Since O, The Oprah Magazine first reported on the epidemic of rape and violence against women in the Congo two years ago, your response has been overwhelming. You were inspired by these women's stories of horror, and answered the call with postcards and donations to Women for Women International, the intrepid organization that's been helping to put these Congolese victims back on their feet.
How are these brave survivors doing today? The healing is slow, but they have survived what in the Congo is now being called the deadliest crisis since World War II—and they want to thank you. Honorata Kizende, 54
"When I started the Women for Women program, I was afraid to speak. After being raped repeatedly, I had lost courage."
Honorata was once director of the Lycée Amani, a technical institute for girls. That ended in 2001 when she was gang-raped and abducted to the forest to become the most degraded kind of sex slave: "I did not belong to one person; I was for the use of everyone and anyone who needed me." After more than a year, she escaped and made it to the city. In 2004, however, she was living with her five children—her husband had deserted her for another wife—when militiamen broke in. Several stripped her naked and rammed themselves into her old wounds, flash-flooding her with traumatic memories. Her pregnant daughter was also raped. "I bled incessantly," says Honorata. But that was nothing to her compared with the loss of her value and importance as a person in society.
After several meetings with her group of 20 at Women for Women, she says, "I started to realize that I was not the only one who had gone through what I'd been through. And the opportunity to communicate with foreign sisters in the United States has been shocking and moving for me at the same time, and it encourages us to fight for women's rights here." After learning how to tie-dye as a stopgap means of support, Honorata is back to her activist self. "I am planning to travel to my village, Shabunda, to help women understand the election process so they do not accept gifts [from candidates], so they demand greater accountability from politicians. Our country has been in crisis mode for too long." Seraphine Bulonza M'Mirindi, 44
In January 2003, Seraphine was pulled out of bed in the middle of the night by the Interahamwe, Hutu militiamen responsible for the 1994 Tutsi genocide in Rwanda and many of the recent attacks in the Congo. Her 3-year-old son "tried to cover me with his little body, but they beat him," she says. "Four of them raped my oldest daughter until she was bleeding from everywhere: the vagina, ears, nose, anus." Both children died. Her husband had been kidnapped some years before, and Seraphine, without a home or a way to feed her remaining six children, felt she could not go on.
After starting the Women for Women program, she learned that her husband was alive and had taken a new wife. When Seraphine told him how their own son and daughter were murdered, she says, "he cried and could not be consoled." Still, she says, "I see that he has no intention to come be with us."
Nevertheless, the counseling has helped her feel stronger. She is not only able to support her six children but has taken in her brother's four as well. "They killed him and took his wife into the forest. We still have no idea whether she is alive. So I am trying to send ten kids to school. I have been sick with migraines. But the little energy I have to spare will be to ensure the education of the children, especially the girls, because an educated and a noneducated woman do not live the same quality of life." Maria Birange, 52
"I cannot stop grieving. I know I must focus on my life and the children who are still alive, but I am still very heartbroken." Even after the program, her memory is matted with unbearable events: She was raped by four rebels, one after the other. "When they asked my two sons to open my legs for them, my boys refused. So they killed them both. Then they took my old mother and burned her alive. She cried as she was burning. I could smell her flesh. There was nothing I could do."
Now, however, Maria has a successful business, selling beer and flour. "Things have improved because I can eat at least once a day," she says. "I have two girls, 15 and 17, who I am sending to school; I am paying for the education of my 13-year-old nephew as well. My children must continue their education. I hold on to life for them." Cecile Furaha Ndagano, 20
Two or three times a day for seven weeks, Cecile was raped after being kidnapped by the Interahamwe. Then she discovered she was pregnant. At 17, she'd never had sex before, and the loss of her virginity to a bloodthirsty 40-year-old still torments her. Not long after her ordeal, she bumped into a girl she knew who was getting married. "I saw my joyful childhood playing with my friend, and tears started flowing from my eyes. I thought if I could go back to being a girl again, I could aspire to get married one day."
Her one solace is how well she's doing as a merchant. "If I am able to ensure that my daughter, Sylvie, can go to university, this will give meaning to the tears that have been flowing so long." Marie Donatienne Nyakasane, 33
"I know how to calm myself now when all the images start coming back—time and my work have been healing forces."
Marie, who was raped on two separate occasions, responded by starting an organization to help victims of sexual violence. "Many of the women ended up with HIV/AIDS," she says. "I was lucky not to. But this helped me realize that I must have courage because there are others who need me."
Now Marie's family is getting into the healing act. Her husband, who left her after the first attack, returned two years later, and their relationship is much improved. "Before, a day would not go by without reference to my rape, but he no longer speaks badly to me," she says, noting that he's had to deal with his failure to protect her. "And he has now completely committed himself to helping other men understand their own trauma. Since we started this work, 93 men who had left their raped wives decided to come back after counseling." Marie's daughter Aline, raped at age 8 along with her mother, is determined to study human rights law.
To learn about how you can help women in the Congo and all over the world, visit www.womenforwomen.org.