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Rebuilding lives in DR Congo

By Mike Thomson
BBC News, Democratic Republic of Congo

A few minutes after I had broadcast my first interview with Zawadi - a young Congolese mother who had been gang raped and then forced to hang her own baby - I was asked to make plans to go back.

It took me nearly a year to get on the plane.

A man holding bullet casings (Photo:Lionel Healing/AFP/Getty Images)
Fighting has left five million people dead in the last decade

During the intervening months, I happily agreed to go to all sorts of other troubled places. But finally, I ran out of excuses and alternative locations.

It was only when I was 30,000 feet up and finally heading for Congo that I started to ask myself why I was reluctant to go back.

The place is grim and events there deeply disturbing, but then that is also true of many other places in which I had recently found myself.

Yet, it was not until a crackly voice told us we were about to land that my thoughts came into focus. They were accompanied by a heavy sinking feeling in my stomach and a general mood of despair.

Memories surfaced from my last trip to Congo, of how several years of "official" peace had done little or nothing to improve the desperate, brutalised lives of so many there.

In fact, things seemed even worse than on my first visit in early 2003.

Hopes that peace would finally end the cruelty, bloodshed, and almost indescribable suffering in many parts of the east seemed to have dissolved into a harrowing quest to survive.

What, I asked myself, was the point of going back, if that is all I would find to say?

'Floods of tears'

Zawadi's tragic story of being raped 19 times and forced to watch 48 people die, including her brother and three of her own children, had moved many listeners when it was broadcast in May last year.

But on the odd occasion I raised the subject in private over the months to come, the mood in the room would plummet.

Map of DR Congo
Too frightened to return to her village... Zawadi now survives with her five-year-old daughter in a tiny, rickety hut in a wretchedly poor suburb of Bukavu

One friend even told me he wished he had never heard the original interview. All it did, he said, was leave him feeling depressed and powerless.

That was just how I felt when I last saw Zawadi.

Was I really helping her, I wondered, by broadcasting her terrible suffering to the world?

Was I kidding myself that by bringing attention to her ordeal I might spur international action against the hordes of armed killers that stalk the forests near her village?

This did seem to be her belief and the reason why, though in floods of tears for much of the interview, she insisted on telling her story.

But I wondered then, and on meeting her again this time, whether handing her a fist full of dollars might have been much more effective.

'Silent despair'

Although some of the deep lines in her face that had made her look 20 years older were gone, nearly all the vitality and expression seemed to have vanished with them.

Her eyes were blank and her mood shrouded in silent despair.

Too frightened to return to her village from the hospital I had met her in last year, she now survives with her five year old daughter, the only family she has left, in a tiny, rickety hut in a wretchedly poor suburb of Bukavu.

I have been overwhelmed and greatly uplifted by the stacks of emails and letters that have flooded into the BBC offering help

Publicity did not appear to have done much for her. Neither, it became clear, would that fistful of dollars if given in cash.

As I left her home crowds that had gathered outside began asking her how much money she had got from the foreigners.

Without even solid walls to secure her home, the local charity I was with decided it was safest to take Zawadi with them for a few days until local interest in her finances died down.

Banishing demons

I have been overwhelmed and greatly uplifted by the stacks of emails and letters (one of them stuffed with cash) that have flooded into the BBC offering help.

Now it looks certain that Zawadi's rent will be paid along with school fees for her adorable bright eyed little daughter, Reponse.

In fact, the sheer volume of offers looks likely to help numerous other women too in the local hospital that treated her. Perhaps also giving them some much needed financial security?

And I have since heard that Zawadi is now back at home and talk of foreigner's money has been forgotten.

All this has helped banish at least some of my more negative demons. And this time I managed to maintain my composure when asked what I had brought back.

I was somewhat embarrassed when, on arriving home from my original trip, tears suddenly started streaming down my face when I tried to describe to my editor the contents of my interview with Zawadi.

How could this happen? A hardy hack starting to blub? Though I later took some strange comfort from the fact that, in this still rather macho world of news, my colleagues seemed even more embarrassed than me.

As to whether I will be returning to Congo any time soon, to be honest, I am not sure I have actually left.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 26 April, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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