we are meticulously introduced to each member of the staff. At one remote health clinic, the entire village came to meet us. Everywhere we go, we are told how our visit has brought them hope. It tears my heart out.
These truly are forgotten people ravaged by decades of war and conflict. It feels as though, with the exception of extraordinary aid workers like those from the International Medical Corps, the world has closed its eyes. But then, I remember that we are here and with every group, we have promised to take their words and images back home. We have promised to let people back in the US know how the people here are suffering. How they have been and continue to be decimated and violated by war and poverty. Maybe the world has not closed it eyes, maybe they just haven’t been opened yet.
November 10, 2009 | 2:13 pm
Posted by Ryan Torok
On November 1, I saw “Two by Two” at the American Jewish University, a staging of the Noah’s Ark story, starring Jason Alexander as Noah. Okay, to be honest, even though I’m like a huge “Seinfeld” fan and think Jason Alexander is a lot more versatile than people give him credit for being, I wasn’t expecting much. We’re talking about the Noah’s Ark story here.
But this was a pretty different version of the Noah story I was familiar with anyway. The story I know, even though it’s in the Torah and everything, straight out of Genesis, is actually pretty simple: God decides man is evil and says He will flood the Earth to start over. But Noah’s a pretty good person, so God tells Noah he will spare him, instructs him to build an ark, to bring his family on-board, as well as two of every non-human creature. Noah does, and, sure enough, the flood comes. Noah and his family are safe on the ark. Afterwards, God makes a covenant with Noah that He will never destroy the Earth again. And that’s about it. Yes there are a few others things that happen in- between, like a dove going on a mission to find some land, but that is basically the gist. Unless you’re like the Rambam or Rashi and are able to extrapolate really deep insights and write crazy-long commentary from not a whole lot, the Noah’s Ark story is no “Infinite Jest.” In fact, I remember being told at one point during my Jewish upbringing that the Noah story is more a less a Midrash for why we have rainbows.
So, complicated it is not.
BUT the version that Richard Rodgers wrote the music for, a 1970 Broadway production that the Reprise Theater Company recently adapted into a smart, humorous and thought-provoking staged-reading/musical hybrid as part of their month-long celebration of Rodgers—who is most famous for “The Sound of Music, something he did as a collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein—the new version, which incorporates some contemporary flourishes and has the characters speaking like we do despite being hundreds of years old and living in Biblical times, this version really goes for it, raising really significant questions about blind faith and all the while depicting a family that is just as dysfunctional as, well, your own. Noah is a kook and a bit of a drunk and he has a hard time bonding with his grown-up sons, who have their own relationship problems and don’t even believe Noah when he tells them that he talked to God and that God said a flood is coming. Throughout the play, Noah and his children clash and Noah’s wife has to play the role of peacekeeper. Her character is actually a role model for real-life married moms today who don’t know how to be a good wife and mother at the same time.
The tragedy is that “Two by Two” was only scheduled for a two-night run and most people will never have a chance to see it. I have no inclination as to why Reprise decided to do it this way. Perhaps they figured there wasn’t much of an audience for the staging of a Noah’s Ark story that doesn’t even have an actual ark in it. I mean, like I said, I wasn’t all that amped on seeing it.
But it was good—like, really good—and, I don’t know, I think that whoever is reading this should start a petition or something and demand additional shows. Or don’t, I don’t care. I already got to see it.
November 10, 2009 | 12:00 pm
Posted by JewishJournal.com
by John Fishel
I have been thinking during the last four days about the definition of a woman of valor, something we talk about in our Jewish tradition. Our time in the Congo has demonstrated to me, once again, the anomalies of life on the African continent. This is my sixth visit to Africa but only my first to the Congo. The experience has, as previously reflected, demonstrated the heights to which a visit to Africa can take a casual visitor - the extraordinary scenery and indomitable spirit of the people; but also demonstrates the depths of despair which a visit to Africa can occasion.
This afternoon following a short visit to a camp for Congolese displaced by the war, I watched the emotional impact on my three companions on this extraordinary visit. They were overcome by the sense of hopelessness and despair faced by over 3000 people living in squalor and disease. Together we have gone from the heights to the depths that are Africa.
