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The sentinel of Bukavu

· Clotilde Bikafuluka and her foundation which takes in and treats raped women ·

At the time when Jesus was working the miracle on the woman with an issue of blood, the condition of women was not very different from what it is today in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where a woman religious affected by serious haemorrhages is not permitted to take perpetual vows: “a sick woman is considered a useless burden, a cross. To enter a monastery the vocation comes second, what counts is only health and physical strength, the energy to work that a nun must have if she is to breed livestock and carry out other burdensome offices”. These are the words of Clotilde Bikafuluka, a consecrated lay woman born in the small village of Bunyakiri in a corner of south-eastern Congo, where she has discovered the great universe of God.

It was Denis Mukwege who spoke to me about her. He is known as the doctor who “mends” women victims of gang rape, one of the horrible scourges that has affected this African country since 1996. So Mukwege told me that thanks to the help of women like Clotilde he has been able to continue his fight against les violences sexuelles et basées sur le genre [sexual and gender-based violence] to the point of creating the Cité de la Joie of the Fondation Panzi, the hospital in in Bukavu in which he has operated on 40,000 women ravaged by violence and subsequently taken them into his annexed centre for help and rehabilitation. These women like Clotilde, many of whom are religious, risk their lives by secretly removing the victims and receive threats in exchange for the help they provide. Defying the risk of being publicly exposed, Clotilde accepted to take part in the international seminar organized by women church world, held in the Vatican at the end of May 2015. Clotilde, who had always lived in Congolese villages, was frightened of aller au Vatican, [going to the Vatican] but she had a great longing to rencontrer le Pape [meet the Pope], she wanted to tell him of the sufferings of her people and her country.

Straight after the seminar I met this young women with a firm step, as harmonious as her smile; only her unsteady gaze sweeping the distance betrayed the ancient weeping of generations of women. She was wearing a coloured habit that she herself had made expressly for the colloque [interview]; she made the money to purchase the material by donating her blood. She spoke about herself with striking spontaneity, entirely devoid of the reticence to which we ourselves have grown accustomed. We proceeded in an orderly way. I asked her “Would you like to tell us your story?”.

“I was born in Bunyakiri on 18 August 1972. We were nine, five girls and four boys. My father was headmaster of the Catholic school. It was he who built the chapel for Christians on a part of his land. He died when I was four years old and my mother brought up all nine of us children by herself. She made all of us study, and all my brothers married. From her I learned the law of love. Her example enabled me to understand that the family finds in the woman that extraordinary strength it needs in order to tolerate and overcome obstacles.

What was your mother’s reaction when you told her about your vocation?

“It gives me great joy”, was my mother’s answer to me, “to have a daughter who is putting herself at the Lord’s service”. I attended primary school in Bunyakiri but after my father’s death I abandoned my studies. So it was that in 1987 I entered the convent of the Daughters of the Resurrection, where I made my temporary profession and stayed until 1995. I took care of the livestock breeding and ran a school of meditation. Immediately after my temporary profession I fell ill with a uterine haemorrhage. In the meantime, in October 1996 the war had broken out, known as the “War of Liberation” but which was in reality an invasion of the Congo by Rwanda – it was in this period that I met Fr Simone Vavassori, a Xaverian missionary who made a deep mark on my life. He took charge of my health and it was he who introduced me to Denis Mukwege at the local hospital to which he had taken me for treatment. Everyday Fr Simone gave me a dollar to buy the medicines prescribed by Mukwege. I was ill for six years and this is why the sisters did not let me make my perpetual vows. In their opinion my ailment made me unworthy of becoming a nun because I was unable to do heavy work. The law of survival in Africa is harsh indeed, it sometimes doggedly persecutes a vocation of faith as happened to me. God set Fr Simone on my way; it was thanks to him that I recovered and that my vocation has at last been fulfilled.

What was Fr Simone’s role in your decision to consecrate your life to rape victims?

