Father Justin’s brand new white trainers are getting muddy. It’s mid-morning and despite the look of resignation on his face he has once more agreed to take us on a short tour of the parish. He’s sporting the new trainers on the basis of expecting a more sedentary day in his CDJP (Diocesan Centre for Justice and Peace) office, but his enthusiasm for telling us the story allows him to indulge his Scottish visitors a little longer.
It’s the rainy season in South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo and here in Bukavu the rain has turned the rudimentary roads around the Parish Church of Mater de Dei into something approximating the Somme. Our photographer Simon has seen a spot he thinks would be good to frame a shot and we are making our way through the mud up a steep hill in an area Fr Justin says is controlled by ‘the local mafia.’
In our sights is a small area now touched by tragedy. The week before, after similar rains to the ones we have experienced over the last twenty-four hours, the timber supporting one of the hastily built houses atop a steep hillside gave way. A landslide ensued taking out half a dozen other dwellings and leaving five people dead.
The place to which we are climbing is where three young girls from one family had been buried for five days under rubble; their rescuers had been the youths who were our guides. ‘Had the authorities helped with the recovery?’ my wife asks one of the young men who had been part of the make-shift operation. It seemed the only people concerned enough to help had been neighbours and volunteers, although there was talk of assistance from MONUSCO (a United Nations organisation charged with helping to bring stability to eastern DR Congo.) who brought spades.
As we view the scene and begin to understand the helplessness of those who had lost everything I see the first signs that all of this was becoming too much for Fr Justin. The short burst of exasperation wasn’t due to his 24 hour, 7 days a week vocation to running an ever expanding parish, his other day job at the Diocesan Centre for Justice and Peace, or the danger he feels every day from militias who have twice made attempts on his life, but simply the concern he feels for the families who keep pouring into this huge shanty town to flee the imminent danger they experience in the isolated villages in South Kivu.
‘I tell them to go back,’ he tells me. ‘There is nothing for them here. No work, no schools and no housing…but still they come. How can you help us?’ He looks down at the jumble of tin shacks perched on the steep incline which have no official utilities to speak of. His desperation for these new residents to return is only a fleeting thought which is quickly chased away by his overriding frustration, ‘They have no water, can you help us to give them a water supply?’ We nod hopefully, but we all know it will take more than our visit to change this city.
It’s not hard to see why Fr Justin might become frustrated. The term multiple deprivation is tossed around glibly; but here it has real resonance. As we walked through the streets and back alleys to the site of the landslide we passed children who had no money to go to school, scores of unemployed young men and open sewers running down towards the centre of town.
As we struggled to keep our balance in the mud Fr Justin bestrode the hills like the proverbial mountain goat. A slightly overweight avuncular figure he would have made the journey in half the time had he not been stopped by children who wanted to speak and the many young men who considered him to be their friend and ally. ‘You don’t fear for your safety?’ I ask him back in the calm of the parish house overlooking the jumble of make-shift housing. ‘No,’ he tells me, ‘These people are my protection. They know I am telling their story.’
Their story is what we came to hear. South Kivu in eastern DR Congo has experienced decades of war and extreme violence. Since the Rwandan genocide in 1994 when the gangs responsible fled over the border, the DR Congo has become their home. Their presence in outlying areas coupled with other militias intent on controlling the country’s vast mineral wealth have made North and South Kivu almost ungovernable. The victims inevitably have been women. Rape has been widely used as a weapon of war and Fr Justin’s day job, once Mass has been said and funerals taken place, is to represent the thousands of women whose lives have been destroyed by sexual violence. Much of this work happens thanks to money given in Scotland to the Catholic international aid charity SCIAF who we’re travelling with.
The women’s stories we hear again and again involve armed men coming at night to a village, gang raping and beating them, often in the presence of their family, before abducting them. Their husbands, children and families are often bound, to render them powerless. The women often return pregnant, often carrying STDs, being HIV positive and suffering severe internal injuries. Their lives as they knew them can then be over. Their husbands cannot accept the children, their families will not entertain them in the house and they become alienated from their entire community.
The Commission for Justice and Peace in Bukavu, led by Fr Justin, is a place of refuge and support for these women. Their work with SCIAF, who is helping to provide medical care, trauma counselling, legal aid and support so women can recover and become financially independent is transforming thousands of women’s lives. But many more still need help. The charity’s Lenten WEE BOX BIG CHANGE appeal is helping to raise money for its work in DR Congo and around the world, and this year it has Aid Match funding from the UK government so all donations given before 20thMay will be doubled. It’s a cause worth supporting.
From our short time in South Kivu, we learnt it is a harrowing and unpredictable place to live, especially if you’re a woman. But amidst the suffering, we also found joy, and it’s worth sharing that too.
It was Sunday morning and we are crammed into the sanctuary of Mater de Dei Parish Church to experience Mass at 6am led by Fr Justin. Hordes of locals are streaming up the hill to the church to join the 2,000 souls inside. Singing like I have never heard fills the room and, for the first time ever, I have the sense that the old image of music lifting the roof off the building begins to make sense. Dancers surround us dressed in traditional costume and a celebration begins.
Outside of the church, life will go on the same as ever. The poverty is endemic, the roofs let in water and electricity is sporadic. But this morning, in this Mass there is joy for the two hours in which we are assembled.
Is this the opium of the people in full spate? A mere diversion from the struggle that should be waged against those in power who allow such deep inequality? Or is it, as I believe, the necessary outpouring of an affirmation, that despite every single thing going against them, human beings (and these particular humans) endure against incredible odds. That simple act of survival can’t simply pass unacknowledged. When we celebrate we do it together because it is in becoming one unifying voice of joy, defiance and hope that we give ourselves the strength to keep going.
I looked round at our small Scottish delegation comprising Christian, Buddhist and agnostics alike. We’d all heard the stories of heartbreak, violence and destruction. We all knew the task to turn some of that was overwhelming and yet we, all of us, recognised – albeit for a brief two hours – the necessity of joy and hope.