… ‘If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.’ Then he bent down and wrote on the ground again. When they heard this they went away one by one, beginning with the eldest until Jesus was left alone with the woman, who remained standing there. He looked up and said, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir she replied. ‘Neither do I condemn you,’ said Jesus. ‘Go away, and do not sin any more.’ (John 8)
This story is built upon words told to me, and upon things I saw. There are no betrayed names to mark a man against his will. Only the sins remain, written into the dirt. This is a story, like in those movies one sees in the cinema, in the dark, based upon actual events.
1. A Tire Burning
2330 hours, on the Feast of Saint Turibius of Mogrovejo, 2010
Tonight I sleep up in the mountain fog of Rutshuru, with the nuns, safe, except for the fact that I cannot in fact sleep; that I find myself alert after three beers; that I feel empty after fufu and kuku and pili pili.
I listen to old songs by Supertramp and U2, trying to conjure sentimental distractions from this cold, naked truth: tomorrow, I must climb back into the Landcruiser-cum-ambulance and revisit the scene of some terrible crimes; return across the hot, sandy savanne, some five hours roundtrip, back to Kibirizi, a village held between the forces of the government in Kinshasa and the Hutu FDLR rebels, a village with a chief, but without a police presence, a village of which I came to know because of the recent cases that came to light of male rape, a village, in which today as I drove through the place, I passed by a very large, burning tire, with scores of children loitering nearby….
It had started the night before, sometime after dark. And the tire was burning, and the children long buried, by the time we arrived in the town.
To get to Kibirizi, you have to drive and drive hard. There are two options. The first is to head west, from Goma, to Sake town, about an hour on pavement, and after the mosque you turn right, and start up past the market, and up the escarpment, past the old CNDP checkpoint, past the charcoal market, up through the banana groves, until you cross the timberline into green rolling mountain tops, the grazing lands of the tall ‘Congolese’, with the dairy cows and the Kalashnikovs, who in stronger times, before the armistice, called themselves proudly acronyms or Tutsis, but who still, despite the end to their land grab, will shoot a visitor to their territoire, who lingers too long. Ask the Hunde whose land this once was.
You continue through dangerous forests to Kitchanga, and more dangerous forests to Mweso, and then work your way slowly off the massif, via endless switchbacks, and away from the Tutsis, and into the lands of the Hutus. In ’94, they fled across from Rwanda, and into the forests of the Kivus, and here they have hacked out little niches ever since. Minerals buy bullets. And mines mean business. And up in Masisi and Walikale, the gold and else became the tinder to keep the marauding Hutus from moving on. Down off the back of the Masisi Massif, you drop onto the sandy floor: scrub and savanne, into officially Virunga National Park, unofficially a staging area for war, between FDLR and FARDC, with little fauna still left for bushmeat. It is after this long trek through the recent history of invaders and victims that you reach the outpost of Kibirizi, due north, sort of, from Goma, as the crow flies.
The other option seems better: no Tutsis, no Masisi. More pavement, more governmental presence: along the roads that, according to official maps, cross through the park. More U.N. peacekeepers: with white tanks and blue helmets. From the roundabout in front of the old defunct post office, in downtown Goma, you head east to the soccer ball statue, put up in the middle of some crossroads by the Catholics from Don Bosco, you then turn north at the ball, and head out of town, past the airport, and the headquarters to MONUC, and up over the shoulder of the steaming Nyiragongo volcano, and into the deep green of the guarded national park. You drive through Africa’s Switzerland, skittering about, along the shared frontiere, with postage stamp-sized Rwanda, traditional tribal hub to Tutsis and Hutus and place of pox, on the face of Africa, since ’94.
You drive then down a bit into fertile, tilled, terraced soil, into the now resurrected giant coffee plantations, replanted, redefined since the armistice, with the spoils shared by the leaders of all those torn up by the conflict, and the indigent, now back, hard at toil. Old masters, and newfound: with foreign investors, behind familiar faces. The rubble, from the Belgian investments of a half of a century, before still loom on hills, and against the fast, dirty waters. You drive for an hour, and the climb toward the hill station of Rutshuru, with its mountain air and pine trees. Just before, under a propped up canopy, is a MONUC checkpoint, where the Swahili-speaking, French-speaking, drivers try to negotiate their way cross columns in the registration book, with headings in English, and with Indian peacekeepers, smiling, with little ability to offer assistance beyond English or Hindustani.
Four ‘clicks’ out of Rutshuru, you come to Kiwanja, with its hotbed of politics and commerce. Fourteen months before, this was the center of much of the final fits of the fourteen-year war. This was the last stand of the CNDP. This was where was the end before the armistice, which was drafted and framed, in old paneled rooms, on green felt tables, in countries north of the Atlas.
