Africa has been the theater of many wars in the past decades, and the Congos are no exception. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Congo Brazzaville have been in war both simultaneously and at different times. Even though the DRC has garnered most of the publicity in the West because of its size, the length of the war periods, and its strategic economic position in Africa, Congo Brazzaville1 has also experienced war and its many consequences.
War is by no means a reasonable event in the eyes of most of its innocent victims, and they are affected differently by it. Through a biographical sketch of Melanie2 and her experiences in war, we will assess the ordeal of war for women.
A dangerous journey
Melanie was born on May 14, 1968, in the Republic of the Congo. By the time war started in that nation in 1997, she was a senior at Marien Ngouabi University in Brazzaville. Conflicts were intermittent in the capital until December 1998, when Brazzaville fell into the hands of the Cobras.3 Many left the capital city on foot, by train, or by plane (for those who could afford it), and Melanie was one of them. She came by train to live in Dolisie with her family—yet war came to that town, too.
On that fateful day (January 25, 1999) when war started in Dolisie, Melanie, one of her sisters, her ten-year-old niece, her two brothers, and a cousin woke up to the noise of shooting and bombing. Gripped with fear, Melanie was so traumatized that immediately she became ill. The noise and smell of the bombing took its toll on many people. It was not surprising to see women (especially) suffering from fever, diarrhea, and vomiting right at the beginning of the war.
One of the first things to happen during war is gripping fear. In the streets, panic-stricken people try to find safety. Questions like “Where do I go?” “How do I get there?” “What do I take?” and “Who comes with me?” come to mind frequently. To picture the scene, imagine people running in every direction, shouting names and crying; and, on the streets, throngs of people with loads on their heads, and women with children in their arms or on their backs, leaving their homes and going away to try to find shelter and safety somewhere else.
That morning, in the chaos of screams, shouts, and loud noises, Melanie’s brothers and cousin woke up and ran for their lives. Even though her sister ran after them, she did not find them and came home exhausted. Melanie’s mother, who was separated from her father, lived in a distant village, and Melanie knew that her brothers would try to find their way to the village. Her father spent most of his nights at the house of the one who later became his second wife. So, that morning, as the city of Dolisie was under fire, he came home, grabbed some personal effects, and fled for his life.
Melanie, being sick, could not run with the others, and her sister and niece stayed with her. They survived for four days by eating the vegetables growing in their small garden. Then, it became too dangerous for them to remain in the city for lack of food, fear of being discovered by enemy soldiers, and the stench arising from decomposing bodies.
On Friday, Melanie, although weak with fever, left the city of Dolisie, urged by her sister and niece. They walked for miles, following the crowds in front of them. Walking is good exercise and it is recommended for healthy living. But, during war, walking becomes a compulsory exercise that has to be carried out under all weather conditions—scorching sun or pouring rain—and one faces many dangers: forest paths infested with ants and snakes, steep mountains, wood and rail bridges. People need to get to “safety,” and most of them walk. Driving a personal car could get one killed, because soldiers from all sides will take a car after killing the owner. Children as young as three years old and senior citizens walk side by side, sometimes until their feet are unable to carry them. And those who can not walk are carried. As a war refugee myself, I have helped carry my dad in a wheelbarrow.4
Refugees and displaced persons do not have houses in the different places to which they flee, having left their own. So they sleep wherever they can: abandoned hospitals on the dirt floor full of germs, churches, abandoned schools, or outside in the open. There are neither beds nor mattresses, unless those fleeing carry a small mattress for a sick person. A piece of fabric or a mat on the dirt floor or concrete serves as a bed. Sometimes, kind people will take them in for a few days.
Even in those circumstances, it is the responsibility of the woman (as mother and wife) to take care of the little ones and protect them as best she can from mosquitoes, cold weather, and other dangers. Melanie, her sister, and niece slept twice in a church building as they fled.
When they reached a village called Diesse, Melanie was so weak from fever and an anemic condition that her feet refused to carry her. Like most displaced people, she had swollen and sore feet at the end of every walking day. Melanie collapsed on the road and asked her sister to go on with the little niece and not to worry about her. But her sister refused to abandon her and, instead, started to cry and wail. Melanie was weak because of lack of proper food, medication, good sanitation, and hygiene, but she was also weak because of malaria and other ailments caused by war.
