Hope of St. Joseph
Assisting communities affected by war in Bukavu, Congo, Africa
As an introduction, the “Saint Joseph Shelter” is a response to one of the serious consequences of the war in the DR Congo, especially in the east of the country. This war started in August 2, 1998, and it has killed more than 5 million people. A 2011 study in The American Journal of Public Health estimated that nearly two million women had been raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with women victimized at a rate of nearly one every minute. A recent study showed that nearly 40% of all women in the DR Congo have experienced rape, more than 1,000 women are raped every day in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This shows more or less the horror going on, before the eyes of many organizations and of the persons of good will. D.R. Congo is dealing mostly with an economical war.
Among those raped women and little girls, are those who we shelter at the “Saint Joseph House”. We have chosen to house the youngest, not only because they were alone in that situation, but because the situation is so hard that the smallest seem to disappear within this huge conflict and deep suffering.
The story of the house starts when in 2006 during my vacation in the D.R. Congo, I was able to go with three boys in the brothels, and talk with some of those girls. The fact is that I know that if someone would see a priest going to the brothels, it could become a scandal. But my feeling of sadness was so strong for me that I didn’t even have time to stop and think of what could happen if some believers saw me there.
In talking with the girls, I knew they were in brothels because of the situation in their villages. One of the stories that shocked me is the one of a 14 year-old girl. She was out for water, because in many Congolese villages there is no tap water, when she heard gunshots. She was afraid and managed to go back home as quick as she could. Approaching her village, she saw people running in all directions, so she understood that her village was under attack. She just then followed the mass movement. During all this time of running and confusion, she was thinking about her parents, young brothers and sisters and what might had happened to them; until now, she does not know anything about them. She stopped, and entered in a house to hide until calm returned. Unfortunately, some of the rebels saw her, they entered and raped her. She managed to escape to the main road after that; she was harmed, and bleeding. She got a ride to Bukavu city but, once there, she didn’t know where to go, even to receive health care. So she was approached by a lady who showed her into a small house and suggested to go there so she could ask for help. It was one of those brothels, where others girls of the same age were exploited.
When I learned about this reality, I remain speechless and felt powerless. What could I do to get them out of those brothels? I was very sorry but at the same time, I was feeling that something had to be done; I could not leave them there in such a hell. The following day, I went to see some families for an adoption program but no one was willing to welcome these girls coming directly from brothels. They feared for their own daughters could be driven into prostitution. So, I went to see the mayor of Bukavu, and told him how sorry I was before such situation, and how I was feeling I had to do something for those girls. But the Mayor replied that the city was out of money because of the war, and it was very difficult at that time to do anything for them. Obviously there was no solution to this problem so I went back to the families, and requested assistance for the 7 girls we had met in two days, while I was trying to find a solution. Around this same time my vacation was over and I had to go back to Spain where I was working as a Missionary Priest. The assistance we agreed upon was for counseling, health care when food (if needed) but they needed to remain at the brothels. Then I could pay for that at the end of the month.
Four months later, in November 2006, one of the families who were giving assistance, called because three of the seven girls were pregnant and declared "useless" in the brothels. Unfortunately they could not go back to their villages for safety reasons and we could not let them go on the street. I was horrified by the idea of them having abortions, and also (during the process) the possibility of being killed. So I decided to start the “Saint Joseph Shelter” without knowing really where such adventure will lead me. A week after, while three were trying to settle in the Shelter, I had another call saying that four others girls have been brought to the Shelter and one of them, a 12 years old, had fistula. So, we took her to the hospital where they took care of her before coming back to the Shelter. She was with her family one evening, when they heard a big blow on the door. Three strong men came in and started beating her dad. They asked for money and his wife. The parents gave all the money and the animals they had, but there was no wife for them. So they became furious and hit her dad harder, while another one was checking the entire house to find a girl. Unfortunately they find the 12 year-old under the bed, pulled her out, took her to the bushes and raped her (leaving left her with fistula by the side of the road). Fortunately she was picked (she did not know by whom) and brought over to the Shelter.
To this day (August 20, 2014) we have 33 girls and their children living in the “Saint Joseph Shelter”. They are studying in normal schools like others girls their same age. This help them not to feel cut-off from the reality of same age kids. At the shelter, at the same time, they learn to sew and weave after school, they learn to take care of domestic animals and to make soaps. May St JOSEPH, our Patron, take care of those kids.
Fr Donato LWIYANDO, Guetteur