Ten minutes and you are out of Kiwanja. More coffee, and then plantations pass into park, once more. Thirty minutes and you cross the bridge over the rapids, and you enter ‘sensitive area’: no stopping, no photography. No joking. Antelope and baboons suggest what was once a park with an incredible abundance of fauna, before Joseph-Désiré Mobutu became Mobutu Sese Seko, before Zaïre, before l’Article 15 and Débrouillez-Vous!, before the génocidaires came over the border, before machetes were traded in for Kalashnikovs, and the land grab, and the mineral grab, and the war. After thirty-two years of Mobutu and twelve more years of civil war, no bushmeat was left. Now supplemental food comes in shiny silver USAID cans from overseas.
In another thirty minutes, passing the thermal springs along the muddy river, past the dirt piste to a once grand lac, you reach the U.N. base at Rwindi, the former wildlife-viewing resort built by Mobutu, and then used as a personal hunting lodge. The vast herds of elephants are now ivory bangles in Hong Kong and Dubai, their original owners having been condemned to roam the land as ghosts, in search of their ancestor’s burial grounds. In this strange necropolis of Belgian cottages and colonial interpretations of native huts, all in waste and ruin, mamas sell stale beignets and bottles of Fanta and Coke, and baboons and humans carry around their off spring with nowhere really to roam, sharing the same sparse plot of cleared wasteland. Here, you turn left. And after the government soldier lifts the blue-painted, weighted road barrier, you cross onto the route dangereuse. The sign on the left says not to stop, and never to leave the piste. Stay on the track. Stay moving. Twenty-six clicks to Kibirizi: one very long hour of waiting and watching the shadows far off, under the trees: through sand and dry grass and scrub trees and no more. After a sign by a ruined Belgian building in the middle of nowhere appear coffee plants and banana plants and manioc fields, and you climb a small hill and into Kibirizi. A sign announces a potable water center, but is dated by the word ‘Zaire’, and as such should not be trusted.
You have arrived.
I arrived at 11:30 a.m., Tuesday morning, via this second option. I arrived on a dark, stormy day. I arrived about as far as possible off the well-traveled route between Goma and Beni, further in the north. This was the true Kivus. This was land barely held in check by Goma or Kinshasa. This was a land without visiteurs.
Kibirizi is significant only by comparison of what it is not. It is not maddening and self-important like Goma. It is not pastoral or provincial like Rutshuru. It is basic in its red adobe structures and its street life. Signs are limited to words: no clever colors or imagery. Everything has been eroded down to function. The market is ad hoc: only on Wednesdays with makeshift tables and no stalls. There are deep sewage ditches that line the main roads. There is a hospital, and I counted three churches, all Protestant. This world is beyond the reach of even Rome. Out here, the shadows wear grey, and the chief smiles in his short shorts and a CARE t-shirt, while entertaining Indian peacekeepers and staring at my tattoos and sunburned arms, waiting as one of his wives hands him one of his cell phones with an Abba ringtone.
There is army, FARDC. Green, with bits of blue. But the village chief is known to also court the FDLR: rebels. He is the only one who can say: here it is calm, and with whose words one can go to the bank on. He knows. He runs eight villages, and fields, and then some. He is in this game, for life.
Here, there is army, but no police. There has been no police in Kibirizi for a fortnight. It seems that two weeks back, the community tore down the jail, and ran out the police, and left them to rot, in the bush, in the hands of animals or marauding Hutus. They never came back. And they have not been replaced.
There was a man who had been heading home from a funeral, late, one night. And he was drunk. But for skin color and red adobe, this tale could have come from the annals of Ireland, some century ago. Anyway this man stumbled into a band of soldiers, green with the blue. And they saw his condition, and as he could not tell them clearly which house was his (Kibirizi is a very large simple village of red adobe), they took him into protective custody, and released him into the care of the local jailor, who wore a policeman’s navy uniform.
Sometime later that night, this drunk was tortured: he was whipped by a tree branch, and then was shot. No one seemed to know why, but it was done. It was said so. And the village went mad. And the village went about to seize justice. And jail, jailor, police: no more.
And so, for two weeks: no arm of no law. And crime could be seen, it was said, to walk around in the streets and the fields, at whim; and last night, the night before we arrived, it did. Crime had come to town, for some time, in the form of a visiting bandit, a man who had found employment in the household of a man with three sons. He had also found a room in the vicinity of his employer. They all lived at one end of this sprawling red adobe ‘town’.
