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Sean Sheridan/World Relief

Conflict Zones

Congo's Superhero Moms

An American mother journeys to a Congolese refugee camps to speak with mothers there about their hopes and dreams for their children and their war-torn country.

This was the year my two sons began to love superheroes. We popped in the Spider-Man DVD one night out of boredom and that was all she wrote. For the next five months we watched everything Spider-Man, Superman, Ironman, and Whoeverman we could. So, when I announced I would be making a special trip to the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to find and record the stories of brave women living in what the U.N. calls the “most dangerous place to be a mother” their reaction was natural: “Mom, they are like superheroes.”

Why yes, boys—yes they are.

My journey into the heart of war-torn Eastern Congo began last summer at the suggestion of a trusted friend. To my husband’s credit, he whole-heartedly supported the idea of his wife traveling into a war zone. This, after all, is the man who delivered my Mother’s Day breakfast-in-bed with reading material titled “Congo: The worst place in the world to be a mother”. And I love him for that; he knows I don’t want to be the one that cringes at hard things, but faces them squarely armed with hope. It was my husband that introduced our family to the great British abolitionist William Wilberforce, who famously said “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.”

I first learned about the seriousness of the war in Congo years ago while living as a mom, with my two toddlers and my husband in Rwanda for World Relief. I learned that this war was regional, was complicated, was protracted and was considered by many to be hopeless. The whole region was one of those areas of the world to shake your head and click your tongue at. The decades-long war in Eastern Congo is shaped by regional politics, ethnic rancor, and a greed surrounding the lucrative mineral mines. Currently, 64 percent of the world’s supply of coltan (used in cell phones, laptops, pagers, and other electronic devices) is found at the heart of this conflict region. Columbite-tantalite, a metal ore that, when refined, can hold the high electrical charge necessary for creating the miniature circuit boards inside many of these same electronic devices, is no small character in the drama that is the Congo conflict. This cauldron of complexity affects the lives of families every day. It was through their struggle that I was to be changed. I saw the reality of their lives. I saw that almost six million people have died in this war, making it the most deadly conflict since WWII, and yet never making front-page news. To mothers, the casualties are husbands, sons, daughters, and parents.

And I saw with my own eyes how painful “displacement” is in conflict. Though the word “displacement” sounds clinical, it is not for moms. It means disruption at the very roots of life. Villages where they had hoped their children would grow up are swallowed up by violence. Crops they had grown with the faith that there would be plenty are stolen. The land many of these subsistence farmers hoped to pass on to their grandchildren’s children is pillaged and burned. Of the 70 million people that live in the Democratic Republic of Congo, well over 2.7 million of them are “internally displaced,” with hundreds of thousands more fleeing for their lives across borders into other countries every day. As a result of this unrest and extreme vulnerability of civilians, moms here live in the shadow of the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world.

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Sean Sheridan/World Relief

As I entered my first Congolese Internally Displaced peoples (IDP) camp in August of this year, I was struck with the sheer amount of children. Children all ages—everywhere I looked. These were the vulnerable ones that the U.N. Mission was there to protect and defend. Yet, in Eastern Congo last month, even peacekeepers went to war for the first time in history. Unanimously authorized by the U.N. Security Council to fight rebel groups for the protection of citizens in Eastern Kivu, Congo was now at war with peace. The United Nations deployed 2,000 of the allocated 3,000 Special Forces into combat, armed with a strong mandate to create a safety zone and push back rebel militias who want to control the city of Goma.

Children played all around these U.N. soldiers. Blue tams and insignia on combat uniforms announced their mandate to protect at all costs. I have to admit, my head spun as I watched history being made as white eeps emblazoned with the black U.N. lettering, mounted with semi-automatic high-capacity machine guns and flying the white flag raced by. Mixed metaphors or brave protection I will not hazard to guess, but either way, more guns mean more bullets and more bullets mean more people becoming displaced, as the U.N. News Center estimating more than 6.4 million Congolese currently in need of food and emergency aid. How many of these people are moms? I can only wonder—in 2010, after years of influx, many of the camps quit trying to accurately count.

This is not good. By all accounts, on all fronts, both the formal and informal IDP camps around the region are beyond capacity. Capacity tents, capacity toilets, capacity water, capacity food stores. Mere weeks before I entered Mugunga #3 IDP camp, security just outside was precarious. Marcel Serebungo, Church Mobilization Director for World Relief Congo, describes the situation:

“IDP camps were moving every day. People suffered so much because movement was involving parents who are not strong enough to carry children and some of their belongings after spending days without eating and children who are so weak. Women and children are targeted because of their vulnerability. They live like slaves in their own villages—being beaten, put in prison without any reason, carrying burdens for armed people and paying non-reasonable taxes.”

