Rebecca Masika Katsuva. Photo: Fiona Lloyd-Davies
Masika was a tiny woman, barely five feet tall, but she was a giant of a person. She was often in a hurry, and at the moment I am recollecting, she was irritated. I was holding her up. “Fiona,” she says, “I don’t have time to sit and talk to you. If I don’t go out to the fields and get cassava, we’ll all starve.” “No problem,” I say, “I’ll come too.”
It was 2011, and I’d come to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo to film her. I’d been slowly gathering footage over the past four years to make a feature-length documentary called Seeds of Hope. On each visit I filmed different aspects of Masika’s life and work, hoping to capture her remarkable story. It’s a tale of survival and hope lived in defiance of the nearly unbearable physical and psychological violence Masika experienced in her lifetime.
We are in South Kivu, a region of eastern Congo with the unrealised promise due to the abundance of natural riches and still trying to lose the long shadow cast by Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness. Along with North Kivu, its infamous reputation only spread through years of war and violence, especially violent acts committed against women. A former UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Margot Wallström, gave eastern Congo its toxic title as “rape capital of the world.”
Here a civil war has waged, targeting women and their bodies, for more than 20 years. At the height of the war, it was estimated that 48 women were being raped every hour in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Such violence was deliberate: rape is surely one of the most effective weapons of war. The act fractures communities and tears families apart. Rape targets the very heart of society - the mother, the wife, the sister, the daughter. One woman knew this better than most. Masika was raped five separate times, all but once, by gangs of armed men.
Even in the driest season, eastern Congo is lush. Fields of golden maize, swaying in the breeze, grow shoulder high in weeks, their tassels seeming almost to touch the sky. Ferocious electric storms light up velvet nights, flashing pink and blue and quenching the thirsty land with plump raindrops. Nature is abundant but so, too, is violence. A true figure may never be established, but nearly six million people have died since the civil war began in 1996, according to estimates, while hundreds of thousands of people - women, children, men and even babies - have been raped.
Masika takes me off the main road and down a narrow, ochre-coloured earth path, under the sun’s glare. The path is barely wide enough for one person, but an elderly couple still squeeze past us. The man holds a multicoloured umbrella over his wife to shield her from the heat. Masika has no such protector. Her own husband, Bosco, the love of her life, was butchered in front of her in 1998, at the height of the conflict. Uniformed men broke into their home, killed Bosco, and raped Masika and her two teenaged daughters. That event has shaped the rest of her life. Ostracized by her in-laws and thrown out of the family home, she left carrying just what she could fit into one plastic bag. Along with her two impregnated daughters, Masika was forced to find a new path.
Masika told me much later that it was the kindness of women that helped nurse her back to physical health and saved her sanity in the months immediately following the tragedy that ended her old life. Kindness also compelled her to follow their example. Her life since has been engaged with rescuing survivors of sexual violence, including children either orphaned or rejected because of rape. It hasn’t been an easy job: the violence seemed relentless, never-ending and was often acutely dangerous. Soldiers raped Masika four more times to punish her for speaking out against them and their violent treatment of women.
She stops by a field of crops and picks some small chili peppers. Eating them raw, she tells me, “I never know when I may get my next meal.” She’s smiling as she says this, because hunger is not the worst hardship to bear. There are crops on all sides. It is harvest time and the bright colours worn by women workers stand out in patches against the green and yellow of cassava and corn. Some women are weeding. Others, with babies on their backs, are breaking off the maize and putting it in baskets. They chat to each other, sharing gossip and wisdom. Occasionally, you hear laughing. Pointing right, Masika shows me a section of uncultivated land recently given to her by an American donor. “In a few weeks,” she says, “we’ll prepare it for planting.”
“This is my personal field,” says Masika, pointing to another patch of ground. “This one with cassava trees growing up the side of a hill. It’s the one I use to feed everyone at the centre.” The warm greetings she gets from women working her field are telling. She is well-known here. Her work is valued by people who have needed her help in the past or may call on it in the future.
