Cut from the first draft of A Thousand Sisters: My Journey into the Worst Place on Earth to Be a Woman
, this chapter tells the story of my sister Venciana. It was scrapped from the book because it simply didn't fit the story structure and narrative flow.
She has been waiting here on the couch for hours, on the off chance I will drop by the Women for Women offices on a Saturday. I recognize her from her photo: Venciana. She heard I was in town, but missed our scheduled group meeting. This is no joyful reunion. She is young — maybe 25 — but reserved and distant.
She holds a limp, snotty baby on her lap, and her other kids are sick at home. We drive to the outskirts of Bukavu, brainstorming a grand scheme to give her $60 to launch a chicken and egg business. We park the car and walk, winding our way past an abandoned warehouse, over footbridges patched together with wood, mud, and plastic. Up an old, undriveable road that looks more like a riverbed. The locals are not used to seeing whities in these parts, so we attract plenty of blank stares and beckons from curious children.
The slum's shacks grow farther apart the higher we ascend the hillside, giving way to small terraced plots with panoramic views of Lake Kivu. After a half hour walk, we arrive at Veniciana's 10' x 10' mud hut. Her oldest daughter practically looks her age, already taller than her mother. She is around 13, shy but healthy. I can't say the same for her younger siblings, who range from five years old to the baby — all swollen bellied, snotty nosed, sober, and droopy. Inside her hut, one of her kids is crashed out on the bed, among piles of clutter. He barely stirs. The kids are sick.
"Let's take them to the doctor. Where is the nearest clinic?"
"It will be difficult to go with all of the children. I can take them later with the neighbor's help."
I see where this is going, "I can't give you cash for their treatment."
"The children will have difficulty to walk."
"We can strap one on my back, Raymond can carry one..."
She disengages, sits down, facing away from me. Dr. Roger has explained what desperately cash-strapped moms do when their kids get sick: They go directly to the market and buy cheaper medicine. The problem is, often the dosage is way off or it is a placebo, and the kids die.
"Can we talk?"
"We can talk." She says, with her back to me.
"I understand you that you need money. But we need to be honest so we can solve the problem — medical treatment or chickens? Or both? Are the children sick?"
"In reality, all the children were ill, now they've stopped vomiting. They are still lethargic. It must be children's illness. But the baby needs treatment."
We take the baby and walk to the local clinic, packed with mothers and sick babies. It all may sound dramatic, but there is nothing sexy about hours in clinic corridors, waiting on blood tests or paying the pharmacy. The diagnosis? "Malaria and parasites." The treatment is $20 for everything, including injections, pills, and infusion.
Venciana is unamused, "Even the other children present the same signs. During the day they are okay, during the night they have a fever. All day, they have drippy noses, headaches..."
The nurse says, "Those are the signs of malaria."
I pay the clinic $80 for all four, wondering what Internally Displaced Person would ever have the cash to access these basic treatments.
It may be the best $80 I've ever spent.
Later, I talk with Venciana about how she ended up here in Bukavu.
"Interahamwe. Interahamwe... Yes, it was the Interahamwe. Just after we got married, Interahamwe started to coming. I remember well. It was the middle of the night when we heard people crying. I was eight months pregnant. We left the house in silence. We had one goat. We took the goat with us and went outside. When running, we realized the Interahamwe were in front of us. We hid behind a hill. Everyone was in the forest. That night we spent hiding in the bush. They burnt six houses. Our house was among them. Only in the morning we saw they were killed." One of the babies hugs her mom and her baby sister. It hadn't occurred to me the conversation is not for children. "We saw the bodies in the morning. I lost my grandfather and two cousins. We could see it was by guns."
"We were hoping the war would end, but it continued." She is cool, detached, instinctively tugging at the hem of her daughter's skirt. Children creep in behind her, cling to Mom. "A few days after our arrival at our in-laws, that village was also attacked. Again, we had to spend the night in the bush. Spending night in forest is very painful. We ran with our blanket only. When you are extremely tired, you sleep on the grass, covered in a blanket. If it rains, you are wet. There is nowhere to go. That's how we passed all our nights.
"Once in second village, as they knew Interahamwe had habits, they sent old people, and women were sleeping in the bush. The villagers organized a group of security. Young men slept in the village, a kind of security in the village, a lookout for Interahamwe. My husband was among the group.
"The day he was taken away, I lost hope. Normally, the group came to inform us about the night. That morning, we saw nobody. We thought immediately the whole group of young men were taken. I know whenever they take a young person, he can't return to the village. After carrying their baggage, the last young people must be killed. I felt upset knowing this was the end of my marriage, the end of my husband.
"Fortunately, after one and a half days, he came back to me. It was a joy. It was like a party between the two of us."
Later, I will speak to Venciana's husband about that night. "I was among 15 young men taken to forest. We had to carry heavy baggage with them. But two of us said they were really very, very tired. They can't continue, or they will die on the way. So Interahamwe said, 'Okay, if you want a rest, you'll be given a rest.' And they killed the two persons. Others were very, very afraid.
"In the middle of the way, after one and half days, we were obliged to take a rest. I ran away in the middle of the night. They chased me, but they didn't catch me. They shot, but fortunately the bullet didn't hit me. I went back to my village and asked my wife to move."
"So they use men like pack-horses, and exterminate them as soon as they get to the camp?"
"They take the men only to carry baggage. Once there, they kill them."
"Like disposable people."
"That's why they're looking for villagers. The real problem was some pretend member of village joining us to capture us. That's when we decided to leave. After awhile, Interahamwe knew there was nobody in the village. They had to get someone who has run from another village who would speak our own dialect, which is Moshi. So you think they are a friend or a member of the village. When you talk to him, you realize immediately he is not one of the group. He takes Interahamwe to you. It didn't happen to us, but it happened to our neighbors, some young persons. When it happened, we had to move. One day, the friend we were hiding with told us he was going to leave, as he has family in Bukavu. We decided to leave the bush and go to Bukavu.
"We walked. I was pregnant, so it took us three days. We walked three hours at a time."
Kaniola to Bukavu is the same distance as my Run for Congo Women, about 30 miles.
"We had nobody, no family, we just ended up here. We went with the friend and stayed with his family. After a while, there was a change in friend's attitude. He said 'How can I continue to support your family and my family?'
"My husband got $10, but a neighbor asked us to watch this compound for him, for three dollars per month. Up till now we didn't pay rent for here.
"It is really difficult, life in Bukavu. We can say there is no life here. Unfortunately in Kaniola, there is no life there. My husband carries packages at a market near the lake. Sometimes my husband comes with 1,000 Congolese francs (about $2). We eat 500 and save 500. The next day, he is back with nothing, and we spend the remainder. It is not a question of calculating income at the end of the month. I go there only so I can have a measure of maize flour. Some fish."
"What do you do when your children get sick?"
"If we have money, we get medicine to give to the children."
"The elections have happened. Some people think the war is over. Do you think the war is over?
"I can't say the war is over. I receive news from my village. They continue to kill people, rob things, so I can't say war has ended. Because if I knew the war ended in our village, I wouldn't accept to suffer here in Bukavu. We would go back to our village. Our occupation was only to farm. If you farm, you know you can eat. We can't go back to our village, because we are young and it is young people the Interahamwe look for there."
"What would you like to say to people in America?"
True to form, Venciana is nonplussed; "War is not good. Only analyze only this house, this family, this condition."