Sunday, July 24, 2011

Journey to the border...

Three weeks of trying to upload this with slow, spotty internet proved unsuccessful.  But now that we're back stateside here is the long overdue video of our drive through Rwanda to the border.  Jesse shot and edited this 30 second video and we think it's breathtaking.  (He didn't even use his professional camera, but instead shot this footage on a flip cam out of the car windows)!  Looking at it now brings back the flood of emotions we were feeling at the time.  The drive was a seven hour long trek through towns and villages, tea plantations and rain forest.  As we drove we were each our own combination of nervousness and excitement... soaking in the beauty of what was surrounding us, vacillating between moments of laughter and wonder or quietly praying to ourselves for what was to come.  We had no idea what crossing the border was going to be like or who we would meet on the other side or how the next few weeks of our lives would challenge us and change us.  We are thankful to have these images and we hope you enjoy them, too.  We also hope you can start to see how beautiful the Great Lakes Region (of Africa) really is.

We are taking this week to rest and spend time with our family and friends, but in the coming weeks we will begin the gargantuan task of sorting through our notes and footage, doing translation and putting together outlines and plans.  We will continue to share our thoughts and experiences and what we've learned and are still learning.  We'll also be organizing and uploading photos from our trip and will certainly share some here soon.  In the meantime, enjoy the short video.  Today is Mara's birthday so if you get a chance head over to Facebook and wish her a happy day!


Monday, July 18, 2011

We're Leaving Our Hearts in the Congo

It's our last night in Africa... We're in Kigali, Rwanda where it all began. There is so much to say, but as we keep saying so much we still need to process. We spent much of today touring the genocide memorial, mass graves and museum here in Kigali.  It was a heavy, heavy day, but an important way to end our journey... understanding where it all began for the Congo. The genocide here is the starting point for the conflict in the Kivus and an important piece to unraveling what's happening there now. It was unbelievable to read the stories and see the images we saw today. The mass grave at the museum site alone holds the remains of upwards of 250,000 men, women and children. We hope seeing it here where it happened means we won't be able to forget.  We also hope the world never forgets. But if history is any indication, it probably will.

We start 2 days of travel in the morning before making it back home to our respective destinations.  The trip was more amazing than we could have hoped. We met so many courageous, wonderful people who shared their thoughts with us, welcomed us into their homes and offices and hearts...allowed us to film them and in the end changed our lives forever. Our moments ranged from holding the hands of survivors of acts more brutal than is even comprehensible- to facilitating a panel discussion with brilliant young leaders who have visions of a Congo transformed from humanitarian graveyard into an oasis of peace and tourism- to diving into beautiful lake Kivu at sunset- to sharing laughs with new friends over wine and Primus (a Congolese beer). It was the journey of a lifetime and we can't wait to see where the next phase of the journey will lead. Jesse shot the most spectacular moments... Moments of powerful human emotion, controversial debates and moments of sheer natural beauty. We know the film is going to be amazing. We'll return in January to continue research and filming for the documentary.  For us, January can't come soon enough... We left our hearts in Bukavu and Goma.

As we soak in our final moments here we want to leave you with a little excerpt from a reflection we wrote (but, couldn't upload) after two emotional days in Goma.  We will have much more to add to this blog as the weeks and months progress, but for now we (sparing you intense details) leave you with these words because we feel the stories are important to tell... And important to hear...

We spent the first half of one day talking to a former child soldier
and hearing the his horrific stories. He has horrible nightmares after every time that he shares his story. After spending an afternoon with him as he talked about his childhood, we completely understand why. But, he is an extraordinary kid with a powerful message.
Later that same day we visited a hospital that works with women who have been raped. We met five women and some them shared their stories. Three of the women had adorable babies born of rape and one cried as she told us what happened to her. It was all very overwhelming... then we met a little 5 year old girl. She had the saddest little eyes you have ever seen and as the head nurse shared her story with us we were devastated.  It's not fair and it broke our hearts. Unfortunately, stories like these are more common than they should be. The statistic that a woman is raped in the Congo every minute is not an exaggeration. It's a gruesome reality of the state of this country.