During war, women are mostly in charge of getting and fixing food. Having left houses in a hurry, they borrow pots and pans to prepare their meager food. Even when some male members of the family help, women are responsible to fetch water from the river or the well and fetch wood from the forest to cook the food. Most people eat once a day. Refugees eat rats, snakes (for those tribes that eat snakes), monkeys, and other wild meat to get some protein; fish are expensive and rare unless the refugees fish for themselves. They also eat ferns5 and other local vegetables when they can afford them. Refugees drink water from polluted wells and rivers in which the corpses of dead animals and human beings and other filth are thrown. As a result, many suffer from dysentery and typhoid fever. Whatever food is available is given first to the husband/father, the sick, and the children. Only after they are fed can the mother/wife think about herself. Melanie, having the care of her sister and niece, certainly put them before herself; she thought they had a better chance to survive if they left her behind to die.
When Melanie collapsed, none of the people who were fleeing with them helped them, and she did not have any medication either. Hardship brings out who we really are deep inside; it can lead people to acts of meanness and heartlessness or acts of kindness. In Melanie’s case, even though she was abandoned by her co-travelers, a young woman from that village acted toward her like the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:30–35. She made some herbal medicine out of tree bark and gave it to her to drink, which gave her strength to go on.
The next day, the person taking tickets for a truck ride was one of Melanie’s classmates. He wrote down their names without charging them, and they were able to get to her mother’s village with a little less difficulty. Because Melanie’s health was so bad, her mother took her to the town of Mossendjo for medical assistance. In Mossendjo, Melanie and her family stayed with relatives. Just like hundreds of women in these dire conditions, Melanie had to find a way to provide for herself and help her family.
Skills for survival
Displaced women engage in different sorts of activities to help them find food for their loved ones. Many learn how to lead the life of peasant women to survive in the countryside. At daybreak, peasant women start out for their distant fields (farms) to get cassava (the staple food) and vegetables. The paths to and from the fields are narrow, full of swamps, scissor-like grass, little rocks, and army ants. The women walk from four to ten miles each way, almost every day. Snakes in the forest are an ever-present danger. They carry their food in big baskets on their heads or their backs. Once they have the food, they cook it and sell part, for the money will help with other needs. They eat the rest.
Some women, like Melanie, are too weak to walk long distances and carry heavy loads on their backs. They buy items in bulk and sell them at retail prices in the markets. Melanie sold vegetables, fish, and cassava flour in the market. Other women sell themselves into prostitution to the soldiers who can give them precious things like bread, soap, and sardines. Others still are forced into prostitution.
Melanie’s health did not improve as she expected. After all, displaced war victims do not have access to medical care, a regular food supply, clothing, or, indeed, any international assistance. They are left to themselves to survive, and many die because of lack of hygiene, preventable diseases, and hunger. Very soon, some relatives started to gossip that Melanie had AIDS, which automatically put her in a situation where she could be conveniently shunned. Melanie reasoned that, if she stayed in Congo, especially in Mossendjo, with no medical help at all, she might lose her life. She knew that, if she could get into the neighboring country of Gabon, she might get help from the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). So, she moved to the small town of Mbinda on the Congolese border with Gabon, where she sold cooked food for a while to have some money for the “crossing.”
Going into Gabon was a very challenging feat to undertake for a displaced person. Everyone crossing the borders was supposed to show an ID and other papers that, more often than not, they had forgotten to take with them in the rush to save their lives from bullets and bombs. The displaced also found out that they had to pay money to the Cocoyes6 on the Congo side and to three different groups on the Gabonese soil: the Koubias,7 the police, and the regular military. Because of that, only rich Congolese could afford to enter into Gabon as official refugees.
Many displaced people decided not to cross the borders at check points and preferred to cross on foot at other places. They ran higher risks: being bitten by snakes in the forest, being arrested in Gabon for lack of documentation, or being taken advantage of by the locals in unsafe areas.
Melanie decided to take her niece with her and go the legal way. She knew a Cocoye who would help them cross without asking for money. Since they did not have the required certificate to show on Gabonese soil, she found a Koubia to whom she paid 10,000 CFA francs (about 20 dollars). This fellow took them through the back route and put them in a truck he was supervising. When he had enough refugees, he got on the truck and ordered the driver to take them to a refugee camp. So, the next day, Melanie and her niece found themselves in the refugee camp of Mouanda, in Saint Dominique, the Catholic church where Father Guy Boulbin8 (his real name) welcomed them.