As Pascal told me this, as we drove to present ourselves to this local chief for his blessing, I thought of names like Tombstone and Jerome and Dodge, and a ranch called Bonanza, and a valley called Big Valley, and how American this place had come to suddenly seem.
Out West, the Mormons had been big fans of bloodletting until early in the last century. Crime waves and public executions tie a community to a common law.
We had arrived in town, at 11:30, and then crossed the town, to find our hosts waiting at a women’ shelter, one that our hospital had built and still runs. We had passed the ditches, the market, the store signs with simple words, the hospital, the town hall, and had come out the other side. And there, just down from the shelter stood a field, and in the field, by the road, a pile of rocks, and around the rocks a bunch of kids, and atop the rocks a ring of fire and thick black sooty smoke: a burning tire: just lit.
We left the young women from our group, at the shelter, and we, the men, climbed back into the white cruiser to find the chief.
We passed again the tire. Black smoke, and some sweet lingering, unfamiliar smell. Pascal and our hosts were sharing some Swahili.
And he said, to me: “You know that tire, you know under it, they are burning a man.”
I turned around.
He continued. “They killed him. And chopped him up. And now they are burning him.”
We were already back, in the center of this red adobe town, and I was feeling like I was going to be sick. I could smell him, the burning man, everywhere. And all around the ambulance, people were looking up, at me, in the front seat, the blanc, the muzungu, in a white button-down oxford cloth from Brooks Bros., and a brown leather hat from the market up in Kitchanga last week, and they smiled so warmly and waived, and seemed so genuine and welcoming. They had killed a man. This morning. And they were now roasting him under a burning tire. And I was going to shake hands with their chief.
“He was a bad man.”
“How was he bad, Pascal?”
“He was a bandit. He took a machete. And he killed two children, in the night.”
“Because he was a bandit.”
“That is not a why! Ask them. Ask them what happened, please. People do not just kill children.”
Pascal asked our hosts, who were traveling in our car, with us, to present us to their chief.
And this is what they said. They said, that there had been this traveling man, who had come to stay in their village, with his bicycle, and who had worked for this one guy, for a period of some time. He had found a room not far from this boss. And this boss had had three sons.
Last night, this bandit, being a bandit, had gone off to some far distant part of the village, with a machete, and had forced his way into a house full of people, to loot some money and some ‘other things’. He got his loot, and he left, but someone had recognized him, he knew where he lived, and who we worked for; the bandit had been dumb. And the bandit, he knew the one who had recognized him. And so he panicked, and left, but headed out into the forest, instead of home. And he waited most of the night, hoping that some twist of luck would keep his recognizers from his house and his boss’ and the soldiers or someone else.
From where he bedded down, he could have never seen the next. This location was his second time at being dumb in a single night.
The victim who knew him went to the soldiers who went to his house, and who then went to his boss’ house, who arrested the boss and who took the bandit’s bicycle, and who went back to headquarters to properly deal with the boss.
The boss left, and left his three young sons in bed. He had trusted that he would be back, and that all would be as he had left it.
He was wrong.
He came home.
He came home to blood on the front door: a smear of a man’s hand fleeing. Dawn was slow to arrive. His world would never be the same.
The soldiers had thought, at first, that he might have put his employee, up to the deed, some sort of enterprise, or vendetta. But hours of sitting and questioning and waiting around produced nothing of interest, certainly no confession. He had told them how little he knew about the man. He had pointed out the man’s only valued possession, his instrument of mobility, in a land where nothing moves quickly, his bicycle, rusted with patches of black paint.
The soldiers took the bicycle. They had packed it along with the boss into the back of an old green Landrover, a souvenir from a British East Africa. It was that old. And even after they have driven the boss back home, the bike stayed, in a locked room, at army H.Q.
The bike provoked the rest of the tale.
Hours after movement stopped in the red abobe ‘town’, the bandit sneaked his way back from the forest, from shadow to shadow. He crept back to his domicile, where he had left his bicycle. It was gone. It had been taken. His step quickened. A hot flash ran down his back. He snorted. He felt the weight of the metal blade in his left hand. He had always favored his left hand. His focus clouded his smarts. He left the security of the shadow pools, and stepped squarely out into the light of the moon.
The boss’ house was full of light. The boss had left the lights on, when he was taken, in the night, by the soldiers. His boys were afraid to be alone, in the house, in the night.
The bike was not around.
The bandit peered into the two windows, and then being a bandit used his bandit knowledge to jimmy the door with the machete.
He slipped inside, his head on fire. Perhaps there had been alcohol or bangi involved.
