Sunday, June 19, 2011

Postcard from the DRC 4 - Born Survivors

It’s been a pretty intense week in Beni. After eight sessions of teaching the techniques of CBT we’ve begun the trauma narratives. Since most of the young people can’t write they’ve been drawing the traumatic events that they have suffered and talking about these in individual sessions. The goal is basically to bring these into the open, practice controlling their thoughts and hence find healing from nightmares, flashbacks and other symptoms of PTSD.

You could not make up or imagine what many of them have been through. I’ll spare you the grotesque details of the mass killing, rape and mutilation that many of them have witnessed and been ordered to inflict on others. Some of the rebel groups mix violence with spirituality and witchcraft which has left those children especially psychologically damaged. For instance everyone here believes that the ‘Mai Mai’ rebels are invincible and impenetrable to bullets after being covered in sacred water. They believe that they gain extra strength for battle through rape and eating the flesh of their enemies.

These young people are the world’s true survivors. On listening to the stories of some of the lads yesterday it struck me that if any of them were to go to the US or UK and tell their stories they would become celebrities. They’d be speaking at every Christian conference going. There would be a movie made about their lives. The stories are of abduction, battling enemies, finding food, escape, trekking hundreds of miles, hiding in rivers and forests….stories of survival. I’ll find it hard to be impressed by Bear Grylls again after being with these people!

While it tears you apart to listen to their stories we have found great encouragement in hearing almost all state how this intervention is helping them. Two boys said yesterday that they previously had no hope and were daily considering suicide. They said that through the techniques we had taught them and the fact people cared had given them hope and a desire to live and make a better life for themselves.

It is not as easy for all. The current situation our friends is the most moving part. Some of the kids still sleep on the street or in brothels and no one seems to be in a great rush to do anything about it despite our efforts. This results in great frustration with the NGOs and UN who talk a lot about their work with ‘enfants de la rue’, ‘enfant soldieres’ and ‘victimes de violences sexuelles’ but don’t seem to be doing much to help as yet. An example is my wee mate ‘Simon’ (can’t put real names online), a 13-year-old living on the street. He has never known his mum or dad and has never had a family. The process of finding him a host family is infuriatingly slow. Another example of incompetency is a former child soldier who seems to be the natural leader of the boys. ‘Jean’ is an amazingly resilient 17-year-old who just wants to live a normal life. He has been taken 3 times from the CTO back to his family by the Red Cross. Each time he has been reabducted by the rebels, beaten almost to death, escaped and ended up back in the CTO. The powers that be are now in the process of sending him back again and he is terrified that this time he will be killed. He just wants to start anew somewhere else.

There are so many similar stories I could write all day.

Jonas our interpreter and self-appointed project manager keeps us sane with his antics and constant chatter of mostly nonsense. He is an African del boy, who knows everyone in town and could sell you a virus. In NI we’d say he has the gift of the gab and he would be very successful! He knows lots of pieces of information about history, religion, culture, psychology etc. but makes up what he doesn’t know. Hence in his stories, random Africans end up in the bible, people fly on magic carpets, Galileo gets crucified and we are doctors from Iceland. He has also started to imitate my Norn Iron accent when interpreting which cracks me up.

I went to a party at UN HQ the other night with some locals and the Nepalese ‘peacekeepers’. They have a curfew at 10pm so not exactly an Irish party. I did however meet a guy from East Timor whose brother works in Moy Park, Portadown! It feels like we’re in another world here but our world is getting smaller. With the Congolese elections coming up, I hope the world wakes up to the suffering of their brothers and sisters in the DRC sometime soon.

So pleased to have become Uncle John again this week. Am counting down the last 3 weeks until I get to meet wee Hanna Joy McMullen!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Postcard from the DRC 3

Just a short update so ye all know we haven’t been eaten by rebels.

Actually Beni feels less and less like a war zone and more like a quiet but strange African town. It is completely safe for us to walk around and I haven’t felt in danger here at all. There is a UN curfew at night, so combined with a lack of electricity I’m usually in bed before 11pm. It feels like being a kid again.

I’m just back from a long French/Swahili church service. After 3 hours of not understanding anything and being entirely zoned out I decided to make a subtle exit. The entire congregation of about 400 locals all turned to stare at the churches only white person leaving early!

The work is intense but overall it’s going really well. The actual stuff we came to do is progressing beyond my expectations. I’m really loving working with the group of lads. It feels like teaching again which is class! Already we can see great progress, though so much of their psychological well-being is still affected by their daily circumstances. We have our first session with parents, care-givers, teachers and NGOs tomorrow which we hope will be significant.

The girls project is going great also. Most of the girls are around 15-16 and many have their own kids as a result of their work. African women have no qualms about public breast-feeding. It must be the only group-based intervention in the world where there are boobs hanging out everywhere as you try to talk!

We have also begun the microfinance projects for boys and girls, which we have high hopes for. The rest of our days and evenings are spent training our local staff, in meetings and trying to push forward our partner NGO to get the girls we are working with out of the brothels and the boys off the streets.

Dealing with local people and NGOs is the most frustrating part of the trip. The fact we are trying to do so much in a short space of time, combined with how hard it is to make things happen, is frustrating. Being 2 out of maybe 5 white people in the entire town results in everyone asking for money, from the young child to the educated adult. In saying that we have been totally blessed by those that are working with us. Jonas, our interpreter, is a wee legend. He is a great storyteller, often confusing fact and fiction, and gives me a great laugh. He is basically my sidekick for 8 weeks who I would be totally lost without.

While the details are stressful, when I step back and look at the bigger picture it’s amazing how it has worked out. Divine planning not ours I believe. However, it is easy to develop cabin fever in this small town and we're in need of a day off and an adventure. Trying to plan a trip into the jungle next Sunday to see some gorillas (people say there are gorillas but I think they may just mean monkeys) and maybe meet the rebels.

My main source of entertainment so far has been a couple of evenings having a beer and playing pool with some locals. I’m playing the best pool of my life and am the current champion in 2 different venues! It helps that the locals aren’t very good. Though I think perhaps God has improved my abilities in order for me to gain respect, as I have no other way of communicating with people! Some locals don’t like to lose. One night this guy was punching the table, calling me a witch doctor and continually threatening to cut my throat. His mates were telling him to wind his neck in (or whatever they say in Swahili). I beat him, then made a swift exit home. It felt good!

Thinking a lot about home especially the imminent arrival of my new nephew/niece!

Love and peace,