Living as a refugee
Once in the courtyard of the Catholic church, Melanie felt protected and already cared for. But that feeling lasted only for a few moments as she discovered that she had to register to benefit from the “privileges” of being a refugee. A Congolese doctor married to a Russian wife was in charge of the refugee registration process. When Melanie went to register herself and her niece, this man refused to register her, saying that it was a Sunday. In doing so, he knew that Melanie and her niece would not have access to food and lodging. Just like the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:23–34, he did not sympathize with another refugee, although he was a refugee himself, perhaps for ethnic, religious, or other reasons unknown to Melanie. This was the first incident of discrimination in refugee camps that Melanie faced.
In fact, she discovered that there was a distinction between Catholics and non-Catholics in the way refugees were treated. Catholics, especially those who presented their baptism cards upon arrival, were put in individual rooms, whereas the others were put in classrooms and slept on the floor. People with a higher social and economic standing had privileges that others did not have. They were given bedrooms and put in dormitories with beds and did not have to wait in line at mealtime.
Melanie went to the Protestant church that same Sunday, thinking that people from her own denomination would welcome her. But, when they saw her clothes and refugee aspect, they ignored her and did not reach out to her. They looked down on her because she was a refugee. She needed sympathy and instead received scorn. Catholics and Protestants alike rejected her for different reasons. She came back to the refugee camp very disappointed and hopeless.
She went to see Father Boulbin about her situation, only to be told that her name was not on the list, and, therefore, there was no room for them. Fortunately for her, while in Mbinda, she knew Father Georges (a Congolese priest) who told her that he could help. So she asked Father Boulbin if she could talk on the phone with Father Georges who was now serving in Gabon. Father Georges, after hearing her tale, begged Father Boulbin to take care of his “sister” Melanie. So, Father Boulbin gave her a mat and a blanket and showed her a place in one of the classrooms.
Melanie and her niece were still very hungry and did not qualify for food because of their lack of registration. So she left her niece to watch their meager belongings and went to talk to a friend whom she had spotted at the gate. She told her that they were hungry, could not register, and did not know what to do without money. As they were talking, two men stood by the gate listening. Melanie thought they were refugees too. Little did she know that they were like wolves ready to fall on their prey. As soon as she was done speaking with her friend, the two men told her that they would like to buy her something to eat. They pointed to a nearby restaurant. She told them that she had a child with her. Since they insisted, and she was hungry, she followed them to a small restaurant where they bought some soda and chicken for her. After eating, she saved a piece for her niece, which the two men threw away, assuring her that they would buy something for her niece as they went back.
Coming back, one of the men disappeared in the dark, pretending to take care of something, and the other one led her to a house where he retrieved a key and opened a door. Melanie could not have found her way back if she had tried, and she also realized that this man could hurt her. She sensed danger and said, “Why didn’t you tell me your intentions? I could have taken precautions for the child who is now alone in the dark in the church’s courtyard.” So he agreed for them to go take care of the niece and come back. As they neared the refugee camp, a Congolese man who knew Melanie, walking toward the gate, scolded her for leaving her niece alone in this place. The Gabonese man, believing that the Congolese man was Melanie’s husband (since he could not understand the language they were speaking), was so afraid that he gave her some money and ran into the dark.
God saved her from those who were clearly going to rape her. How many women have been abused by men they did not know because one person who had the authority to help them did not do so? Many fall prey to abuse because of injustice and discrimination in refugee camps.
If the good Father Georges had not sent some money to Melanie by other Congolese priests, she and her niece would have starved. For four days, the Congolese doctor refused to register them until, finally, on Thursday, two Congolese priests managed to persuade him.
Melanie was grateful to God for a shelter, a blanket, some food, and some used clothes. She was still sick, but could now go to the pharmacy for medication. Little did she know that she was going to be abused by someone beyond suspicion!
A wolf in sheep’s clothing
One evening, Melanie had a headache and was not feeling well. A Congolese priest who worked in the pharmacy saw her and asked her to follow him to the pharmacy where they kept medicine. Once in the pharmacy, he locked the door. Melanie did not suspect anything wrong because this was the same priest who was helping sick refugees—one of the priests who had pleaded for her registration. Maybe he was going to talk with her, give her medication, and pray for her to get well, she thought. But, suddenly he turned toward her and forced himself upon her. She was in a locked room, in a part of the building that was empty in the evening, so nobody heard her cries as she was weakened by sickness and disgust. Melanie had escaped rape by a seemingly barbarous Gabonese man only to be abused and raped by a Congolese priest, a man of the cloth. He used his position as “a man of God” to rape an innocent and helpless victim.
Melanie was so ashamed and sickened that she confided in a friend. To her dismay, the friend did not believe her and that made the priest’s betrayal even more cruel. As days passed, she discovered that many priests had mistresses, and refugee women slept with priests for favors such as food, medication, and money.
