Democratic Republic of the Congo: Save Our Sisters
PublicationMay 13, 2020
By Adele Kibasumba & Neema Namadamu
I grew up in Uvira, an eastern town perched on the shores of Lake Tanganyika surrounded by a range of mountains in the Democratic Republic of Congo. From Uvira, it takes a three-days walk to reach the nearest dirt road. During summer breaks, I used to spend my time in Minembwe, a small and remote village located in the High Plateaus. These ancestral lands mostly belong to my people, the Banyamulenge, a cattle-herding group of Rwandan origin.
Our region, Eastern Congo, is sadly known for its ongoing cycles of wars, waves of violence, rebellions, protests and political turmoil. Life there is unpredictable. Back when I was a child, occasional armed attacks would force us out of our homes for a few weeks we would normally fled to neighboring Burundi. This was just part of life: we would cross back right after conflicts had calmed down.
Therefore, I was used to a certain level of violation of human rights. But in 2004, everything changed for me. I was in 10th grade, and a war broke out in my region. My family and I ended up in a United Nations refugee camp across the border in Burundi. We stayed there for more than two months, living between hope and despair. During the third month, militias attacked our refugee camp. Guns were fired, grenades were thrown, and the entire camp was set on fire. I lost everything dear to me. My younger sister Deborah was killed in our tent. My mother, sister, and brother were shot; they still carry scars from their injuries. Cousins, childhood friends, and many people from my community lost their lives in a span of a few hours.
A total of 166 people were killed that night in what became known as the “Gatumba Massacre,” and another 116 people were injured. I escaped; I was alive but everything else in me was shattered.
My family resettled in the United States where I slowly rebuilt my life. I learned English; I adapted to the culture and started a family. I also went back to school and became a nurse practitioner. Today, I am the President of the Banyamulenge community in the US and, as such, it is my duty to speak out against the latest atrocities.
Over the past 10 months or so, Mai Mai’s militias in Eastern Congo have launched systemic attacks against the Banyamulenge community in the Plateaus of Itombwe. They have killed more than 200 people, raped women, burnt down more than 300 villages, drove tens of thousands of people into desperation and starvation, and stole thousands of cows. Some 70,000 people are surrounded by militia groups and cramped up in the small town of Minembwe, where I used to go for holidays as a child. They have nowhere else to go. Food is becoming scarce. Infectious diseases are spreading. Also, rape, kidnapping and sexual violence as a weapon of war are rampant.
We all tend to respond only to what we hear and see. But in this situation, what is not visible to the eyes will be even more catastrophic. For one, Banyamulenge women would never report sexual violence as it would bring shame and everlasting stigma to the entire family.
Other invisible struggles loom close: a rise in HIV contaminations for instance, or a lifetime of post- traumatic stress disorders for each victim. Today, thousands lost their homes and are sleeping out in the open, unsure of where the next meal will come from. Having gone through similar situations over a decade ago, I know too well what it is like: the feeling of loss, of isolation, of despair, and hopelessness.
On February 19, 2020, hundreds of women in Minembwe took it to the streets in desperation to protest the removal of the only one police chief who protected them (see video below).
They fear that his removal means more rapes, more hunger, and more deaths. This one kind official was their last line of defense.
These women are my aunts, cousins, sisters, and grandmothers. They have been crying for help for almost a year. Is anyone listening?
Adele Kibasumba is the President at Amahoro Peace Association, a U.S.- based Congolese organization which focuses on advocacy and humanitarian assistance to all Congolese in conflict zones. Kibasumba is an activist who has advocated for human rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo over the past seven years. She has spoken out on violence against women and protection of minorities in conflict zones, including at the United Nations, the U.S. State Department and the White House.
I was born in an isolated mountain region in eastern DRC. This is where I contracted polio when I was two years old and where I learned to pole vault myself on a stick until I became strong enough to go to school. Because or thanks to my disease, I was able to escape situations most women endure: early marriage, typically soon after they start menstruating, forced to drop out of school and become an ignorant slave to the cultural paradigm. Being a cripple, I was not marriage material, and marriage is the only way for a woman to survive in the region since we are not given inheritance and are not allowed to own property of any kind.
So my illiterate mom thought that perhaps if I could get an education, I could make a way for myself. I became the first woman with disability from my tribe to graduate university and went on to serve my government as advisor to our nation’s Minister of Gender and Family. Thanks to my education, I was able to develop my abilities and gain experience; I learn how to speak many languages including French and English. I wanted to give back to my community and work to give our daughters a different future. When leaving public service, I started my own non-profit to lift my Congolese sisters into a different destiny through awareness, connection, education, opportunity and experience. I built a community center in this remote mountain village with solar energy and satellite internet, connecting women online to their sisters in Congo and around the world. Then we started teaching women to sew and market washable, reusable feminine hygiene kits. 5,000 kits have been distributed so far to keep girls out of the throes of early and forced marriage. To keep them in school, where they can compete for the best scores and the best opportunities in life. We built an all-girls school that just opened in September this year with an enrollment of 248 students from kindergarten through 4th grade. Then rebel militias who took over our community center and destroyed, stole or damaged everything.
This area is my home. These women are my sisters, my aunties, my cousins, and daughters. My home was destroyed as well. But I pursue my goal of changing the landscape for women. We are changemakers. We care about our families, our communities, our country. We are determined because we have tasted what the future holds and want to make it a reality. We sacrifice daily because we must. We are women, and the future is not just in our loins, it is in our hands, and we are putting all we are and all we have into this goal.
Neema Namadamu is the founder of Maman Shujaa, a powerful women-led initiative that uses digital media to amplify the voices of women demanding peace in Eastern Congo. In July 2012, Neema’s 25- year old daughter was brutally beaten by government soldiers near their home in Bukavu, eastern Congo. This incident, coupled with the ongoing conflict in Eastern Congo, launched Neema to action for peace in Congo.