He saw little else. When he finished his body was covered in red. Red streaked the walls. No boys lie chopped in half. He had played with them only the day before. He had liked them, but now his head was on his bicycle, and nowhere, and no escape. He was stuck in a ditch and he was wild like a beast. And he slashed into the shadows, struck a wall, struck a bed, and fled back into the night.
The boys were killed in their sleep. His fury had, at least, in that regard been merciful. No screams had pierced the air. He had only come to be aware some minutes later. The fire was gone.
It was then that the fear set in. Hunted, he sensed he had to flee, and again he made his way into the forest, to wait, for the dawn.
In his fury, he failed to count sleeping heads. In his hurry, he did not notice the surviving child. The middle boy, who had sat in the corner, in the darkest part of the lit room, and had watched his brothers get hacked into halves. He had watched his father’s employee destroy his father’s legacy. He had watched the end of his happy life as a middle child.
When he could move again, he too fled into the night.
The father saw the blood, saw the pieces of his family chopped in two’s, and howled. He knew.
The neighbors came, and saw, and knew, and took the father away, down the road.
The pastor came, and saw. The chief was sent for, and came and saw.
The middle son heard the howl, and came, and told them all.
And then, in the last moments of darkness before dawn, the plan was made to bring a swift justice, so that the children could be buried, and their souls restored.
At dawn, the bandit woke up, from a nap, under a tree, covered in vines. He washed away the blood in a stream. He threw away his shirt.
He walked along the road, into town, in the early light. A soft glow covered his frame. People he passed smiled and went their way. His step gained a stride and a bounce that comes with a certain confidence that one has passed as certain test. He walked off the main road, crossed over the sewage ditch, and entered the compound of his boss.
Everything was quiet.
The boss appeared after a while.
The bandit was snooping about, looking for his bike, machete in his hand. He was mad. He said so.
He said that someone had robbed him of his prized possession that night, and that this person would pay.
The boss said that he understood. The boss said that he too had been robbed of two of his prized possessions that night as well.
The bandit said that perhaps it had been a person who had wanted a vendetta against the household.
The boss agreed.
The bandit said that perhaps together they could find the thief and that justice could be had.
The boss agreed.
The boss then broke down and cried.
The boss said that the man was much more than a common thief, that the man had turned his middle son into his only son.
The boss said that justice must be had.
The bandit agreed.
It was then, after a beat, and looking out and away to the street, that the boss said that at least there had been a witness.
The bandit looked back.
It was then, that the chief appeared from behind the house with the middle son, and a group of men. Another group came from another direction. Another came from around the neighbor’s house.
The two men were circled, with just a machete between them.
The fire came back.
The bandit raised his blade, mistaking it, in his fury, for a sword of justice.
It was then, that the first rock struck him squarely in the neck.
Five more minutes, and it was all over.
Four men dragged the lifeless form around behind the house, and set about breaking in down into manageable pieces. These were put into an old sack, and carried to a field on the edge of town, where they were circled with rocks, and a tire placed on top. The tire was lit, and burned strong for the rest of the morning.
The village went on, to attend to the righteous burial, of the children. No Elisha was to be found.
Elisha then went to the house, and there on his bed lay the child, dead. He went in and shut the door on the two of them and prayed to the Lord. Then he climbed on to the bed and stretched himself on top of the child, putting his mouth on his mouth, his eyes to his eyes, and his hands on his hands, and as he lowered himself onto him, the child’s flesh grew warm. Then he got up and walked to and fro inside the house, and then climbed onto the bed again and lowered himself on to the child seven times in all; then the child sneezed and opened his eyes. He then summoned Gehazi. ‘Call our Shumanmitess’ he said; and he called her. When she came to him, he said, ‘Take up your son.’ She went in and, falling at his feet, bowed to the ground; and taking up her son went out. (2 Kings: 4)
“This man was a bad man. He was a bandit.”
And as we drove to the chief’s house, we passed again the town hall, the hospital, the market, plus three churches.
‘Simon, Simon! Satan, you must know, has got his wish to sift you all like wheat; but I have prayed for you…” (Luke 22)
I met the chief, only to then be informed that the gentleman who had been asked to arrange the interviews in this outpost, with the men, who had reported being raped, had dropped the ball. He had instead made other arrangements.
The men, it seems, were in the fields, at work, and could not be sent for.
In the end, we would have to drive out of FDLR territory, all the way to Rutshuru, and drive back again, into the conflict zone, tomorrow.
When we got to Kiwanja, four clicks from Rutshuru, the sky opened up, and the day ended in darkness.
2. On the Subject of Marauding Women in Track Suits
And we return, back, to Kibirizi, to this place, in a land without police, without law.
Save for the words of the chief, in his t-shirt, with his short shorts, and his cell phone with the Abba ringtone.