The next day, however, was a much better day. The first day was
depressing because there was such an air of sadness with most of the
women we spent time with. They said they were hopeful about the future,
but they had nowhere to go after their stay in the hospital. The second day
was filled with more joy. We met with two women, a 16 year old
and a 50 year old. The 50 year old had been so brutally attacked that
her hip had been broken. Although she would be on crutches for
life (she spent over year in agony before she went to get help after
she escaped her tormentors) she was all smiles. The young 16 year old
was also full of hope. She told us how she wants to be a minister
(politician not religious) when she is older so she can help other
women who have gone through what she has experienced. She was shy and
spoke very quietly, but she too shared laughter with us and smiled.
They truly made us proud to be women!

The power of laughter truly hit us as we were sitting there with these
women, who by the worlds standards had nothing to smile and laugh
about. Janny was NOT kidding when she said the women of the Congo are made of steel. What a difference a day makes. There was such a
stark contrast between the meeting with the women on the first day and
the meeting with the women the next day. There are only two
differences between the organizations: funding and
spiritual healing. The first hospital (although they are doing great
work) does not get even close to the same amount of funding as the
second. You could see how funding can affect an organization in
the differences between the two facilities. The women we met at first
were physically and mentally healthy but their spirits were still
broken. The other two women were 'whole';they were excited about
their future because they knew they would be provided for.

When we came back from those interviews our former child soldier
friend greeted us at the front door. He was all smiles as we chatted
with him about how his day had gone. As he laughed and smiled we were
in awe. The Congolese are amazingly resilient people. They not only
survive, no matter what has happened to them, but they truly know how
to pick up the pieces and continue to enjoy life again! That is what
we came here to find: life, wholeness, and above all hope.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Difficult Days

The internet, per usual, has been on the fritz again! And the past two days have also been incredibly busy.  They have not only been physically exhausting, but emotionally exhausting as well. We will definitely share more in the coming days, but we need to process what we've heard and seen. But we will say this: now, more than ever, there is a great need to protect this country's greatest resource, the Congolese women. We have met women, men, and children that have been through more than any human being should ever have to endure. Simply put, the suffering here is unnecessary and preventable and it's time to talk about real solutions and take real action.  

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Adventure: Part 2

We've arrived safe and sound in Goma for part 2 of our visit. We spent last night having dinner and saying goodbye to many new friends. While Bukavu captured our hearts we're excited to see how the journey unfolds from here. Before we share about our day we just wanted to pause and thank our dear friend Janny for being an amazing host, a brilliant colleague, and a wonderful friend.

The day started at 5:45am when we woke up early to head out and catch our ferry. It was not as chaotic as we had thought it would be and the $25 first class tickets were WELL worth it. It was a very nice seating area and the free breakfast didn't hurt either! The ride was about 6 hours long and the views as we sailed by were extraordinary. We've said it many times before but we just can't say enough about the beauty of this country.

Unfortunately, the water was choppy near the end of our trip and as Liz was sick at the back of the boat I was chatting with a young man named Janvier (January in French, which is when he was born). He shared with me about how horrible the security situation is now in the Congo. I told him a little about our mission and that is when he opened up to me. He shared that he had been on the run from the military for months now. They were trying to bribe him and he refused to pay. As a result they harass and stalk him and his family wherever he goes. He is never safe and is hoping to get to Kinshasa where their hold is minimal. But he has three children who were not even able to finish their schooling this year because of their erratic movements. His story is not uncommon and he is just one of hundreds of thousands that are living in fear on a daily basis. He told me that he was sharing his story so that I would share it with you. Janvier said that America is the leader and whatever America decides to do the rest of the world will follow suit. I hope we will hear his words and take them to heart.

