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Transcript for the Piece Audio version of Women for Women in Congo (Voices on Genocide Prevention)


JERRY FOWLER: My guest today is Christine Karumba. She's Country Director in the Democratic Republic of Congo for Women for Women International. Christine, welcome to the program.

CHRISTINE KARUMBA: I'm delighted to be here.

JERRY FOWLER: Well Christine, you're from the DRC and you're working there in Bukavu, which is in the far east of the DRC. What I wanted to start with is your personal experience over the course of the last 15 years. Immediately after the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, many of the perpetrators of the genocide, and then a lot of Hutu civilians, fled into the eastern part of your country, which at the time was called Zaire. And I was wondering, could you just tell me what was life like before that happened and how has it changed?

CHRISTINE KARUMBA: I have really good memories before the war started in Congo, and I can remember how we used to travel to our villages to learn to experience, to learn about how our- our mothers, our grandmothers-- the villages used to be the peaceful places to be. And now it has turned as a butchery, where people have been killed, kidnapped, raped. It was like I was in a dream, it's like you are watching a movie. Suddenly everything has to change. You don't- you are living and you are starving, you don't know what will happen next. You are in a building and everywhere there is bullets and you don't know- and bombing everywhere. You don't know if you- the last bomb will- will be your house, your family, which will be under the bombs. It has been really a bad experience, as a woman. I remember we were in our home and we were taken off-- in our home, we- we were hiding in there, in the downstairs-- we were taken in the home to go out to- to a camp at the Cathedral Church, where everybody was put in order to receive new information for the new people who were going to lead our province. And we were really shocked to see what was happening. And we saw a mass of people coming to our country who didn't speak our language. They came-- and up to now the war has been affecting our lives - our physical life, our emotional life, even the economy of our population. Because now-- it was easy to have a farm, to go to the farm. And you can still living in a condition where the country has challenges, in economical level or there- there is no infrastructure, where this not much hospital. You have to- you don't have access to health. And the little health centers which were there were destroyed during war. So you have difficulty up to now, after the election, you have difficulty to access healthcare in our area, even in the villages. And sometimes women have to walk from the villages to the town for maternity purpose. So you can imagine how people in their environment, which is dirty, there is no infrastructure, there is no hygiene, there- there is no sanitation, how people can be dying by diseases, how people can be dying because they can't have- they don't have running water in their home. And I remember the first time we slept at night without having food. It was in 1998. All my family we spent-- we- we are 20 children in the family-- we spent a night without food. And I can see how many families who have been going through this even when I'm talking to you now.

JERRY FOWLER: The war in 1998 started when Rwanda invaded eastern Congo in order to go after some of these people who had committed the genocide and were launching attacks into Rwanda. But since then it's gotten incredibly complex. Is there a way that you can explain, in fairly simple terms, who is fighting whom, who's responsible for this situation that you just described?

CHRISTINE KARUMBA: I would say that they- since the Rwandan Hutu came in 2004...


CHRISTINE KARUMBA: 1994, sorry. They are responsible for this. And it has been a challenge to control the other militias which was formed because of the insecurity which is in the country. So there are random militias, there are uncontrolled troops, and there is the issue of de-mobilization, which has been a huge challenge, even for the U.N. in Congo and for the Congolese government. And when there are soldiers who are unpaid, Congolese soldiers who are unpaid, these are the issues which still challenge the situation in Congo.

JERRY FOWLER: One thing that I want to focus in on now is this issue of violence against women. It seems like there is an incredible and sustained assault on women as part of the conflict. I think one figure that I saw, perhaps from Women for Women International, is that in just one province, the province where you live, South-Kivu, there were something like 27,000 documented cases of rape last year and God knows how many undocumented. I guess the first question is who is committing this violence against women and why are they doing it? This seems something much more intense than the unfortunately common occurrence of rape in wartime.

