WARNING: this story contains intense descriptions of violence that have been left in to preserve the reality of Louise’s story.
Some of the men carried guns. Others brandished knives and bows and arrows. Most were naked. The men appeared by the hundreds on the horizon, fixated on a defenseless village called Tsaka Tsaka. The locals peered out of their mud huts and, without a second thought, ran for their lives. Eight-year-old Louise darted past the village farmland with her family. They would spend the next few days starving in the wilderness before finally heading back to Tsaka Tsaka. Those who hadn’t left the village in time had been slaughtered.
The attackers called themselves the Mai-Mai. Ostensibly, the Mai-Mai was a network of militias that protected the Congo from foreign invaders. Yet their strength in numbers and arms only fueled their power-lust. Civilians joined their ranks and became murderers and warlords. The Mai-Mai’s list of sins includes everything from the poaching of mountain gorillas to the mass rape and murder of innocent people.
Louise is short and thin-framed. Now thirty-four years old, she stares at the floor through a pair of thick glasses as she speaks. To Louise, the attacks seem as senseless today as they did then. “We don’t know why they kill. They kill people without reason.”
I ask about her childhood in general. The image she paints initially looks like the quiet life of a farming community. The village consisted of around a hundred people, who lived in mud huts with leaf roofs. Their water supply was a nearby river and they had no access to electricity. Louise’s family of eleven harvested cassava and maize to survive. Any meager income they had leftover could be put toward education for their children.
Yet stability and security were a cruel mirage in Tsaka Tsaka. The Mai-Mai and other rebel groups attacked with regularity. Tsaka Tsaka was a vulnerable hamlet, whose only defense against massacre was its people’s ability to drop everything and run into the wilderness. They abandoned their homes, schools, and churches until, weeks later, survivors wandered back home.
Louise says she slept in the wilderness “many, many times.” She reiterates, “Not once, not twice. Many times. Everytime that they come, whether it is day or night, you have to run.” With only the clothes on their backs, Louise and her family slept in fields or against trees. If they were fortunate, they might stumble upon a farm with crops they could eat.
The Nightmare Continues
Louise’s older brother grabbed her hand and they made a break for it. The Mai-Mai were back and Tsaka Tsaka was once again the target of their sadistic butchery. “They shot [the villagers]. Others, they took a knife and cut out their heart and ate it.” She breathes heavily as she says this. “I saw this with my own eyes.
She and her brother ran far into the uninhabited plains. It would be weeks until they returned. They discovered their family had survived, but almost everyone else had been killed. “My desire was that I cannot live seeing such things. I had to move. But I had nowhere to move. My family did not have the means.” For the foreseeable future, she was stuck in Tsaka Tsaka.
A New Path
The city wasn’t safe by any means, but it offered hope. Louise had moved to Goma in pursuit of a future. There, she lived with her aunt while studying nursing during the day. Nighttime, however, was often accompanied by the echoing crack of gunfire. On those nights, Louise and her aunt would sleep under the bed to avoid stray bullets.
Louise was destined to remain in the city. The path from Goma back to Tsaka Tsaka is a ten-hour drive through eastern Congo. Bandits, militias, and gangs make the journey particularly treacherous. As such, private transportation needs to be contracted if one wishes to make the trek. With no electricity or mail service, Louise went six years unable contact her parents or siblings. “I really missed them a lot,” she says.
A Broken Village
“In the year 2014, I finished my studies, so I went back [to the village] and thought, ‘Maybe I can help them.’” Louise returned, greeted by tragedy. In the six years she had been gone, her three older siblings had been killed by rebel groups. Her parents and five younger siblings were still alive.
One evening in late December, Louise and her surviving family sat in the house chatting. “Suddenly, we heard a noise from outside.” Her father went to investigate. “When he was at the door, those unknown people pulled him inside. Many of these unknown people entered the house. I can’t even remember the number who entered. I don’t know how many.”