On Friday Janice had lit the Shabbas candles and said the prayer in the presence of our Christian hosts and their friends. Most had spent years in the Congo as doctors or nurses or other critical professions in a nation lacking the basic expertise among their own nationals. What makes a women spend twenty years creating a school of nursing in the
Congo? Why would another from Great Britain create with her Congolese husband a hospital and service center for patients often at risk of death from normally benign diseases ? These are just two of the women of valor that we have been privileged to meet.
Of course, most of the women of valor are themselves Congolese born. Their commitment to their nation and the welfare of its people are reflected each day. The young physician who is responsible for treating patients with the HIV virus, many with full blown AIDS, often due to sexual violence, was a no nonsense example of the strength of women here.
Listening to two women, the victims of horrible atrocities, tell their tragic stories of abuse has been shared by my fellow travelers in their blog. But I watched the counselor, who provides psycho social support to a woman beaten, raped, horribly scarred by a conscious effort to burn her alive, and left for dead, quietly sit and hold the hand of her young “client”. This too is a woman of valor who daily is a human life support to those who have suffered beyond anything experienced by any of us.
And there is the director of operations at one of the human service agencies providing a range of care for men, women and children who would never survive the cruelties of this place without that lifeline. This morning she sat in front of me in a church service we were invited to attend. It was a joyous morning where our Jewish delegation was welcomed and the congregation expressed their thanks in song and dance for the small things which most of us take for granted. I watched her smile broadly at the rows of young children sharing plastic chairs as their mothers celebrated life. These children of serious ill and abused mothers in her charge are a symbol of her daily work.
Among others in attendance was her colleague who took us out to a village twenty miles outside of the city in which we are staying. This woman of valor introduced us to women in a safe house, who through her efforts have been removed from abusive environments. Additionally she introduced us to midwives, who in a creative project have started an agricultural collective for expectant mothers so they could receive proper medical care and a degree of independence in a society in which women are often objects for abuse. Watching her and the women she has mobilized it is hard not to be moved by these women of valor.
Finally as we spent another exhausting day traveling to distant places on non-existent roads in often dangerous areas due to the constant state of war, I could not help but be moved by the women from Jewish World Watch who are leading this extraordinary journey: Janice, Naama and Diana. Our community is blessed to have women of valor, who are prepared to take the time to come to this faraway and sad land to learn and to meet their Congolese counterparts and who are determined to return to Los Angles to mobilize our community to action on behalf of the women of the Congo.
November 10, 2009 | 4:56 am
Posted by JewishJournal.com
by Naama Haviv
When your translator is in tears, you know you’re in trouble.
This morning we met with two women, both of them survivors of rape. Both captured and violated by the Interahamwe – the FDLR militia, some of whom are former perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. One woman was pregnant – she said that she had accepted the situation, but it didn’t look like acceptance in her eyes. The other woman had lost her child, and had sustained burns over her entire body – her community had rejected her.
I’ve never felt more overwhelmed or hopeless, and I’m just an observer. To be honest with you, I haven’t really known how to unpack these last few days – the stories we’ve heard are unbearable. They shouldn’t be true. They should be fiction, nightmares. What do you do with this knowledge? What can you possibly do to help, to repair?
After our meeting, our team stepped out into the sunshine in front of Heal Africa’s Jubilee Center. We waited for our truck to get gassed up for our next trip out. We struggled with our emotions.
And then a man came up to talk with us, to let us know that he’d been injured in the war. Running from the Interahamwe as well, he had joined others in a lorry fleeing the village. The lorry’s brakes failed, it flipped, and they were thrown from the vehicle. Some men were crushed by the lorry itself as it rolled down the hill – this man was lucky enough to survive with two broken hands – amputated. I thought I would feel more sadness from his story, that there would be nothing but sadness in this place. I wondered again how we would bear this.
But this man is no victim – he is a survivor, in the truest sense of the word. He has two prosthetics, and he makes his living creating beautiful paintings. With no hands, he still finds the will and the way to paint, and to create beauty in his world.
