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In search of Zawadi

By Mike Thomson
BBC News, Today programme

Although Zawadi Mongane's horrific story shocked me - and later much of the world - it is not an unusual story for this part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Zawadi and daughter
Zawadi was one of many victims in eastern DR Congo

I met Zawadi Mongane almost a year ago in eastern DR Congo's troubled province of South Kivu at a hospital for survivors of sexual violence.

Rwandan rebel soldiers known as the Interahamwe, many of whom fled over the Congolese border after their involvement in the genocide of 1994, came to Zawadi's village. Her description of what followed is a litany of terrible violence.

She, her brother and three of her children were abducted along with nearly 50 people from her village and taken to a rebel camp in the bush. When they got there the village head man and all those related to him were asked to stand up.

All were then butchered with knives where they stood. Over the coming days the killings continued until only Zawadi and another woman was left alive.

Zawadi says that during those terrible days two of her children were killed in front of her and her brother was decapitated with a machete after he refused to obey a command to rape her.

Yet her most painful memory, which she says still haunts her dreams, is when she was forced to hang her own baby. Throughout this account, which took more than an hour to tell, Zawadi frequently collapsed in tears. I asked her why she agreed to carry out this last, most awful act.

She replied "One of my children was not with me when I was taken. She was safe. I had to stay alive for her."

When Zawadi's interview was broadcast on Radio 4's Today programme and on the BBC's World Service, the response was extraordinary. Numerous people wrote and emailed to express their outrage at what they had heard. Many also wanted to help, to do something. Months later enquiries were still coming in.

What, people wanted to know, had since happened to Zawadi and her only remaining child?

I wish they had killed me to that day
Zawadi Mongane

I returned to find out at the end of March this year. Many weeks of phone calls to charities in eastern DR Congo yielded nothing about Zawadi's fate. Neither did initial enquiries to the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu where I first met her.

But finally, after a lengthy visit to the hospital one of the managers there made a breakthrough. He had received information, he told me, that Zawadi had not gone back to her home village but is living in a suburb of Bukavu.

I found her sitting listlessly in a small shack without electricity in an extremely run down suburb. Physically, she looked much improved on the distraught and tearful figure I met in April last year. Mentally though, it was a different story.

Throughout most of the interview Zawadi's eyes stared straight ahead, rarely looking at me. Her face remained rigid and set even when cuddling her five-year-old daughter, Reponse, who is the only other surviving member of her immediate family.

"I wish they had killed me to that day," she muttered.


I'm so devastated. I get nothing out of life. I can't see anything in the future

Zawadi Mongane

Zawadi tells me that she has settled in this tiny hut, which is paid for until next month by a local church, because she is too frightened to return to her village. "I am worried that soldiers will rape me again and then do the same to my little girl," she said.

She adds quietly: "I have seen this happen to children even younger than her."

There's also the stigma that all rape survivors face here. They are frequently turned out of the family home by husbands and hounded by neighbours on the grounds that they bring shame to the community and possibly the HIV virus too.

Hope for the future

What hopes, I ask Zawadi, does she have for the future? She shakes her head.

Zawadi and daughter
The family are living in a shack in the slum area of Bukavu, Goma

"I'm so devastated. I get nothing out of life. I can't see anything in the future." She looks at her daughter who is curled up beside her in the gloomy, airless hut.

"Sometimes when we don't have enough to eat and she is missing her father and I am missing my husband. We share our grief and we cry together."

Zawadi has one big wish. She wants the Interahamwe, the Rwandan Hutu militia, driven from the forests of Congo. "Do you also," I ask her, "want these men, the ones who destroyed your family, to be punished, tracked down and killed for what they did?"

Her answer is the same as a year ago: "No I don't. I still feel that I don't want those people to be killed. I know that God will judge them."

With many predicting that a coming offensive against the Interahamwe by Congolese government troops is doomed to failure, getting them out of forests they plague may, indeed, need help from above.


SEE ALSO
Country profile: Democratic Republic of Congo
09 Feb 08 |  Country profiles

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