We make it back, after an early morning of interviews and environmental portraits of some strong Muslim businesswomen in Kiwanja. These women rock their perch. They rule their families and their bank accounts, and pass over their unemployed husbands. They are on the move, now that the war has gone back into the territories over the frontier.
We drive three hours, and arrive back into the red adobe town, where the fire from the tire has cooled to soot, and a pile of fresh rocks have been piled on top, to seek the wayward hungry soul from continuing its wandering.
This is the real jungle. This is the fôret sauvage that sends out its animals and its viruses to thwart the attack of Man. This is the force that sends out its vines, later, to reclaim its lands.
It this transition between savanne and jungle, the thick forest is the meeting place for the criminal minds. Here myth is made.
This morning, the men were waiting for us, in a locked house, in a dark room, shades drawn. The women were sent into town, to visit the market. This was not a place for mixed company of the curious kind.
Pascal translated, in both directions.
I asked the questions. I felt I could not trust them to the man who had been trusted with the arrangements the other day, and who had dropped the ball. We had wasted so much time getting back, again, to the scene of the crime, time was now pressing hard on each aspect of the day.
And a certain directness and thoroughness and gentleness had warranted a change of plans.
I would ask the questions, and not a student.
The man sat and the inquiry began….
He had been out of the town, in his rice fields, removing debris, when he had been approached, from behind, by six women, with guns, wearing tracksuits. Women, in Central Africa, do not wear tracksuits. Men wear tracksuits. Army men, off duty. The women all spoke Kinyarwandan. They must have come from Rwanda; but he did not recognize which tribe, but knew the language. There were always beaucoup beaucoup persons passing through speaking that foreign tongue.
The four ladies told him, ‘Sit down’; and the two ladies with the guns stood back, to watch, pointing the guns at him. Four ladies said, ‘We are asking you something right now, and if you do not give ‘it’ to us, we’ll kill you.’ They undressed him and obliged him to start. He had sex with the one woman lying down, in front of him, on the fabric. After the first, the second said, ‘I am ready…’ After her too, he said, ‘I am hungry’ and said that he had not had anything to eat since the day before, and if they could only give him some food to be able to be able to ‘do the third’, and if he could be allowed to go to the river to wash and to make himself relieved and ready.
One lady went to search for food. Two went to look for ‘other men’. Two of the remaining three had the guns. The man went down to the Rwindi River, wearing only his underwear. And there, he ran away. He darted deep into the forest, his forest, a forest he knew well. And he laid low for three hours, finding a perch, from which to watch these women. Eventually, they left in the direction of Kishishi. Later, he came across some men, who gave him a shirt.
He went straight home.
He was born in 1967. He was married and the father of ten children.
Since that day, he has not felt well. He has felt hungry all the time. He had his blood tested, but has not gotten results. There is a scratching feeling in his anus, and goose bumps on his penis.
His wife knows. And says, it could have happened to her.
He will not go into the field. He has no energy. He told the doctor.
He did not tell the pasteur: too much gossip, too much fear.
He came to the women’s shelter, because he knew it as a place to report rape. He came here himself.
He left the room.
And another came.
And one more.
And though one was given local Viagra, and with another the assailants wore army uniforms, and another got raped far from the village, and with another there was a man at first with the women, but who later disappeared, I found myself listening to a local legend, a legend of the lonely fieldworker, always married, always with many kids.
In each case, the rapists were gun-toting women from Rwanda. In each case, he had to perform multiple displays of sexual prowess, but after all of the cases, two things haunted me: the scratchy anus, and the women wearing tracksuits. And though my student, who took down the interviews with me, in Swahili, believed the veracity of each and every man, I felt I had stumbled into a realm of reinvention and upon a method of righting a great wrong.
This was a village of lynching and retribution. This was a village without a jail and with no police, no more. There was a chief. And there was a mob.
And there was – always – the threat of more: lurching crouched in the forest: lusting after the spoils of a war waged, by hardly one. And the rapacious opportunity right there. And the lonely farmer caught in a web, between wanton wiles and public shame, with only the loss of health and revenue to prove a claim.
And so, in Kibirizi, men do get raped; but not by men, not even from Rwanda. There are instead these women, speaking a different language, wearing men’s clothing, with strong appetites and no shame.
And I left this lawless outpost, and retraced five hours, to get back to the volcano, smoking above Goma, and on my way, I wondered about all the passion that had passed through the red adobe town, during Passion Week, and I wondered what salve Jesus’ dolorosa gave to frightened farmer without a soul to blame.
— Throughout the 5th Week of Lent, through to the Monday after Palm Sunday, 2010