This is a conversation that the SHONA ladies have been having since the rebels seized Goma a few weeks ago. After all, what do you do, when fighting arrives at your doorstep? Do you hunker down, or do you try to get out? And if you leave, where do you go? How do you get there (especially if you are disabled) and what do you do with all the relatives and children who have sought shelter in your home, because they've already had to flee their own homes?
Even then, there were people who didn't leave. Afraid that they would lose everything they owned, or perhaps too sick to run. Or maybe with too many children to carry. There were a lot of people who barely fled in time. And by the same token, the population flocked back to Goma, long before the experts declared it safe. People headed back to Goma while the lava was still hot on the ground. Or so I've been told. That image has always stuck in my head, of rushing back into the inferno.
Because it is home.
Because if you don't someone will probably loot your home of all that you have.
Because to be a refugee is to suffer. And to be a refugee in a place where you are not welcomed, is to suffer even more.
When the rebels attacked Goma, the ladies stayed for a night and listened to the explosions overhead. The next day, they decided to leave but had to split up because there was no other way to get out. One of the unspoken tragedies of war is the way it separate loved ones.
For the ladies, they were fortunate to reunite along the way. And they were fortunate to have the resources from their work with SHONA, to pay for truck rides and motorcycle taxis and any other way they could find to flee. Otherwise, with their disabilities, it would have been impossible.
And eventually, miraculously, they made it to Bukavu. That is roughly 130 miles, on roads that would not qualify even as dirt roads in this part of the world. Along the way strangers welcomed them into their homes.
In Bukavu, the hotels were expensive, and the city on a hill during rainy season, was virtually impossible for them to navigate. Seeking safer ground, they tried to cross the border into the neighboring country, but with 5 disabled people, 3 babies, 5 children, and 2 teenagers they were turned away. We looked too much like refugees, they said.
So they fled, back to their homes in Goma. If we are going to suffer, we might as well suffer at home, they said.
Again, miraculously, they made it safely through an overnight bus ride through an incredibly volatile area.
And they returned to Goma, to find all the food and water in their homes gone, the markets closed and the nights filled with shooting. The rebels had pulled out of Goma by this point, but the shooting had not stopped. And it still hasn't.
The shooting is not war...exactly. It is another of those unspoken tragedies of war. Goma always has a bit of a "wild west" feel, especially on the edge of town where the ladies live, and where refugee camps are located. But the seizure of Goma, and the following withdrawal, has left the town spinning out of control. The night is full of shooting because bandits are arriving at people's homes. Shooting their way into these tiny wooden homes, with nothing but a small lock on the door, to demand whatever they can. Who are these bandits? That is precisely the problem. Who knows? Perhaps they are connected to the war, or perhaps they are the young men who live down the street. As long as there is confusion, there is impunity.
So the people of Goma take justice into their own hands. Yesterday when I talked to one of the ladies, she reported that her neighborhood had risen up against a group of thieves. They caught one of the thieves, threw rocks, beat and killed him.
So do you stay or do you go? The ladies have tried both at this point, and I can't say that either one has worked out very well. For now they are back in Goma, but with this question constantly replaying in their minds. At least when the volcano erupted, it was easy to tell when the lava was cool and firm. But as for peace in Goma, nothing is ever really cool or firm.
In this holiday season, I can't help but be especially struck by the Christmas story. I am especially struck because I learned just the other day that Argentine is pregnant. With her tiny body, and a little one growing inside, I really cannot imagine how she made that trip to Bukavu and back. But she did. And there were strangers who welcomed her, and pushed her "wheelchair bicycle" and helped her along the way. And so have all of you, through your thoughts and prayers, and through your support of SHONA.
This year, in the midst of all the twinkling lights, cheery songs, and colorful packages, my eye keeps seeking out that manger scene. There is something truthful in it. It is more sobering for sure, but also somehow more miraculous. And that gives me hope.
Please keep the people of Eastern Congo in your prayers this holiday season.
Argentine, Mapendo, Solange and Riziki, never cease to remind that beauty and hope shine most brightly in the most difficult of places. I got a new shipment of their stock last week and I was floored by the beauty. You can find their handcrafted work at www.shonacongostore.com