We've settled in at Esther and Camille's. We can already tell that they are so wise and they are doing such great work. They've got a packed week planned for us, with back to back meetings. We are excited to see how the week unfolds as we know we are going to learn a lot. Hope is alive here.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Unique Perspectives

We've become friends with a group of South African pilots who fly for the UN. We've spent the past week chatting informally with them about their experiences flying in Sudan, Angola, Chad, Afghanistan, DRC. They agreed to be a part of our documentary, so last night we interviewed them after dinner. They had a unique perspective as Africans who have worked with the UN in so many conflict zones. They were candid, honest, and provided one heck of a controversial interview. We appreciate their honesty because we know that their views are shared by many others, including most ordinary Americans. As Jesse said when the night was over, "we just shot the beginning of our documentary!"

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Our DRC Portraits...

The Untold Stories

So sorry we haven't been able to keep up posting like we had hoped! The internet has been down again and we have been extremely busy. We wanted to share what we experienced yesterday and are so glad that the internet has been more cooperative today.

Yesterday was a tough day. It started with Jesse not feeling well from the night before, and Mara was up early throwing up in the bathroom. Despite their nausea they were bound and determined to go with Liz and Janny to the parish in a small village about an hour from Bukavu. That village has been one of the hardest hit, both in terms of the recent conflict dating back to 1996, and also in terms of sexual violence. This is because it is close to the forest where the armed rebel groups hide, as well as the border with Rwanda. The contrast between the incredibly beautiful drive up and the violent realities the village has known is stark. 

When we arrived we were guests of the catholic priest of the parish. Although the parish normally turned away any interviews and filming,  he was very supportive of the work we've been doing. He said that he wanted us to see firsthand so the truth could be told. The parish provides a safe haven for women and men who have been sexually assaulted, as well as those who have witnessed it and other violence. They showed us the books with the handwritten names of hundreds of women who have come to them for help. The number from this tiny village in just one year was already at 656. In fact we were told by Michele a visiting Journalism professor from Italy over lunch, that it was becoming more and more difficult to find women that hadn't experienced some form of violence. In the afternoon a military officer we had spoken to shared a story we had already heard about the Interahamwe. They wrote a village and in their letter they demanded $1000.00 as well as seven virgins, or they would attack. This was even announced on the radio and became public knowledge. The international presence here on the ground did nothing. The population lives in constant fear and as was stated, "where are they going to even find virgins who had not been raped." Unfortunately these kinds of stories are all too common. 

The lunch was one of the most unexpectedly insightful hours that we've spent here. The table consisted of Michele, the army officer, and several local priests who had been here throughout the war. They talked to us about some controversial dynamics: we covered ethnic and historical tensions, tensions between Rwanda and the Congo, mining interests, and the motivations of regional and international actors. They raised some significant questions and provided significant answers from their point of view. We intend to take what they discussed and continue to unearth more details. As we looked back over our notes and video footage, we started to see just how big the things they said potentially are. It's information we take seriously and plan to share more when we get home and can process the whole picture. As we left the lunch the parish priest said to us "You have the truth use it, don't let it go to waste like so many have before you."

Lastly we wanted to share with you Francine's story. Francine is a beautiful 18 year old Congolese woman pregnant with her first child. Unfortunately this child was not Francine's choice but is a child conceived by rape. Before we sat with Francine we thought we would meet a woman with a broken spirit. Instead we we were introduced to a young woman who was the embodiment of courage. As Janny put it, "The women of the Congo are resilient, they are made of steel". She shared that although she still does not feel safe, she was also confident that things would change. When we asked what gave her hope she said prayer, and that "yes I believe it will get better. It has to." Though the man who invaded her home tried to break her spirit she told us she has hope for the future, both hers and that of her unborn child. This is the reason we are here, to be the voice for the hundreds and thousands of Francine's whose stories are never told and suffer in silence, and for the countless others who voice their suffering and are ignored.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Adventure Continues...

So sorry we've been off the grid! The electricity has been out and basically put the internet on the fritz. Right now we are at a restaurant that has free wi-fi so that we could make sure to share with you all! It's been a really productive weekend.  We have moved from our hotel to Janny's apartment overlooking Lake Kivu.  We feel so blessed to have met her... she has introduced us to many stakeholders and has now opened up  her home to us, as well.  It's going to be an intense work week of interviews and filming.  We will be meeting with activists, survivors of sexual violence, military representatives and a couple of other key players (more details to come).  We ask for your continued prayers and/or positive thoughts as the days to come will be extraordinarily emotional and difficult.  