During war, some men misuse their positions as soldiers, priests, friends of the family, enemies, strangers, and even peacekeepers to abuse defenseless women. In the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, the scale of horrific rape accompanied with monstrous mutilation of women’s private parts has been called the “war on women.” In the film The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, Emmy-award winning filmmaker Lisa F. Jackson tells the story of the systematic rape of thousands of women and girls in the eastern DRC to give these women a place to voice their hurts and sorrows. This film is a must-see for whoever wants to understand the horror that war in the DRC has brought on its women.9
Even though Melanie’s story did not match the magnitude of some of the horrible tales of the rape of women in the DRC, she suffered the same pangs as other rape survivors: helplessness, shame, terror, nightmares, guilt, and anger. She felt so insecure and afraid that the only way she found to protect herself was to yield to the courtship of a fellow Congolese who later became her husband. She saw this man as a refuge from potential rapes in the future.
Melanie became pregnant and was very happy, despite her circumstances. In Congo, a child is a blessing; a sign of hope. Yet, a pregnant woman is not considered safe until she and her baby are safe after she delivers. We do not have baby showers; we celebrate when the baby is born and mother and child are safe at home. In Christian homes, the celebration happens around the baby’s third month when he or she is brought to church to be blessed. A saying in my tribe goes like this: “A pregnant woman is a sick person.” Giving birth in Africa is a life-and-death situation, because so many women die during childbirth.
Melanie’s pregnancy went well, considering the circumstances. However, one Sunday morning, when she was seven months pregnant, she started to bleed and had cramping. The Gabonese hospital in Mouanda was not equipped with an ultrasound. She was sent to the refugee doctor who had one. This doctor,10 who could perform the ultrasound, refused to help her at first, saying that it was a Sunday. Upon the intervention of a kind young man, he performed the ultrasound and gave his report. Melanie was then able to go to the Gabonese hospital for help.
The Gabonese doctor told her that the report clearly stated that her pregnancy was going well and there was nothing he could do, even though Melanie was now in a lot of pain and the bleeding had increased. They left her on a bed and did not take care of her until late in the afternoon—after her husband was told to give money to the Gabonese anesthetist and did so. By the time the doctor performed a caesarean section, it was too late; Melanie’s son had died. For the days that followed, Melanie’s life hung by a thread. The only hope that she had was in God, who did not abandon her, as the psalmist says: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.”11
Long-term impact of war on women
As she struggled with the physical and emotional pain of trying to understand people’s hate-filled actions, Melanie found refuge and comfort in the living God. A few months later, Melanie, her husband, and niece were qualified for a relocation plan and found themselves in their new home in Canada. Even though her marriage proved to be short-lived because of abuse and deceit, today Melanie has a new life. But what she went through always comes back from time to time in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder. As she shares her story with others, she always says: “God is great; I should have died.”
Melanie’s story illustrates the hardships of life as a displaced and/or refugee woman. Many others were not as fortunate as Melanie; they did not survive to tell their stories. Others do not have a voice and/or a venue to share theirs. Yet, God knows our stories. Remember to pray for those women victims and/or survivors of different kinds of abuse; bring them to Jesus as the Holy Spirit leads you.
- Also known as the Republic of the Congo.
- All names have been changed, except when stated otherwise.
- The Cobras were a militia group loyal to former President Sassou Nguesso (at that time), and the Cocoyes were a militia group loyal to then-President Pascal Lissouba.
- Out of the Forest, coauthored with Craig Keener, details some of my own experiences as a war refugee. The book has recently been submitted to several publishers for consideration.
- Many refugees did not even know that ferns were a good source of vitamins A and C; they just used them because they grew by the river and were free. But ferns are bitter and difficult to swallow. In the war Melanie and I experienced, ferns were called “the displaced people’s food.”
- Cocoyes used that money, and money they received from taxing people in the marketplaces, to finance the war effort.
- Koubias were a different group of military men especially appointed by President Bongo to work at the border with refugees.
- Father Guy Boulbin was a very kind priest who fought to let people know that there was a refugee problem in Gabon. Later on, the UNHCR in Franceville (Gabon) declared the state of prima fascia for Congolese refugees; that is, they were considered refugees at first sight and should be treated as such. Only after that were these refugees able to have access to food, medical attention, blankets, and a place to sleep.
- Lisa F. Jackson, Jackson Films, 2007, thegreatestsilence.org.
- This is the same doctor, married to a Russian wife, who refused to register Melanie as a refugee for four days when she first reached Gabon.
- Ps 46:1.