A Separate Peace

A Separate Peace
Photo courtesy of Perseus Books.

I had a great life — a successful business, a fiancé, a home and security. But in the wake of my Dad’s death, and soon-to-be 30 years old, I found myself depressed, camped out in my living room watching “Oprah.” It was there that I learned about Congo, widely called the worst place on earth to be a woman.

Awakened to the atrocities — millions dead, women being raped and tortured, children starving and dying in shocking numbers — I had to do something. A Thousand Sisters chronicles how I raised sponsorships for Congolese women, beginning with a solo 30-mile run, and then founded Run for Congo Women.

Despite countless warnings, with no credentials, I abandon my quickly collapsing home life and plunge into an unlikely lone journey through eastern Congo on a mission to ignite a movement for the world’s most forgotten women, to meet hundreds of my sponsored “sisters,” and hear their stories firsthand.

But in a place where no man with a gun is the good guy, I confront militias, massacres, murder cover-ups and unspeakable horror. Along the way I am forced to learn lessons of survival, fear, gratitude and love from the women of Congo.

A Thousand Sisters is a portrait of the world’s deadliest war through the intimate lens of friendship. It is a story of passion, hope and my journey to carve out human bonds that cannot be touched by terror.

I oversleep. By the time I scramble to pull it together, the others have been waiting for me outside for quite some time. Today is my thirty-second birthday.

Outside of Baraka, the landscape tells the story of the past decade. It’s obvious the region was abandoned for years. Villages are mostly ruins, their mud-brick huts, roofless and crumbling, are overgrown with weeds. Hortense says, “In the next village, there were only four civilian families left.”

We slow down as we drive through a village. I notice a large cement slab, painted with a mural: huts burning, soldiers hacking people with machetes. It reads: MASSACRE DE MAKOBOLA/BANWE, 20/12/1998.

Hortense points toward the hills and says, “They buried them up there.”

We pull off the main road and drive up narrow grass tracks. In a clearing above the village, a stone monument marks the site. A local villager tells us the story, which Hortense translates: “People hid along the waterways to escape war. Then those people came and called out that peace was recovered. Soldiers gathered people, telling them there was peace already. Once the people here, they killed all of them.”

I follow Hortense behind the memorial, “They buried them here,” she says pointing to a wild patch of yellow cosmos. “Seven hundred and two people were killed. They buried them in four graves.”

Three more mass graves, overgrown with weeds taller than I am, are just beyond the sunny wildflowers. Hortense repeats the story, boiling it down to basics. “They told the people there was no more war, gathered them, and killed them all.”

As we continue down the main road, spanking new huts on freshly cleared plots, paid for by refugee resettlement projects, are beginning to creep into the landscape.

We pull into Baraka, which has the distinct feel of a Wild West frontier town. Its wide main drag is a dirt road lined only with NGO offices. Congolese soldiers with guns linger on every corner, bored, just hanging out.

We dump our stuff at the spotless UN guesthouse. It is decorated in UN blue and white, with spare, utilitarian furniture; it feels like the kind of austere vacation cottage you might find on a Greek island. When I ask a group of UN staffers about security in the region, a young European woman answers. “The FDD [a Burundian militia] and other foreign militias are gone,” she says. There is a Mai Mai general on the peninsula who’s been making threats, but just rapes and looting for the moment. No attacks yet.”

I sit quietly for a moment in the spare, whitewashed community room, balancing my gratitude for a clean place to stay and the generosity of my hosts with the implications of what she has just dropped into our conversation. I contemplate this young, wild-haired woman, with her slightly sweaty, disheveled look and the crusty demeanor of a seasoned European aide worker. As a staff member of the UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency], her task is to encourage refugees to return from Tanzania. She is currently working on a video project she can use to convince people it is safe to return home.

“You don’t consider rape a security threat for returning refugees?”

“Rape here is so common,” she says. “It’s cultural.”

Wow. I say nothing but allow the weight of her comment to settle in the room.

Next, we head out for our meetings. As we pull up to the Women for Women center in a village south of Baraka, we are greeted with an archway of flowers. I’m presented with a little bouquet of marigolds gathered in a rusty can, and a goat. A goat! That’s what, forty dollars? I’ve gotten lots of chickens and eggs, but this is remarkably generous. This may be the best birthday celebration I’ve ever had. Just one little snag: I’m a strict vegetarian.

I joyfully receive the squealing up-side-down little gal, grabbing her bound feet. I set her down. “Thank you so much for this wonderful gift! I am so grateful for your generosity, so proud of you all, that I am presenting her back to your group as a celebration of our friendship. I have only one condition. You must never hurt the goat. The goat is blessed. The goat is sacred. Never, ever kill this goat.”

One of the participants leads the group in a cheer and dance. We settle into a large circle, shaded by ancient trees, and shoo away eavesdropping teenage boys. Almost all of our sisters have just returned from Tanzania, where they lived in refugee camps from eighteen months to ten years. Freshly resettled, the women boast about buying new plots of land every month with sponsorship funds. “We can buy a farm of twenty square meters for twenty dollars,” one says.

