by Diana Buckhantz
I was haunted by their faces. Renee with deep scars carved into what was once a beautiful face, eyes with a depth of sorrow I had never before witnessed and hands pink where her flesh was burned off. When the Interahamwe came, they burned her house after seven men raped her. She ran back inside when her eldest son slipped through her hands. As she clutched him in her arms the burning house fell down upon her. Her youngest son had already been killed by the militiamen.
This is only the beginning of her story. The degradation, misery and cruelty that Renee endured are unfathomable. Over and over people abused her while others refused to help. Then suddenly a man appeared and gave her shelter and arranged for her medical care.
Then there was Sabine, her belly filled with the child of one of the many men who raped her repeatedly over three weeks. She is eighteen years old and was captured by the Interahamwe when she was seventeen. She is alone at the Heal Africa hospital waiting for the birth of her child. She has no money and no education. She does not know how she will take care of her child.
Sabine was being held as a “wife” to the Interahamwe. One day she was sent to the market to buy milk. There a woman she had never met before devised a plan to help her escape. The next day this stranger paid for her to get to Goma and the Heal Africa hospital.
Sitting next to these women as they tell their stories is their counselor. She holds their hands and rubs their chests when they can no longer speak because the pain is too fresh and too great.
As I listen to these women and try to understand these unspeakable acts of cruelty, I struggle also to reconcile the conflicting morals of our society. When a society is in chaos, when people are desperately trying to survive, how is it that some are able to set aside their own safety to help someone else? Where did the woman who helped Sabine find the courage to risk her life for a stranger? What made the man who helped Renee stand up to an angry mob and give shelter to a poor, deformed woman in the street? Why do the women we met at Heal Africa Hospital who counsel the women and dedicate their lives to improving the health and safety of other women do so?
Over and over we hear stories of such unspeakable atrocities, while at the same time we meet people doing such selfless courageous works. History has shown us this dichotomy before. Certainly, the Christians who hid Jews during the Holocaust is one obvious example. I find these examples hopeful but I wish I could answer the question of what makes the difference. How do some end up perpetrators, while others end up as rescuers? How do some end up as bystanders while others end up as relief workers in remote, desolate and dangerous places like this? If only we knew the answer.