Horror and Hope in Africa

(Warning: Some of the material in this posting is very graphic and disturbing.)

Our car tires kept crashing into huge pot holes every ten feet on the only “paved” road through Goma, Congo. We bounced along, veering to the right and left to avoid the worst of craters, and a steady stream of cars and motorcycles weaving in and out of our “lane.” The slow, torturous commute gave me a lot of time to see the row of lean-tos and shacks in each side of the road, and the many people hanging out, hawking items, walking here and there…

More disturbingly, I watched dirty children in tattered clothes playing in rusted out abandoned cars on top of hardened lava. For some of these kids, the cars were their homes. However, I was told, the situation out in the country was worse. Far worse.

I heard story after story of violent robbery, rape, killing, and corruption. Feelings of shock soon gave way to anger, dismay and despair. Mr. Kurtz’s final words, in Joseph Conrad’s disturbing novel, Heart of Darkness, kept coming to mind: “The horror. The horror.”

In the story, Kurtz had gone to what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, as an idealist. He left it a sick, degenerated, savage man, who had become captive to his evil impulses. The story explores the evil (the darkness) that lies within even the most noble human heart, and what can happen when it is left unchecked. The horror refers to what humans can degenerate to, and what they are capable of doing to one another and to themselves, given the right conditions and lack of safeguards. As he lay dying, heading home from Africa, the depth of the horror he had experienced and participated in was expressed in his now famous words.

In our recent trip to Rwanda and Congo, my wife, Jill, and I were exposed to some of the horrors still taking place in our world. We have just returned from visiting the Genocide War Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, where we saw and heard the story of how approximately 1,000,000 people were slaughtered in just over 100 days. We also spent a week leading a Pastors Leadership Conference in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where 4,000,000 died in a five year civil war, which involved surrounding countries as well and the overthrow of a brutal dictator. The war officially ended in 2003, but senseless killing, maiming, and raping are still going on in the Kivu regions in eastern DRC. I hardly have the words to describe the revulsion and fury I feel, but I must try to express what I experienced. I also saw a few reasons for hope, and I want to share those with you, too.

The Horror
The horrors of the human capacity for evil exist in every culture, in every people group, in every nation, and in every person. Often, many of us are ignorant of the abuses taking place in our own community, let alone the rest of the world. Periodically, the scale of the atrocities becomes so great that they cannot be hidden—genocides against the Armenians in Turkey during the First World War; against the Jews during the Holocaust; the killing of millions by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia after the Vietnam War; ethnic cleansings on every continent, the brutal killings of Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda over decades, culminating in the great 100 day genocide in 1994; Darfur today. The list goes on and on.

I offer my experience and learning partly to inform others about what has happened and is happening in two African countries. Even more, I want to sound an alarm and call to action. There is human suffering all over the globe, including in our own country, cities, and some of our own families. We need to see what is happening, we need to see what part each of us plays in the suffering of others, and we need to do what we can to respond compassionately and thoughtfully. No easy answers here, but a recognition that we must pay better attention to the consequences of our actions, and inaction.

During the civil war, when four million people were killed in Congo, and since, unimaginable violence and atrocities have been committed. For example, I saw an independent film while I was there that included footage of two armed men abusing the bodies of two dead combatants, who looked to be just teenagers. One put his finger in a bullet hole in the dead boy’s head, and pulled back some of the skin as one would remove a mask, effectively peeling away part of his face. Another fighter stomped on head of a dead person. Another began to mutilate the dead body, before the camera turned elsewhere.

Today, in Congo, much of the country is gripped by great poverty, and the violence continues. In Goma, where I spent all of my time last week, most people are afraid to go out after dark lest they get attacked or shaken down by dishonest soldiers. Almost everyone is afraid to go into the countryside in many places, lest they might be robbed and killed, or worse, raped and mutilated by militias or rebels. On top of the political and social mayhem, a volcanic eruption in 2002 wiped out at least a third of Goma, ruined most of the roads, and further destroyed the infrastructure of the city. Most people are now living in simple wood shacks built on top of lava rock, waiting for the next eruption of the active volcano.

What’s perhaps most disturbing is the ongoing violence and the extent of brutality. The day before we left, for example, an alarmed foreign journalist ran up to me to tell me about an interview she had just completed with one of the women waiting for surgery at HEAL Africa’s hospital. The woman had been raped by six men out in the countryside. When they were done gratifying their lust, they took broken glass and cut off her labia. No wonder thousands of internally displaced people (IDP’s) have fled to various camps in the countryside to escape the violence and the threat of such terrifying violations and brutality.

I don’t have words to describe how sick some of these stories make me feel. What produces such cruelty, such viciousness, such brutality, such evil? No one seems to know. Hate perhaps, but why? If there are political purposes, no one can satisfactorily identify them. Terror, perhaps, but often the violation and violence seems purposeless, carried out by out-of-control teenagers with guns, who are filled with unimaginable hate and viciousness.

The better known genocide in Rwanda is another example of mind numbing violence in Africa. I had read a number of articles about what happened in 1994, but I didn’t realize how much more there was to the story. The Memorial states that over one million people were butchered, hacked with machetes, shot, burned, bludgeoned, and buried alive in a little over 100 days. Did you also know that the genocide against the Tutsi minority was pre-meditated, with lists of names prepared in advance of the onslaught? Within an hour of the assassination of the President in April 1994, roadblocks were set up all over Kigali, and gangs of armed people went out to systematically kill every Tutsi in the city. Over the coming months, as the United Nations and the rest of the world stood by doing nothing, these killers set out to exterminate the entire Tutsi population in the country. Did you also know that 350,000 orphans were left behind? Did you know that thousands of others still live with mutilations, trauma, and other physical and emotional scars? Did you know that killing is still going among Hutus and Tutsis, with Tutsis killing Hutus and Hutus killing Tutsis–only now the proxy war is being fought across the border, in the DRC, with thousands of Congolese getting caught in the middle?