I’ve developed a quick survey to take at these meetings. How many have suffered a violent attack on their home? Had a relative killed? Lost a child? The women are always open. But I have never asked about rape directly at these forums. Maybe if I’m nonchalant, it’ll put them at ease. I try to slip it in as part of my survey, “How many of you have been raped?”

A few hands go up then quickly retreat. It’s a group of fifty, but only three women keep their hands raised. They stare at the others defiantly, stretching their hands higher. This is why oft-quoted statistics on rape in Congo are ridiculously low. Even in a group that’s all women, including Western women who have supported them financially, Congolese women won’t talk about sexual violence in public, at least if no one else does.

Hortense shrugs. “They are hiding themselves.”

They stare at me blankly. Okay, that was tacky and insensitive. I shouldn’t have asked such a personal question in a public survey. I try to rectify it, take them off the defensive. “In America, we believe if a woman is raped, it is never her fault. She has nothing to be ashamed of. So if any of you know someone who has been through this, I hope you will support her and let her know she didn’t do anything wrong.”

I’m ready to call it a failed experiment. I’ll just leave it alone.

We begin with “The trouble I got during war.”

Like most groups I have met with, these women are open about violent attacks. But an hour or so into our meeting, no one has mentioned rape. We land on the participant who led the singing earlier. She shifts on the edge of her wooden bench and speaks with a defiant tone. Even with the language barrier, I can tell by the others’ body language — they are folding their arms, rolling their eyes, or adjusting their dresses — they find her brash. Hortense translates. “When you asked about it earlier, we were not honest. Even if the others are hiding themselves, we were all raped. All of us.”

She continues with her story, motioning to her lap, slamming her fist between her legs, as she describes the attack. Some snicker with discomfort.

I thank her profusely for her courage to speak up and tell her story.

Later, others open up.

“They treated us the way they wanted. They met us in houses. They did what they needed.”

“When in the field, they were beating us with sticks, chasing us, doing whatever they were doing, downgrading us through raping.”

“They obliged my husband to have sex with my daughter. He refused. They killed him immediately.”

“All of my clothes, including my underwear, were torn to shreds.”

“My womb was seriously destroyed.”

“They tried to make my older brother rape me. He refused and was killed. So they raped me. They took my husband and raped him. He died from that incident.”

“We were sleeping in water, in a marsh, with so many mosquitoes. It was so cold. The FDD came at night. They made so much trouble. They took all our clothes. I was eight months pregnant, standing naked in front of my daughters and my husband. They inserted money and did the same to my daughters who were twelve and fifteen. They raped me. My husband ran away. We were left naked. I fell ill. I didn’t know where he was. People in the village found me naked in the forest. They took me to the hospital, but there was no one there. They took me to Lake Tanganyika, where they put me on the boat to Tanzania. I don’t know where my husband was. I delivered a baby there. The girl is six years old today. I came back in April. I found my husband, now old and poor.”

I ask, “How many of you have been attacked since you returned from refugee camps?”

About half raise their hands. A woman in her thirties explains, “Peace has not really been recovered. They are still raping women. When we go to our farms, we are stopped on the way to the fields and raped. Especially in the bush. In the center of Baraka, no. But when we go to the fields ... it’s like me with my age, they ask me to stop.”

Another woman adds, “It was said the war ended, we were called back here. But since being back we had an attack from FDD.”

“Who has raped you since you returned?”

They all chime together: “FDD.”

This confuses me. The UN staff verified there are no longer foreign militias in the area, including FDD. I recall Maurice explaining, “A Congolese woman can never say she was attacked by another Congolese. It is not culturally acceptable. It is not safe.”

I think of the main drag running through Baraka, the armed young men standing idly on every corner, the innumerable Mai Mai along roadsides. The Congolese Army is in large part comprised of former militias. In the disarmament process, brassage, militia members are integrated into the Congolese Army and promised US$20 monthly. But they are rarely paid. They are expected to take what they need — food, money, supplies — from the locals. In the process, they rape.

“Peace” and “stability” here seems to mean that people are no longer slaughtered by the hundreds (mass killing is at least one activity from which the Congolese Army refrains). But women, well, they have to feed their children. If that means the long daily walk to farm their fields and risking rape on the way, the alternative is watching their kids starve.

One woman asks, “Do they also rape women in America?”

I answer, “Women are raped all over the world. It is not as common in America as here. But a number of American women who have been raped have run to raise your sponsorship. Because they know that in some ways, you feel the same. They asked me to especially extend their love to you.”

They nod.

One woman raises her hand and asks, “What can we do to manage and improve so we can support other women?”

From the book A Thousand Sisters by Lisa Shannon. Excerpted by arrangement with Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright (c) 2010. Visit Lisa at

Posted or updated: 5/31/2010 11:00:00 PM
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