CHRISTINE KARUMBA: Absolutely. We can only relate the numbers of victim to the war, because we can't get the statistic of how many women were raped in their household. We cannot say it's a cultural issue; it is related to war. And we have many women in our program, from Women for Women International, who have been victim of violence-- and most of the time the women who come to a program, when we ask them, "Why do you think you were a victim of this?" And there is a woman who is - Honorata - she said, "When you touch a woman you have touched a community. When you touch the woman you have touched the heart of the community." This is a weapon against the community, the weapon to destroy an entire community, the weapon to destroy the manhood; because the leaders, who have been present, the husbands who have been present when they are raping their wives, their daughters, even the wives or the mothers who have been raped together with their children, this is really an unseen attitude towards the entire community, toward the entire family, toward the entire generation. It is like it is to put the seeds, and the seeds which will destroy to a big scale the entire community. I can think about HIV-AIDS, I can think about how we don't have infrastructure to welcome these women who have been raped and prevent them to attract HIV-AIDS or an unwilling pregnancy. So we have even children from rape. We have mothers who have been rejected by the entire community, which does- the community which doesn't understand that we have to raise up together to face, with the entire community to face this issue.

JERRY FOWLER: So what does Women for Women International in particular do? What's the nature of your program? How do you work with women?

CHRISTINE KARUMBA: Currently we have a program in the East part of Congo, and we help the women survivor of wars to quit the status of a victim, to become an active citizen. We have a one-year intensive program where we match a sponsor, a supporter to a sister in our country who provides financial support, 27 dollars, for supporting this woman to rebuild her life. And there is an exchange of letters to help these women to regain hope. Because in the context of Congo, in the context of Congo you need-- I can imagine you need somebody to say something can change, something can happen. I can see how many Jewish passed away. In this context I was asking myself, how did this generation survive? And this is how we are helping women in our country, to help them to rebuild their life, to be able to gain hope for their life. So we train them in job skills so they may have at least an income to be able to take care of their families. Some of them, they have become widowed or separated from their husband because of the fact of being raped-- we help them to learn a skill, to learn business skills, to be able to have an income, to be self-employed or to get an employment. And we help the community to understand the role they have to play in order to fight against the rape. And this is the program we focus on male leaders. We train the male leaders on the impact of the rape against the community. We help them to become the advocate for the women's rights. And this has been really a good experience because we are seeing-- even our leaders, sometimes they are ignorant, when they act or they have a certain attitude. It's because they have to be [taught], they have to receive knowledge to change their attitude. And so far we have started a program-- in 2004 we serviced- we have serviced 14,000 women. And actually in 2007 we have 4,800 women in the program, who are currently coming to our program. And there are others who are in the villages. We work toward them to provide these services. And the women, they are put in a group of 20 women. So they come to us a month to receive the program so that they may learn that they are not alone in their situation. So we help them to regain self-confidence, to regain self-esteem. Because you can imagine in a context where your community deny everything to you, you need somebody to say to you that you are worthy and you deserve more than-- only because you are a woman-- you deserve more than what happened to you, and you deserve more than the context of Congo, and you have to raise up. So the group therapy has helped the women to understand that they have a role to play, not to remain a victim, but to fight for their rights, to exercise for their right, and nobody will do it if they will not stand up. And that is our responsibility as Women for Women. And if you want to learn more, go to womenforwomen.org, you will find more about our program and how our program has been changing the lives of many women in the east part of Congo.

JERRY FOWLER: One thing I wanted to explore a little bit more, in terms of what you just said, is the idea that you pair women in the United States with sisters, as you say, in Congo-- and that's kind of the essence of Women for Women. How important is it to the people you work with in Congo to have contact with a woman, say in the United States?

CHRISTINE KARUMBA: Oh, it is in the United States, but elsewhere in the world. For a woman in Congo to have this connection it matters. I can remember when Honorata, who used to say, "now the whole world will know what happened to me." So you can imagine these women receiving a letter from abroad, from a known person, who is telling her, "we love you, we are praying for you." This is a connection which is- we are really convinced that one woman can change many thing. But if together women, we can put our strength together, we can change every single thing which is happening in the world, and to end all the chaos, which we can see in the world, we can change, we can make a difference.

