BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of Congo — Leonie Kyakimwa Wangivirwa is a petite, tired-looking woman whose life has been punctuated by violence. She bears a sizable keloid scar on her upper arm where her flesh was once badly torn during an arrest for her work educating women about their rights. This activism was inspired, in part, by her survival of multiple acts of rape: She is one of thousands and thousands of women who have been targets of sexualized violence perpetrated by men over nearly two decades in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
We’re off talk of “intervention” in Syria, and on to trying to get everyone to the negotiating table. It’s not going very well.
The head of the Syrian opposition has made it clear that they will not attend talks in Geneva unless President Bashar Al-Assad is removed from office. Scheduled for 23 November, the peace conference may not even occur unless all parties get to the room. In the meantime, atrocities are continuing daily in a kind of vacuum – it’s as if there is no war unless we are talking about chemical weapons.
The thing is, this war is so horrifying, so brutal, that it is hard to hold the constantly occurring atrocities at the forefront of our minds. But they exist, they are happening every minute, and we have to face them squarely if we are ever going to stop them.
Here, then, are just a few of the stories I’ve come across in my reporting. They are painful, but I think you should know about them.
The woman who appeared in my office doorway on May 20, 2010, wearing a slim white skirt suit was absolutely startling. Maybe it was her eyes—I’d never seen such jewel-green eyes.
But the intensity of her presence was more than physical. Amanda Lindhout radiated a kind of peace I hadn’t expected. After working for fifteen months on her case at the Committee to Protect Journalists, where I was senior editor, I had imagined her many times. She was the young journalist who at the age of 27 had been abducted by Somali insurgents and whose captivity had dragged on interminably. Taken with fellow freelancer Nigel Brennan, Lindhout was never far from my mind. Of all the horror stories I’d reported and edited over my years at CPJ, hers stayed with me day and night.
I remember a chalk line drawn on blacktop by a group of kids at recess when I was young. The message was clear: This is the line you do not cross. If you stepped over it, you would face the wrath of those kids in whatever game we were playing. Now turn that line crimson and color it toxic. This is the adult version of “do not cross.”
This is the infamous red line.
We first heard about it in terms of Syria a year ago. President Barack Obama said that the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad would cross a “red line” that would have “enormous consequences.” As chemical weapons were deployed in Syria in August, Obama’s tripwire was triggered. Then Obama told reporters: “First of all, I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.”
Alma Abdulrahman is lying gaunt and unable to move anything below her diaphragm in a hospital bed in Amman. Some bedsores have become so deep she’s having surgery tomorrow. Screws hold together her upper vertebrae, and cigarette burns pock her right shoulder. Her voice fades in and out, hoarse from either weakness or morphine.
Six months earlier, she was paralyzed when a regime soldier struck her in the neck with a rifle on a street on the outskirts of Damascus. Now, from a guarded hospital room, she wants to be heard, and what she has to say is deeply disturbing.
Inside a furniture-free caravan in the Jordanian desert, sixteen women and girls and a plump boy wedge themselves in a circle around a 15-year-old girl and a woman doing her hair. The hairdresser combs through one-inch sections, spraying on a fixative before twisting them into elaborate shapes. The girl, whom I’ll call Nada (I’ve changed her name as well as others’ to protect their privacy), is one of hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled to neighboring countries from Syria’s civil war. We are in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp—now the second-largest in the world—and Nada is getting married today.
After Nada’s geisha-like makeup is done, three women will sprinkle her body with talcum powder, minus the parts covered by leggings and a bra. She will step into a rented dress and then spend three more hours waiting on a floor mattress in the heat before meeting her husband between caravans, in a field of pebbles that extends to the horizon in all directions.