Rights activist in war-torn Congo inspires victims

jdodge@theolympian.comSeptember 24, 2013 

Zawadi Nikuze risks her life working with rape victims in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

JOHN DODGE/STAFF WRITER

On paper, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the world’s richest countries, flush with trillions of dollars worth of diamonds, gold, cobalt, tin and tantalum — a corrosion-resistant element that plays a prominent role in manufacturing electronics such as cellphones and laptop computers.

In reality, the east African nation is dirt poor and traumatized by a never-ending conflict between government, militia, rebel and United Nations forces that has claimed some 7 million lives over the past 15 years.

“The players keep changing, but the war and attacks on my people keep coming,” said Zawadi Nikuze, a native of Goma in the eastern Congolese province of North Kivu, one of the most war-torn regions of the country. “The raw materials are extracted from the mines at no benefit to the people.”

Nikuze is a human rights activist who has worked with rape survivors and their children for more than six years in Goma. There is no shortage of work for Nikuze: A variety of militias and armies use rape as a weapon, a way to control and destabilize families and communities. Some 70,000 rape victims live in Goma, Nikuze estimated.

Nikuze has had to flee for her life on several occasions. But she keeps going back to Goma to provide trauma healing and to help rape victims support themselves and regain their self-esteem through small micro-economic projects. For example, women are taught to sew, crochet, weave baskets, read, write and manage their money.

Her work is under the auspices of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams, which is a Quaker relief effort.

Nikuze has been in the South Sound area the past few days, sponsored by the Olympia-based Quaker group, Friendly Water for the World, which helps bring biosand water filters to impoverished people around the world for whom clean water can mean the difference between life and death.

She’s here to raise awareness of the horrific conflict in her country and raise funds to support humanitarian efforts in a country of unfathomable violence. On Monday, her message was delivered to two appreciative and disparate audiences: at SafePlace, the Olympia nonprofit that works with survivors of domestic and sexual violence, and at Panorama, the Lacey retirement community.

The SafePlace event was a private conversation with a few SafePlace employees, including executive director Mary Pontarolo.

“The connectiveness we feel with Zawadi is major,” Pontarolo said after the meeting. “Domestic and sexual violence is a universal problem.”

I attended the Panorama gathering, the second time I’ve had a chance to hear Nikuze speak in the past few days. The other was an interview which found me at a loss for words as I tried to imagine what it must be like to live in the eastern Congo and work so courageously on behalf of the rights of women who are assaulted routinely and without repercussion.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the second-largest country in Africa and home to 450 ethnic groups, many of which form their own rebel forces. Many of the battles are over control of lucrative mines and resources that make their way to markets all over the world.

“It’s a world war — we just don’t hear about it,” David Albert, a Friendly Water for the World organizer, said at Panorama on Monday.

There’s an exception to Albert’s observation in the October edition of National Geographic. Check out the story by Jeffrey Gettleman, the New York Times’ East Africa bureau chief and photos by Marcus Bleasdale, who has spent as much as 8 months a year photographing the war in the Congo. “I keep bringing back these images because I want to make people as angry as I am,” Bleasdale said in the introduction to the magazine piece.

“Turns out your laptop — or camera or gaming system or gold necklace — may have a smidgen of Congo’s pain somewhere in it,” Gettleman wrote.

In the face of fear and lost hope, Nikuze tries to give the victims she encounters a reason to live. “I tell them: ‘You need to live for the sake of your children.’”

Nikuze is pregnant, expecting a child in December. I couldn’t help but ask: What is it like to bring a child into a world filled with so much violence and misery?

In one way, her desire to be a mother is an expression of hope for the future, for her country, for her family. She also offered a more practical reality.

“If we all die, who will tell our story?”

HOW TO HELP

For more information on how to support the African Great Lakes Initiative’s work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, visit aglifpt.org.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com

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