It is faith that makes me say it was Fr Simone who cured me. I couldn’t fail to see the evangelical signs that were revealed to me in the course of my illness and then of my recovery. Fr Simone had three doctors come from Italy, three Franciscans, Fr Emilio and another two, to operate on women. They operated on me on the very day on which Fr Simone died: the following day I was cured. In a dream I had 50 days after his death, Fr Simone asked me to continue his work in Bunyakiri in aid of rape victims and he told me everything he had done, both good and bad things, asking me to take the text to the provincial house in Bunyakiri. I wrote from two o’clock to five in the morning. That night Fr Simone had appointed me his spiritual heir. Moreover I had found myself beside him when I had that tragic experience which determined my enrolment for the cause of women victims of violence. One Friday, when Fr Simone and I were on our way to Bunhakiri to prepare for the Sunday Mass as usual, in crossing the National Park of Kahuzi-bwega we found ourselves face to face with a terrible scene: lifeless bodies were lying on the ground, there were decapitated heads hanging on the trees and women with their intimate organs mutilated. Then having arrived at the parish of Bunyakiri, an elderly woman 85 years old approached us enveloped in a cloud of flies. I felt disgusted and would have like to escape, but the woman said to me, “Daughter, come and see what they have done to me”. I made an effort, I had her undress and saw the horror. She had been beaten up, thick swarms of flies were settling on the masses of purulent blood that was continuing to flow. An indefinite number of tormentors had laid into her body and she died two days later. On that day a deep wound opened not only in me but also in all women, together we must scream our rage and pain. The people who see that I keep on going without stopping ask me whether I have been raped; my answer is direct and simple: physical pain is less cruel than moral pain. What I have seen and continue to experience beside these women is more to me than sexual violence. Which of us could stand up to an experience of the kind? The practice of sexual violence surpasses our understanding for by some it is used as a war weapon, by others as a trade. What I have seen is rape which I too have suffered: 44 little girls whose uteruses were torn out, cords with which women sold like old junk were strangled.

And then you founded the Fondation Simone Vavassori, the FSV...

To honour the memory of Fr Simone I decided to dedicate my life to serving the survivors of sexual violence and defenceless people. I am now a consecrated woman of the Fraternity of the Sisters of St Dorothy of Cemmo. Archbishop Munzihrwa, assassinated in 1996 by troops of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, said I was a sentinel here in Bukavu. I realize too that our foundation, of which I am coordinator, is a drop in the ocean since violence is continuing to spread in the eastern part of Congo. The FSV is now active in three provinces in the east of the country, that is, South Kivu, North Kivu and Maniema. We spare no efforts: the national data on rape cases in the past five years reports that assistance has been given to almost 100,000 women who survived violence, and we members of the FSV have helped more than 6,000. The most devastating consequence of mass rape is the break-up of families because the raped woman is seen by her relatives as an affront and is rejected. However we have succeeded in reconciling almost 700 families. About 150 other women, repudiated by their husbands, are housed in structures of the foundation and 125 unmarried mothers have been educated through being taught to read and through training in income-producing activities. More than 400 war orphans are also part of our “family”, almost half of whom are the children of raped women. The youngest is six months old. These orphans are entrusted to the care of elderly people so that they can experience human warmth, others are monitored by the SOS centre, and yet others are in homes at Bukavu and Goma. We help them and try to provide schooling for them. We are also developing a multi-sector assistance network (holistic assistance) for victims: medical, psycho-social, legal, socio-economic, and/or scholastic. Social and economic reinsertion is the greatest need. Some women rejected by their husbands and who are out of work do no more than wander about; others fall into prostitution and yet others live in free unions to provide for their primary needs. Thus we witness cases of undesired pregnancy, abortions and the spread of sexually transmitted infections and hiv. We started from nothing. The fao, for example, gave us seeds and machines to grind manioc to make flour. We received old Singer sewing machines and we teach the women to sew. Other activities to which we direct the victims for their reinsertion are hairdressing, knitting, the culinary art, livestock breeding and agriculture and school farming camps.

Your faith obliges you to be both practical and demanding: it is important that you make your voice heard.

The world is governed by economic leaderships, which are those that trigger wars and that sell weapons in exchange for our raw materials: the coltan and cassiterite used for making computers and cell phones are stained with our blood. It is up to the Church, which must be committed to reporting all cases of violence to the police, to provide moral leadership. It is the Church’s task to exert moral pressure on the governments involved in the conflict so that this barbarization of men and women may cease.

At this point Clotilde showed me a plan which left me speechless because of its precision and the expertise of the draft. Year by year and month by month, item by item, the acquisitions and expenses incurred by the foundation are recorded, together with the results achieved and those that are pending. The annual balance sheet is incredible: Clotilde has succeeded in making her centre function with amounts that seem to us derisory. However it is obvious that expenses have now exceeded income, that the work of the small dwellings has been abandoned and that it is becoming ever more difficult to provide for needs.

Sandra Isetta




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 18, 2020