Before we begin what is sure to be an intense week-- we have shared so many moments of laughter here as a team and we wanted to share a few with you.  

There are young men who carry around huge yellow jugs and when Jesse asked what they were, Philippe (Mara's cousin) explained they were selling petrol (gas).  They buy the gas and then sell it at a higher price when the gas stations are closed... They call them Gaddafis.  

We came back to Janny's before heading to meet with some female Congolese activists and journalists to do some work.  We entered the kitchen to find a live chicken sitting on the floor next to the world's  smallest bananas (still on the branch).  As we sat in the living room typing away there was a raucous coming from the kitchen and then, as Poe would say, "the raven cried no more."  I guess we're having chicken for dinner?

Jesse went for a walk and met Bruno the mask seller. He keeps his masks displayed in a tree but his shop is down the road in a sewer. He wanted to show Jesse his wares but a UN truck was parked over the "entrance"  (a.k.a. manhole) to his shop. Now who says the Congolese aren't entrepreneurial and resourceful people?!

The electricity and internet have been a bit spotty, but we will try to keep you as up to date as possible as the week progresses.  As promised, we want to provide you with a few options to find more information on the DRC, its history and what fuels the current conflict.

Check out these websites:
or search the New York times website and Jeffrey Gettleman for recent news.  

For those of you who are looking for good summer reads and are interested in more detailed information, the following books are great.
King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hothschild
Dancing in the Glory of Monsters by Jason Stearns 
or for a less "intellectual" read Barbara Kingsolver's novel, The Poisonwood Bible.  

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Bukavu - who knew?

Last night, Janny was kind enough to invite us to join her and some NGO and businessman friends for a night out in Bukavu. It was the last thing we expected when we began our Congo adventure.  The night started out at a local bar with Janny, her friend Vera and Vera's local IRC team. There was an incredible Congolese band, playing the music I grew up with! It was such a special moment to realize that I was in the DRC listening to live Congolese music, almost a homecoming of sorts and truly a "getting back in touch with your roots" moment. 

We then headed back to our hotel (because it's one of the best restaurants in town) for dinner. After our meal (where we met the head of the IRC GBV division, a safari and tour director, as well as a German man who's doing mining certification-- great connections that we intend to use) we headed to the home of Janny's friends who were Lebanese businessmen. The view from their incredible home by the lake was spectacular and I was able to take some amazing pictures of the city lights reflecting on the lake. We had a great time with them and later we were invited to join all the expats at a bar/club called Chez Victoria. We danced until the wee hours of the morning and were dropped off at home by a UN driver. 

All in all we were amazed at what we saw at every turn. This is NOT the Bukavu the media and our research had told us about. The people here go out at night because they have the freedom here to enjoy life, and music, and dancing. And we're not talking about just the expat community.  The city was alive with people crowding markets and homes.  Bukavu is a thriving city with plenty of room for investment and for the savvy, business here is booming. Not just the bad kind.  Yes, there is A LOT of darkness and exploitation and coltan  smuggling and corruption. The violence concentrated in villages is a seemingly inhuman brutality.  We don't seek to minimize it with this post.  Our days to come will certainly be filled with things that are hard to see and hard to  speak about.  But, one of the goals of our project is and always has been to show that there is also LIFE here.  There is a country that is ready for growth and peace and ripe for legitimate investment.  

We ended our night sitting on a dock on Lake Kivu with a few South African pilots talking about the beauty that is the continent of Africa and the travesty that is its image throughout the world.  People stay away from Africa because it's seen as this scary place filled with only violence and poverty.  But, if you could step one foot on this magnificent continent and see it for what it is, just as it is... its raw beauty, its vibrant culture-- you could see beyond the corruption and the conflicts and the swollen bellies to see the real Africa.  A place that even in the midst of hardship continues to breath life into this world.  Millions of people call Africa home, call Bukavu home.  This is the real Bukavu: laughter, love, friends, family, fun, LIFE... Who knew?