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To See and Be Seen

In the world’s “most dangerous place for women,” the greatest fear isn’t rape or death—it’s being forgotten. My heartbreaking experience in a displacement camp for the people of Congo.
To See and Be Seen

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She was haggard and beautiful, pulling her sweater closer to her body as the rain clouds above us threatened. Her name was Uwimana Marie, she was 50 years old, and she timidly spoke as I asked about her flight to the camp.

"When you're a refugee, you lose everything," she said while inspecting her perpetually moving hands. "But the most painful part of becoming a refugee is losing your right to think. I used to think about my farm, my goats, and the education of my children. Now, I only think about how to survive each day."

Four other voices murmured their affirmation. At this, the floodgates opened, and each found confidence to pour out their own story of loss and lament.

A forgotten conflict

The Nkamira Transit Camp—a camp set up by the United Nations for Congo's "Internally Displaced People"—is located just across the Rwandan border. To say the camp is "filled to capacity" would be an understatement. Last month, a kind but overworked camp director arranged for me to meet with Uwimana Marie and four other women who sought refuge in the camp. These women, all between the ages 40 and 80, represent a demographic that makes up almost 60 percent of the camp population. As the camp director and I walked past the tarp walls and tin roofs of 11 warehouse-sized living blocks, I saw women and children in every nook and cranny. The women were cooking, washing, carrying bundles of charcoal, and waiting in endless lines, while children were kicking balls made of banana leaves and trash. They were all ultimately trying to get on with their lives in this new place. Every pair of eyes I looked into seemed to plead, "Do you see me? I'm here, I'm here!"

As a "transit camp," refugees are meant to only stay a maximum of three days. Uwimana Marie and her four companions had been here for well over nine months. They fled from their home in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Dubiously referred to as "the most dangerous place to be a woman," "the worst place to be a mother," "rape capital of the world," and "the world's greatest humanitarian disaster," the conflict in the Congo is regarded by the international community as intractable and hopeless. Every day, these five women lived in the midst of the "headline" statistics of this war: 6 million dead, 2.7 million internally displaced, almost 450,000 refugees, and a woman or child raped every 60 seconds.

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To See and Be Seen