Today we also met women from the Heal Africa Safe Motherhood project – women who have come together in community associations to ensure that each of them can afford quality prenatal care and reduce their risk during childbirth. They organize education about childbirth and family planning; the women learn accounting and run small businesses or cultivate fields as a collective. They manage their own money; they take care of each other: the collective helps to care for each woman’s needs during childbirth and maternity. Their husbands help – but the women are in charge. The program is slowly changing the culture, showing that women are strong and powerful contributors to the family and household. They’re gaining respect. They’re making a difference.
This is why tonight, despite this morning’s difficult conversations, I feel optimistic. The women – and yes, also the men – of Congo are strong. They are powerful. And they have the capacity to make incredible change in this place. While people here may need tools and skill-building, they don’t need us to speak for them or work for them – they need us to join with them to make real and effective change.
Today, after meeting Mama Annie and Mama Gilberte, who run the Safe Motherhood project – I feel hope. I think we can do this.
November 9, 2009 | 11:53 pm
Posted by JewishJournal.com
by Janice Kamenir-Reznik
As she entered the room, my eyes froze on her scarred and disfigured face. Skin melted like a plastic mask. I winced and a pain shot through my heart. I instructed my eyes to move off of her face; but where should they go? On their own, my eyes darted to her arms bound in gauze, and then to her hands, charred, de-pigmented. What should I do with my eyes? I forced them to move away from her damaged parts. My heart was racing. I closed my eyes for a moment, and when they reopened, I saw it there, right in front of me. She was wearing my favourite blouse. It was Carole Little’s collection from 1982, the year I graduated law school. I bought a whole collection of lawyer clothes. And then, a decade or more later, when shoulder pads were passé, I donated the blouse (and the suit that it matched) to some rummage sale. Funny, I have thought of that blouse on many occasions. I loved the wide shoulder pads, the floral design and the beautiful rust and red tone colors. I never thought I would see that blouse again … and now, here it was sitting in front of me, worn by Renee, a woman about whom I knew nothing, yet I thought I could tell almost everything just from looking at her face.
Renee told us of the day in 2005 that the Interahamwe militia came into her village, guns blazing, entering home after home gang raping the women and setting the houses ablaze. They entered her home and threw her crying baby against the wall. Renee was then raped sequentially by seven men while her 1 ½ year old lay motionless on the floor and her 5 year old son stood in the corner. After the rapes she gathered her babies and hid under the bed hoping that the nightmare would end. She then smelled fire and saw that her home was ablaze. She became separated from her children in the frenzy of the burning village. It took years for her to find out that her baby was dead and that her older son was alive and in her village. This is just the beginning of her story.
Her nightmare continued as she ran from the village. Her body burned to a crisp, her organs destroyed from the rapes, yet finding no one who would help her or take her in, as she was suspected of being Interahamwe. This wandering, unaided, went on for months and months, interrupted by only occasional acts of mercy, which kept her alive. Often she was given food, but had no use of her hands so she was starving. She could find no one to put the food into her mouth. Once she tried unsuccessfully to kill herself, wishing nothing but to end her misery. Then, miraculously, Renee was guided to the Heal Africa Hospital where she has lived for the past 4 years, enduring more than 7 surgeries for her burns and fistula repair. She expresses her profound gratitude to Heal Africa because she is better now - now she can use her hands. She even hopes that one day she can go back to her village.
We cried together; there was nothing either she or we had to give at that moment, but tears. The tears were unending and came from the most sorrowful place where only despair resides. After an hour of sitting together, my swollen eyes settled comfortably on Renee’s face, which I now found to be quite beautiful. My life and Renee’s are as distant as two women’s lives could be. Two lives, so different…wearing the same blouse at different times and in such different places.
November 9, 2009 | 8:04 pm
Posted by JewishJournal.com
Born in Berlin, JewishJournal.com’s Tom Tugend moved with his family to the U.S., where he enlisted to fight the Germans in WWII.
For Thomas Tugend, there was no doubt which side he was fighting for as a young infantryman in Europe in World War II. Actually, the choice was made for him in 1933, when he was just a child.
Born in Germany, Tugend lived a comfortable, upper-middle class life in Berlin. His father, Gustav, was a loyal and patriotic German who had fought in World War I and was a decorated officer in the German army.
He was also a successful doctor, leaving Thomas with few worries during his childhood in Berlin. Like many of his schoolmates, Thomas was an avid soccer player who gave little thought to the political storm brewing around him.
Read the full story here.