“There were so many.” Louise leans forward and wipes streaming tears from her cheeks. “They pulled me outside. So they took me outside. And, after that, they raped me. And when I was trying to resist, because there were many, that’s when they slapped me, on my eyes. I feel that there is some chill applied to my eyes. So I started to scratch out my eyes. The pain— I couldn’t take it. They raped me. They beat me. And I fell in a coma, so I didn’t even know myself. I don’t know when they left— they just left me where they took me to rape me.”
Louise awoke to the sound of a woman’s voice. She was speaking Swahili. Louise understood the language, but this was a Kenyan dialect. The woman, called Mama Bryan, explained to Louise that she had been in a coma for the past few weeks. A group of traders had found Louise’s body and brought her to a church in Kenya.
Mama Bryan, a member of the congregation, had volunteered to take care of Louise, uncertain whether she would live or die. “Mama Bryan said I was so swollen and covered in blood all over. Every morning she would put me in the basin to wash and heal me.” The attack had left deep scars in Louise’s mind as well. Constant traumatic nightmares made restful sleep impossible without sleeping aids. Gradually, the swelling on Louise’s face subsided. When she opened her eyes to finally see her caretaker: nothing. She saw nothing.
Several years in Kenya slipped by in darkness. Even as Louise healed, her vision never returned. A few other women in the church—who Louise calls Mama Masi and Auntie Nawal—had volunteered to care for Louise as she adjusted to her blindness.
Both Louise and Nawal were in the process of immigrating to the United States with the help a local U.N. office. Louise was approved and, on April 5th of last year, arrived in America. In New Mexico, she grew close to the social workers that helped her. After months of cutting through red tape, they helped her finally secure a series of appointments with a doctor.
She told the doctor her story; how she had lost everything in that final attack and how it had left her blind. The doctor believed the Mai-Mai had slapped her eyes with a chemical to incapacitate her. He administered a particular eye drop solution. If the chemical was stuck to her eyes, he wagered, this would remove it. The drops sent searing pain through Louise’s eyes. After fifteen minutes, she opened them. She stared curiously at the doctor’s hand. “What is this?’ she asked.
“Those are fingers,” answered her caseworker.
“Oh! I see fingers! I see fingers!”
Nurses, doctors, and patients gathered to see Louise, the woman who—after half a decade of blindness—could see again.
After regaining her vision, Louise began her search for friends and family. Facebook searches turned up one person: Nawal. Louise learned she had made it to the U.S. and was living in Portland, Maine. She visited in December and hasn’t left since.
“It was very cold, but one thing that made me like Maine was that one Wednesday, Nawal brought me here, to The Root Cellar. When I came to The Root Cellar, I just find people are very nice and very welcoming.” She breathes a sigh of relief and smiles. “They really love me. I just told Nawal, I don’t think I will go back to New Mexico. And, you are the only family member I can rely on. I do not know where my parents are, where my siblings are.”
There’s a part of Louise that holds out hope that her family survived the attack; that they’re still living peacefully in Tsaka Tsaka. But her village is a world away and the fate of her family is a haunting question mark.
“Do you ever plan to go back to the Congo?” I ask.
Tears well up in Louise’s eyes. “With all the things that I’ve seen…” she pauses, “I can’t go. I can’t go. Sometimes when I hear the name, ‘Congo,’ it seems somebody has put a knife in my heart, because all the things I went through.”
I look at Louise in amazement. She is a witness to the most repugnant and evil side of humanity. She has lost everything there is to lose. Yet through such soul-shattering misery, she chooses to walk forward. At The Root Cellar in Portland, she has found many opportunities to serve and create lasting friendships. She is a Women’s International Breakfast Volunteer, works in the Clothing and Food Distribution programs and has begun attending adult education classes to improve her English. One day, she would like to be a nurse.
I ask her one last question. “Do you have hopes for a life here?”
“I have hope. I have hope. I can sleep well here. I am secure.”