Masika was not an easy subject to film. All too often, I simply couldn’t find her. These disappearances usually meant she’d received word of an attack on a village. There were probably women there who’d been raped, babies orphaned or even raped too. On many occasions, she’d walk days to a mountain village, find a woman survivor and carry her, on her back, to the centre or directly to hospital.
Her stories of rescue were astonishing. For example, she’d heard of a new attack in Ufamandu, a remote village in the upper plains that had been attacked before by the Interahamwe, the same militia from Rwanda who were responsible for the 1994 genocide. She and some companions entered the village to find dwellings still smouldering and dead bodies lying where they’d been felled. She thought she heard crying and started to hunt through the wreckage. Her companions said she was hearing the ghosts of the recently dead, crying out in confusion. But Masika was adamant: “I can hear a baby crying,” she said. She kept looking and eventually found a tiny boy, still trying to suckle the breast of his dead mother.
She’s showing me a pile of cassava roots, stacked and ready for her to take home, when her mobile rings. Everyone here is dependent on mobile phones, virtually the only modern invention that still works and keeps the country functioning - but only just. Masika is ashen-faced: it’s bad news. A baby who recently arrived at the compound is now very ill. We must return at once.
We find eight-month-old Espoire limp, almost lifeless. Masika bathes him in cold water to reduce his temperature. One of the girls has a bag ready-packed. This happens all the time, I am told. “I found Espoire in a village after an attack,” Masika says as we make our way to the hospital. “The village headman said that militiamen told mothers to throw their babies down and beat them to death. When Espoire’s mother refused, they shot her dead.” Masika found the baby with a broken arm and brought him here three months ago. “There are times,” she says, “when I feel truly devastated. But then, when I find a baby without a mother in the middle of a pile of corpses, I can save that child. Who knows what the future will bring? I am devoted to these babies.” She sighs. “I must help them survive,” she adds. “They stabilise me.”
Filming Masika in the hospital, as she washed, dressed, fed or nursed young children, was profoundly touching. Many people called her “Mama Masika” because she has provided so many with the love, patience and nurturing that they’d either never experienced or thought they’d lost forever. She was able to give them something more valuable than medical therapy: constant, present love in an environment where fear, violence and insecurity prevail. She seems almost to collect the very young. At one point, in 2015, she had 84 children living at her centre. She dismissed the pleas of one non-governmental organization working with her to stop taking them in. When asked how she was going to provide for them all on so little funding, she retorted, “I can’t leave them on the side of the road to die!”
It’s rare in this life to meet a real hero, someone who risks all for the sake of others, but Masika was one of those people. A survivor of multiple assaults, she dedicated herself to helping thousands of others to survive their horrors.
When I first met Masika in 2009, I knew immediately that she was a remarkable person, someone who would leave an indelible mark on the world. She left her mark on me, too. I think of her every day, and remember her warmth, her smile and her immense capacity to love. Being close to her a few weeks at a time over a period of five years, I felt I was in the presence of immeasurable courage and resilience. She was, and continues to be, inspirational, and when my own life throws up challenges that seem insurmountable, I think of her. Masika reminds me that whatever happens, one tiny person can make a huge difference and bring new hope into another’s ruined life.
Masika was a sister to me, and I was so honoured that she called me “sister” too. Having suffered so much in her life, death came for my sister quickly and suddenly. Masika went to hospital early one morning and died of a heart attack at 4:00 that afternoon. The heart that had given so much to so many finally gave out. Rebecca Masika Katsuva will not be forgotten, but she leaves a void that’s impossible to fill.
This essay is one of 28 stories by notable women about remarkable women peacemakers brought together in a collection to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Nobel Women’s Initiative. When We Are Bold: Women Who Turn Our Upsidedown World Right! Editor, Rachel Vincent, September 27, Mapalé. http://www.editorialmapale.com/