For nine years Mama Francine (for her safety I cannot reveal her true name) has lived in the safe house in a remote and isolated area outside of Goma. For six years before that she lived at a hospital and endured surgery after surgery to repair the damage to her body caused by violent rape. Even six surgeries could not repair Mama Francine’s body. “She leaks” the translator explained to us. She is in constant pain. She has not returned to her village since she was raped 15 years ago because after the rape, she was no longer welcome in her village. For 15 years she has not seen her children because after the rape, she was no longer accepted by her family. Mama Francine’s only connection with her family is Sabar, her granddaughter. When I asked Mama if she’s seen her daughter in all these years, she responded, “They sent Sabar to me”.
A dozen women, all rape victims, live the lonely days of their lives together at the “safe house” with their new family, a family borne of tragedy and circumstance. Their lives are bound together by solitude, shame, rejection, sorrow, boredom and loss. They wash their clothes, they prepare their food, they tend to their children, and no doubt, they silently relive their horrors of their past and dream of their former families and of the lives that could have been. And they pray with what appeared to me to be passionate devotion to a loving God.
There is no relief here from what I would call the living hell in which so many of the people we met today live. I am overwhelmed by sorrow and cannot imagine what additional sadness we will confront for the next seven days.
Before we said goodbye to Mama Francine and the other women, I asked if we could join hands and pray together. While I wished that Rabbi Schulweis could have been here to offer one of his brilliant and eloquent blessings, since he wasn’t, I offered a blessing with him in mind. With the women of the safe house, we prayed together for the healing of their bodies. We prayed for the restoration of their health and we prayed for the day when women would be free of abuse and violence. We prayed for the day that these women would be welcomed by their families and would return to their villages. At our guest house tonight I lit Shabbat candles, and as I did, I prayed again for Mama Francine, for all of the women, and for us. Amen