To say moms living in the ever-moving IDP camps are “resource-challenged” does not even begin to capture the level of need. Over and over the directors of the camps I visited voiced the desperate situations. One director described it this way, “These people literally live in hell. We cannot meet the needs of those who are just trying to survive here.”

Such was the story of Ayinkamiye Maisha Esperance, a Congolese IDP, who lives in the heart of the "most dangerous place to be a woman," and “the worst place to be a mother.” I met her in what was her “home” for the last 12 months—tent #B-27-47—an 8-by-12-foot white tarp with straw stuffed into the corners to fight against the oncoming rainy season. Here, for her, her husband and her five small children, is where all the cooking, sleeping, storage, and life happens. She and her family fled from Rutshuru area one year ago. Shots fired in their village throughout the whole night and forced her and her family out into the dark to run for their lives. The journey on foot and by cover of darkness took three days. They moved undetected from village to village and rested with the youngest children, but had to gather water and food for at least one meal. “War came to our village and we fled for our lives.”

Here in the overcrowded IDP camp, Maisha Esperance and I talked about how she gathers wood in the forest. For her, as for the many others who gather sticks for fire, this is dangerous work. Brave women go into the forests to gather wood to use to cook the meager rations or to sell to supplement the small monthly portions of maize, red beans, and rice that will last just over three days for a family of seven. It may take as much as a third of a bundle of wood just to cook the hard casings of the Congolese red beans. Militia men know about these needed trips into the woods, and they wait for the women to come. Rape, as the saying here goes, is cheaper than bullets. In this region of Africa, a wife and mother are considered the beauty of the community—the heart of the home. If you can break the heart, you can break the community. Women become a tool of war, with violence and revenge wreaking havoc in what was once Congo’s greatest natural resource—shared village life. Without strong ones standing up at a grassroots level to the bullying powers that be, Congo is a wealthy giant that stumbles and falls, crushing the grass where it lay.

As Maisha Esperance and I walked through the camp, I tried to imagine myself surviving half as well as she did. I didn’t want to walk away from this place, her home, and have only simple memories of this day. I wanted to identify with this mom, with her suffering and her strength. To identify with those who suffer is fundamentally different from just remembering them. When I remember I bring to mind only a specific awareness of the suffering in Congo. When I identify I, by definition, “become united with, equated with, associate strongly with” those who suffer in Congo. I wanted to stand with her in solidarity as a mother, a woman, and a believer. I wanted my faith community and my nation to stand with her in support.

I asked if I could pray for her and her children. “Yes,” she said as she looked me in the eye for the first time. Then, without apology or hesitation she said, “Pray that I would have strength in my struggles. I need strength for my family and for the others. I feel alone. I have no one to speak for me.” This was her only request, and it came from the heart. In turn, I gently asked that she pray for me and my children as well—that we would learn to speak well for those who need a voice. Kneeling together in the dust and rubble of a protracted war, we stood in solidarity as mothers who hope for their families to thrive and for justice for their nations.

It turns out that mothers in war zones are not so different from mothers in Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Detroit, Milwaukee, or Baltimore. Like many struggling superhero moms, the women of DRC wrestle to feed their families, hope for decent education for their children, look hard to find work, endeavor to provide and keep shelter for those they care for. And here, they strategically add “pray earnestly for peace” to this list.

Peace. Peace within themselves for the wounds of violence against them and their families. Peace for their communities as they grasp for a future for their children. Women and children have suffered the unspeakable here, and yet, they are full of bravery that propels them forward every day, taking back the dignity and control that has been wrestled from them. They find food, they give birth, they wash clothes, they heal from wounds, they start businesses, and they educate their children as best they can. Moreover, they extend comfort and strength to those around them. As I saw in the life of Maisha Esperance, they generously share their space, their food, their songs and their prayers with others in this place of want.

Just like the fictional citizens of Gotham City, the grassroots moms of Congo want to live in peace. It is these mothers who live in exile and uncertainty every day that carry on their shoulders the very future of Congo. By looking at them full in the face, I can clearly see past my temptation to take pity on them, to see them only as the vulnerable and suffering Congo—to believe only in the shadows of darkness and conflict. Facing these brave ones, I see the hope and my heart remembers the power of a mother motivated. A woman filled with courage to survive is nigh on unstoppable.

Much like a superhero.

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