JERRY FOWLER: Another thing that you mentioned in terms of your work is working with men, to educate them about-- and it sounds strange to say it-- but why rape is wrong. And one thing that I saw you quoted on, which I found a little stunning, is an Army officer had told you that before he had interaction with Women for Women International, he wouldn't think twice about raping a woman, if he went into a house and he had a gun and the husband didn't have a gun.

CHRISTINE KARUMBA: Absolutely. This is the context where-- you see the person who has the gun, he's in a position of power. And when people are in a position of power, most of the time, the women, they are vulnerable. The soldier, himself, has an attitude, he doesn't know. This is what I was saying that we need to provide the knowledge to our community so they may understand. And this is why I say there is a responsibility, which is shared, in the level of our government, in the level of the international community, so that we may facilitate the program towards men; because men have to change their way of-- their attitude. There is focus on women, and we have to change our approach to integrate men so that our results may be more effective. If one man he had recognized, he may be the kernel to bring this message to other men so we may see a change of attitude.

JERRY FOWLER: Let me ask you a little bit about the women that you work with. Is there a particular story - you've mentioned Honorata - maybe you could expand on her story a little bit. What happened to her? And now how is her situation different today because of the work that you've done?

CHRISTINE KARUMBA: Before Honorata came to join Women for Women International she used to be Director of a girls school in our community. It was a higher position for a woman in a village. She was married and with a family, a happy family, with children. And suddenly when the war came, all her life changed. Everything was scattered. Her family, the husband rejected her; her family, the children rejected her. Honorata was taken as a sex slave for a whole year with other eleven women.

JERRY FOWLER: For a whole year?

CHRISTINE KARUMBA: For a whole year. And maybe she was lucky because she was-- she couldn't get pregnant. She was old, she couldn't get pregnant. That was maybe her- her opportune situation. Honorata when again the war broke in that same community, Honorata managed to flee. And Honorata couldn't go back to her community because of the shame which is related to rape. And this is the case of how many women, because of stigmatization, they can't go to their community. She was obliged to walk for two months before she reached Bukavu, which is the city where the office is located. She was on the run. She could try to find anything to eat on the way; only sun, only rains. Two months after she reached-- she came to the program. She had the clothes, she was smelling, she was really behaving like a small baby. I saw myself Honorata, with my eyes, she was really traumatized. And after being in the program, Honorata came to me when I was preparing the speech on the Women's Day. She said, "Most of the time people want to speak on behalf of victims of rape; today I want you to give me the opportunity to speak." And we had a meeting with-- we had a meeting and the speech was-- the government of the province were there, the U.N. agencies were there. And Honorata gave a speech and called the authority for the accountability on what is happening to women in the east of Congo and in all the country. Honorata said this-- "I am here because of the suffering many women are going through in Congo, because suffering has a smell, suffering can smell, suffering has a feeling, suffering has a mouth, and suffering is speaking to you, today, and calling you for accountability. How come that men are being raped and children have been raped before their mothers, mothers before their in-laws? And today I'm asking you to bring my voice so that something can happen, something can change." Now Honorata has finished her program and she has started sensitizing other women to know the importance of their voice, how they don't have to hide their voice. They have to bring out their voice so we may fight together and the humanity may know what is happening in the shadow of wars. Honorata has been now in our program, and she has become a trainer, a social worker, in the [unintelligible] as a Woman for Woman employee. So she's training other women to- other women who are refugees, at peace [ph?], to understand their role in participating in rebuilding of their community. And one of their roles is to bring their voice, to bring their voice. And yeah, this is how the program have been changing the lives of many women in Congo, and one is Honorata.

JERRY FOWLER: Christine Karumba is the Country Director in the Democratic Republic of Congo for Women for Women International. Christine, thanks for taking the time to talk with us.

CHRISTINE KARUMBA: You're welcome. Thank you.

NARRATOR: You have been listening to Voices on Genocide Prevention, from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. To learn more about preventing genocide, join us online at www.ushmm.org/conscience. There you'll also find the Voices on Genocide Prevention web blog.