I didn’t. To my embarrassment, I never thought about what it must be like for the survivors and for the country as a whole as the people try to heal and to promote peace and unity among all citizens. I tended to think of the genocide as a very unfortunate moment in history, now past. After visiting Rwanda and Congo, I now realize that the trauma goes on, even though Kigali has been sanitized and so much “guilt money” (as one aid worker described it) from foreign powers has poured in to help the country rebuild itself.

As we walked down the streets where thousands of dead and dying bodies had once been strewn, I tried to let in the magnitude of what had happened in a sudden surge of hate and savagery. As I drove by those convicted of genocidal crimes, now dressed in pink doing work for the community under armed guard, I tried to catch a glimpse of the faces of killers. Disturbingly, they looked like everyone else in society—normal human beings.

I met a number of survivors, such as Theoneste Kiki, who has been raising his three younger sisters since he was seven years old and his parents were murdered in front of his eyes. I realized that it is now almost 14 years that many orphans have been struggling to raise themselves and their siblings with very little help from others, many of whom are in similar situations. Healing and health are still a long way away for many.

Hope
Thank God, there is also some light and hope in these countries. Here and there, I see good signs. Rwanda is far ahead of Congo in most ways. Both countries are struggling, but Rwanda has many more visible signs of recovery, while Congo is still be torn apart in every imaginable way.

Mostly, I see hope in individual Africans who are rising up to try to address the suffering and to help their fellow Africans heal and create a better life. Non-Government Organizations (NGO’s) provide critical relief for many who are on the verge of death or disease. However, so much more is needed, and only the African people themselves can create a better society for themselves in the long run. Fortunately, some are trying to do just that. Let me give you just a few examples from what I saw in one week’s time.

HEAL Africa (http://www.healafrica.org) was created by a Congolese man, Joe Luci, and his wife, Lyn. Their vision is for Healing, Education, Action, and Leadership training. So far, most of their efforts have been focused on creating a hospital and clinic to serve the poor. HEAL Africa has also been creating Nehemiah groups to promote dialogue and cooperation in the villages to address pressing needs. These rural community-based programs work with local health centers, health and HIV education, economic recovery, legal initiatives and school scholarships.

At HEAL Africa, featured in a recent PBS special, “Lumo,” I also met a number of dedicated Congolese doctors, nurses, and other staff members who are seeking to bring healing, provide health education, and provide antiretroviral drugs for AIDS patients and children who are HIV positive. I was inspired by these people, as I was by Dr. Christina and other foreign doctors like her, who volunteer their time and resources on a short term basis. Visiting surgeons come to do fistular repair work on women who were brutally rapes or who sustained injuries incurred while giving birth at home at a very young age. Currently there are over 100 women waiting for operations.

Through the Pastors Leadership Conference, I met many pastors and others who are very committed to alleviating suffering, caring for traumatized rape victims and displaced persons, and to sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I was particularly moved by hearing an Anglican bishop and HEAL Africa staff talk of their work with impoverished widows and shunned rape victims. In various ways they are supporting and helping these desperate women to learn skills and get material to start their own small businesses so that they can feed themselves and their children.

I was only in Rwanda for one day, but I had the chance to meet one particular woman whose tireless dedication helped understand better the plight of the orphans and what is needed to truly help. Beatrice Mukansinga, who founded a small outreach, “Speak. I’m Listening!” (See: http://www.mbwirandumva.org.) Beatrice, and her staff, has devoted much of the last fourteen years of her life to helping Rwandan orphans to grow up and survive the post-genocide years. They offer food, job skills, and post-trauma counseling.

A Response of Resolve
When I was at the Genocide War Memorial and read about the brutal slayings of over one million defenseless people, and when I hear about the atrocities being committed against women, children and men in the Congo countryside, and when I hear about abuse and neglect by individuals and governments all over the world, sometimes hate and rage wells up within me. But I realize that it is just such feeling that leads to violence and perpetuating suffering. Such rage is not going help anyone.

Instead, I am choosing a different, more constructive, response: resolve. I am resolved to pay better attention to the suffering I cause in others, and to find better ways to promote peaceful conflict resolution. I am resolved to not turn away from suffering, injustice, exploitation, and cruel acts of abuse and neglect when I see or hear of them. I am resolved to focus my attention, energies, and resources on standing up for those who need advocacy and on doing what I can to help. By God’s grace and the working of the Holy Spirit, I hope that my intentioned response will result in real changes in me and fruitful action for others.

I hope I can return to Africa to help in some way again this year. I also plan to travel again to various troubled spots in Asia to teach and encourage pastors and seminarians there as well. In the few small ways open to me, I am resolved to do what I can. I’m only one little light in a world of great darkness, but I am resolved to let my light shine as best I can.

The world needs your light, too. In the midst of all the horror, what hope can you offer to others somewhere, anywhere, within your reach?

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:1-2, 13-16)

**Check out my wife’s website for pictures of the labyrinth she built for the Pastors Leadership Conference, and to read about the experiences of the participants who walked it: http://www.jillkhg.com/Congolabyrinth2007.html.

1 Comment

Filed under Africa

One response to “Horror and Hope in Africa

  1. “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things” (Mark 6:34 TNIV). Should our response be any less than our Lord’s, one of compassion? We need Jesus to teach us many things as well. Thank you for sharing your experience. It is easy for us in our comfortable lives in America to forget about God’s children suffering elsewhere.

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