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Healing From War's Brutality in Congo

By Kim Pozniak

Martine*, a 50-year-old mother of 14, has survived a most pernicious weapon of war. She survived in large part due to the faith and faithfulness of ordinary parishioners who happen to consider themselves her brothers and sisters.

SILC group members

Congolese women who are part of a CRS microfinance group meet to learn about the savings process that will help them support their families. Photo by CRS staff

Living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country where the mining of minerals has led to unimaginable violence, she has been brutally raped twice. Five years ago, in the Kaniola area of eastern Congo, 8 soldiers came to her house in the middle of the night and raped her in front of her husband. Her 14-year-old daughter was also raped and killed that night. The injuries Martine suffered forced her to move away from her village to a town where she could receive proper treatment. She underwent two surgeries.

Four years after she moved, a soldier came to Martine's house at 3 in the morning and raped her. Her husband was forced to lie in the same bed. When the soldier was done with Martine, he took her infant son, put him in a bag and suffocated him.

Martine was admitted to Panzi Hospital, a clinic in the eastern Congolese city of Bukavu that specializes in vaginal repair. She underwent several more surgeries.

At this point, Martine's husband had endured more than he could take, and he left her.

Turning Faith Into Action

Thousands of miles away in Maryland, at St. Camillus parish, Father Jacek Orzechowski, OFM, guides a parish with a passion for justice. St. Camillus parishioners are known for standing in solidarity with people in need. Their support is deeply rooted in faith.

With many of their own being Congolese, the people of St. Camillus had heard many similar stories. They decided to help women like Martine and to fight the causes of the conflict in the Congo that are behind these horrific crimes.

The conflict in the Congo has, by some estimates, killed more than 3 million people since 1998. Since the start of the conflict, hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been raped, according to UNICEF. Millions of people have been forced from their homes. One of the driving forces behind the violence is armed groups fighting over lucrative mines and mineral trade routes. One of several such "conflict minerals" is coltan, a critical component for the production of cell phones, laptops and other electronics.

One Man's Mission: Stop Rape in Congo

Pick your armed group in Congo, and it is likely Honoré Bisimwa has talked to them. His job: Persuade them not to rape.

Read Honoré Bisimwa's story.

Rape has been used as a weapon of war by armed groups because it tears communities apart, destroys villages and drives families from their land. Many women who have been violated can't seek immediate and appropriate treatment of their injuries because medical facilities are either too far away or they don't have enough money to pay for medical procedures. Left untreated, the physical and psychological damage caused by this form of violence can leave women unable to cope with daily life, interfering with their work, social interactions and support to their families. In addition, their husbands and families often reject them because of the shame associated with rape.

So when Father Jacek was looking for a cause that his parish could support, the decision was easy. A legislative webinar, sponsored by Catholic Relief Services and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, gave Father Jacek the information he needed to propose the idea to his parish, and all the parishioners were on board.

'A Moral Imperative'

"We feel very strongly about this issue," he explains. "For us it is a moral imperative to do justice and address the root causes of the horrific violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As a parish, we have done fundraising to help the victims of violence and we are raising awareness of what's happening there."

"We specifically wanted to help children, obviously, but also women," adds Marie Barry, one of the parishioners at St. Camillus. "And we wanted to help them get on their feet and support themselves rather than just meeting their immediate needs."

The parish's social justice committee decided to support CRS' work in the Congo through fundraising and advocacy. Their efforts are paying off.

With an alternative Christmas sale, St. Camillus parishioners raised more than $25,000 in just three weeks.

"Our parishioners want to be givers. Although many are struggling economically, they are thankful for the opportunity to share what little they have," Marie says. "They give, not from their surplus, but from their substance and feel blessed that they can participate in actions that contribute to the common good." A very diverse parish—about 60 nationalities are represented at St. Camillus —many of the parishioners are from "countries that are suffering from conflict or natural disasters, and are able to empathize with others' pain," Marie explains.

The project helps thousands of women to become fully functional survivors—rather than stigmatized victims—empowered to resume their normal lives in their families and villages.

Located just outside of Washington, D.C., St. Camillus parishioners also visited Capitol Hill to advocate for legislation that would help reduce the violence in eastern Congo. President Obama has just signed that legislation into law. Publicly traded companies that use tin, tantalum (coltan), tungsten or gold will now be required to verify whether the ores for those metals came from the Congo or neighboring countries and to describe what they have done to assure that the production of those metals did not benefit the armed groups wreaking havoc in the Congo.

'The Virtue of Solidarity'

Some of the money raised at St. Camillus now supports CRS projects that help abused and traumatized women in three eastern Congolese provinces. The projects provide counseling and help the women set up savings-led microfinance cooperatives, groups that allow them to save and borrow money. The microfinance method helps women, mostly in rural areas, who don't have access to conventional banks to save or borrow money.

After her horrible experiences, Martine joined one of the microfinance groups supported by St. Camillus. After her first encounter with the group, she immediately realized the benefits. "I saw the future of my children who no longer studied due to a lack of resources. I already saw how I could get organized and save for the needs of my family," she recalls. "I now understand the importance of saving and it will allow my children to study."

Savings-led microfinance groups also instill a sense of community in the women, many of whom were left by their husbands and shunned by their families. "Our group helps to make me feel good about myself because of the solidarity we all share about our experiences. We console each other," Martine adds.

CRS works in collaboration with local partners, Caritas and others to enable survivors of sexual violence to return to a dignified life within their communities. The project helps thousands of women to become fully functional survivors—rather than stigmatized victims—empowered to resume their normal lives in their families and villages. The project also helps women access basic medical services so they can obtain jobs and support their families.

As for the reason why St. Camillus parishioners decided to help, Marie explains: "The outpouring of contributions from parishioners at St. Camillus speaks of more than simple generosity; the response shows a deep grasp of the virtue of solidarity."

*Name has been changed.

Kim Pozniak is a CRS communications officer covering U.S. operations. She is based in Baltimore, Maryland.

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