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Caught in the crossfire: The struggle to forgive Congo rebels

4/29/2010

By Charles Braddix

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (BP)--“We need to clear the room,” a translator announces. Then, he says quietly, “This woman was raped by rebel soldiers, and she’s never told anyone before. She’s been too embarrassed and too ashamed to let anyone know.”

Among those sitting on the rickety, handmade benches of Mizeituni Baptist Church in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a church member in her 70s. She uses a wooden staff to support herself. As others go outside, she remains.

The doors close, the windows are shuttered. In the darkness of the rustic building, the woman’s story slowly unfolds, her face etched in pain at the memory of what she is about to tell.

“When the soldiers came, many people began to run,” she says, “but I stayed at my house. I was not able to run away … so I hid under the bed.

“They knocked down the door, dragged me from under the bed, took me into the bush, tied me up and raped me.”

Afterward she returned to her house and said nothing.

“Now I have found that I have a venereal disease. And I am very angry and sad.”

This story is repeated again and again across the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Millions of Congolese are now refugees, having fled the atrocities committed by both government soldiers and rebel fighters.

Government troops and rebels converge on a village, and the inhabitants are caught in the middle. Murder, looting and rape are the norm. The innocent become victims of stray bullets and deliberate atrocities.

These horrors trace back to 1994 and the Rwandan genocide. One million people were slaughtered in 100 days. It pricked the world’s conscience. The aftermath, however, is much, much worse.

Fighting spread into neighboring eastern Congo. In Rwanda, it was quick and deadly; in the Congo it is a slow burn. The world was shocked about Rwanda. It knows little about the Congo where 5.5 million people have died during the past 16 years.

It is the deadliest conflict since World War II.

“The war in Rwanda and the Congo has caused great stress on us,” says Athanace Habimana, pastor of Hekima Baptist Church in Goma. “But because we had a compassionate heart, we wanted to get out among the people. This included the rebels.”

Habimana is head of the Baptist Union of East Congo. The union consists of 90 churches with 12,000 members. Together with International Mission Board (IMB) missionary Rusty Pugh, he developed a strategy to reach the rebels.

He went into their camps and witnessed to them.

“Later … we did training with seven pastors using [Bible] storying,” says Pugh. The pastors went into the camps for two weeks at a time, sharing Christ through a series of Bible stories that explain man’s separation from God because of sin and the salvation offered in Jesus Christ.

Pascal Ndiho coordinates this dangerous ministry. “Without the permission of the commanders, we are not allowed to go and reach the rebel soldiers,” says the Congolese pastor. “We must identify ourselves as servants of God and that we are there to share the wonderful news of Jesus Christ.

“We show them the advantages of being in Christ.”

Their efforts have been striking.

“They have started small groups among the rebels,” says Pugh, “and because the rebels are always moving, new groups have been formed by the rebels that were trained by the Goma pastors … so the groups are multiplying.”

To date, more than 500 rebels have been baptized.

Eight of these men gather in a small compound to tell their stories. At first their tales are sketchy, almost rehearsed.

“I did bad things,” says one. A second echoes the same line.

They are quiet, then they begin to open up.

One nervously fidgets with his automatic weapon. “I murdered people and I raped women,” he says, “… and I enjoyed it.”

“I have even killed children,” says another.

Their faces bear evidence to the seriousness of what they have done. Their piercing gazes instill fear. “I really didn’t think about what I was doing,” says one. “I was just doing what I thought I should do. …”

The eight soldiers accepted Christ through the efforts of Habimana, Ndiho and the other pastors. Their faces soften when they talk about the change in their lives.

“We try not to think about what we did — to remember — but it is hard,” one confesses. “We know that we have hurt many people and have a lot of sin. But it is very different now.”

“The difference is that before I did not know God,” says another. “What I did, I did for me. Now I know that I committed so many sins, and I feel very guilty. But the pastor said that God can forgive me … now I know I can be forgiven because of Jesus.

“It was the happiest day of my life.”

The elderly woman who was raped by other soldiers in her village 30 miles from where the eight former rebels sit still struggles with what happened to her.

God might be able to forgive them, “but they are still very bad men,” she says. “If I was able to meet them, I could forgive them,” she continues, “but they should be put in jail for what they did to me.”

Charles Braddix wrote this story on behalf of the IMB.

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