Sister Angelique is a familiar sight as she bicycles around the dusty town of Dungu on her way to meet women who really do see her as a blessing.
That’s because she’s been helping them recover from the trauma of being abducted and abused by the feared Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a brutal Ugandan rebel group that has been terrorizing people in this corner of north-east Democratic Republic of the Congo for years.
“Since 2008, I’ve been taking care of young girls when they come out of the bush after being abducted by the LRA,” the 45-year-old Roman Catholic nun told UNHCR while helping three young women bake bread in the centre she runs in Dungu to help victims reintegrate and rebuild their lives. Her UNHCR-supported organization also works to restore their hope in the future.
The association, Dynamic Women for Peace, runs basic literacy classes in lingala as well as a wide range of vocational training programmes and income-generation activities aimed at helping female LRA victims. These include sewing, baking, cooking, soap making and agriculture. UNHCR’s local implementing partner, Centre d’Íntervention Psychologique, has provided equipment and tools.
Not everyone can come to Dungu and that’s where Sister Angelique’s bike comes in useful. She uses it to reach women living in the settlements for internally displaced people that have sprung up near Dungu. Since January, more than 4,000 people have moved to these sites after LRA attacks.
Rose* lives in one such site called Bangapili, where she has been taking the language classes offered by Sister Angelique’s church affiliated Dynamic Women for Peace. Rose, who is in her 40s, was briefly held by the LRA after a deadly attack on the town of Duru five years ago.
“They killed three people in my house – my eldest son who was 21, my younger sister and my uncle,” she revealed. “Then they took me with them in the bush. But as I was pregnant, the commander said that I was not useful and they released me after two days.” She has not seen her husband since.
After being released, Rose found her surviving children hiding in a field and fled with them the 45 kilometres to Dungu.
She said lingala is not her mother tongue so the lessons had been very useful in helping her integrate. “I always had many problems with the women here at the market, because we could not communicate. But now, I am feeling much better. I like to learn to read and to write. I like to learn other things,” added Rose, who farms on the land of locals to make money but plans to take a vocational training course to improve her livelihood prospects.
Sister Angelique said the training offered by her organization benefitted not only LRA victims, but also single women or widows with large families. She said that once skills training was over, the association gives a small credit to the women to buy raw materials and start a small business. They pay back the loan when they start making money.
“We have to help them earn enough every day to feed themselves and their children instead of making money here and there or begging their neighbours for backbreaking work in the fields,” the sister stressed.
Twenty-two-year-old Madeleine* is not an LRA victim, but she struggles alone in Dungu to raise three children, including the child of her sister who died a year ago. She took the bakery course offered by Dynamic Women for Peace and now earns the equivalent of about US$20 a week for her small family.
“I bought these shoes, pagnes [traditional female garment] and clothes for my children,” she said while proudly showing off the colourful pagnes. “I am happy, but if I have enough money, I would like to study medicine and become a nurse,” added the young woman, whose education was cut short when she left school at 16 after becoming pregnant.
Sister Angelique is proud of the women who come through her centre and happy that she has been able to “help them become autonomous.” She is delighted that “the catering service we established with women cooks is very famous in town. We have a high demand to cook for events and seminars.”
The nun said the women change a lot during their time with her organization. “Some were scared to go out, but today, thanks to the activities, they open up,” she said, adding with a smile: “They talk with vivacity and fearlessness.”
But there’s a lot of hard work involved, Sister Angelique admitted. “We lack the means to achieve everything necessary to help these women. Often, it takes a lot of time for women to understand the training,” she explained. “Sometimes, before going to sleep, I ask myself why I continue and then I think that someone has to help these women and I have to make a sacrifice . . . When they tell me their stories, I force myself not to let the tears flow.”
* Names changed for protection reasons.
By Céline Schmitt in Dungu, Democratic Republic of the Congo