July 25, 2008

Fundraising Walk in Wickford to Benefit Congo

By G Wayne Miller

Tomorrow's walk raises money to help Dr. Denis Mukwege, who mends the bodies of girls and women who have been sexually assaulted in the Congo.

An African surgeon who brings hope to victims of one of the world's worst ongoing atrocities wants to extend his mission beyond the operating room. And here in Rhode Island, a group is joining his cause with a nearly year-long series of events that begins with a fund-raising walk tomorrow in Wickford.

In his surgery, Dr. Denis Mukwege mends the bodies of girls and women who have been sexually brutalized during civil strife in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But until Mukwege realizes his ambition of building a "City of Joy" in the Congo, activists say, many will have nowhere to go after leaving his hospital.

"Dr. Mukwege's dream has been healing these women's bodies -- now he wants to heal their souls," says organizer Nancy Rafi. "When women in that community are raped, they're ostracized because they're raped in front of their families, in front of their communities. Basically, it's femicide. They are just wiping women out."

Rafi, executive director of the Rhode Island Crisis Assistance Center, and other organizers decided to help Mukwege earlier this year during a conference in New Orleans to celebrate the 10th anniversary of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women. Mukwege, who speaks French, attended the conference and was assisted by translator Maria Mendes, who is working with Rafi on today's walk and other events over the next several months.

According to Mendes, City of Joy will be built next to Panzi Hospital, the hospital in Bukavu, Congo, where Mukwege practices surgery. Mendes says that City of Joy will provide houses for women and their children, a community center, a school and arable land -- with a goal of self-sufficiency.

"They will have a means of creating food," says Mendes. "They will educate one another and they will have housing. Basically they will re-create a community because that's what they've lost."

In addition to raising funds, the Rhode Island activists hope to raises awareness of the Congolese atrocities, which have been sporadically reported in American print and broadcast reports but rarely lead the news.

"The Congo really isn't on the radar for most people who live in the States," says Rafi.

In a letter to potential supporters, the Rhode Island group quotes several survivors -- some of them widows of men who have been murdered. Eighteen-year-old Honorata Barinjibanwa describes being kept tied to a tree while being gang-raped for six months. Pregnant now, and a patient at Panzi, she writes:

"I'm weak. I'm angry. I don't know how to restart my life."

In the letter, Mukwege, who receives death threats for his work, recalls when Bukavu was known for the natural beauty of its lakes and national parks.

"There used to be gorillas in there," he is quoted as saying. "But now they've been replaced by much more savage beasts."

Although she does not know the total cost of building City of Hope, Rafi said the first bricks have been laid -- and that UNICEF and V-Day, among others, are raising money. The goal, Rafi said, is completion early next year.

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if this were just the first city, with others built in the future?" Rafi says. "Or even better, if we didn't need to build any others because the violence would stop? I am an eternal optimist, but I do believe that by spreading the word, people can learn about what's going on, and that's the first step to creating change. I think people just need to know."

Tomorrow's two-mile walk begins and ends at Wickford's Wilson Park, on Intrepid Drive in North Kingstown. On-site registration begins at 9 a.m., with the walk itself kicking off at 9:30 a.m. To learn more about sponsorship and participation visit: www.ricac.org/ events.html

Details of other events planned over the next several months -- culminating in a week-long festival in late February and early March -- are available at www.peaceprovidence.com/

Nancy Rafi, foreground, is an activist helping to organize the march in Wickford in support of women in the Congo. Behind her are fellow activists Dr. Mari Dias and Andrea Yattaw. The Providence Journal / Kris Craig [email protected] / (401) 277-7380

Originally published by G Wayne Miller, Journal Staff Writer.

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