Read Part 1 of this series here. It will give you background on the story of the girls that this backstory is dependent upon.
We willingly walked into our own captivity.
My fixer and I were making the rounds to get my media accreditation stamped in Bukavu, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, when, first thing in the morning, we entered the office of the government intelligence agency, Agence Nationale de Renseignements, known as ANR.
That’s where we were supposed to get the big stamp, the one that would ultimately allow me work in the area. You’re supposed to go there before you do any reporting. (Yup, I said “supposed to.”)
Every minute on a foreign reporting trip is precious. You have a limited amount of time to get a huge amount of work done. Our days were starting at around 7 a.m. and often going late into the night. ANR wasted an entire day of my reporting, and if anything, I’m still furious about that.
One of the first places I visited when I arrived in Bukavu was Panzi Hospital, which is not only the epicenter of the country’s rape crisis but also a lightning rod for government and militia anger. Nobel Laureate Denis Mukwege, the hospital’s medical director, refuses to back down from speaking publicly about the women he treats and the depravities of the government. He has been under attack for years, even surviving an assassination attempt in 2012. When I met Dr. Mukwege in New York that year, he told me that he had treated more than 40,000 women for rape and operated on more than 15,000 women whose bodies had been ripped apart by sexualized violence.
The hospital, also under constant duress, has been bombed. Midwives have been killed, and the government has illegally frozen Panzi’s assets.
After a long, bumpy ride in our 4x4, we arrived at the hospital’s gated compound. This is when I would meet my first little girl survivors. There were three: ages 3, 5 and 6. The 3-year-old had been raped the night before. She rolled around her bed in a pink tutu. Bewildered mothers perched on the edges of their daughters’ beds and described to me what had been done to their little girls.
But I will save the rest of what happened during that visit for a later part in this series. I just wanted to remind you why I’m telling you any of this at all: because more than 40 girls in an impoverished village called Kavumu had been gang raped at that point, their bodies and lives mutilated. And I was determined to make it stop — one way or another.
Back to ANR.
The intelligence office was, to say the least, shabby. Paint peeled off yellowed walls, and a hole in one of them the size of a large fist was crammed with papers. I’d never seen a filing system like that.
I remember noticing that there were no electronics in the place — no phones, no computers. Just some dinged up wooden desks and chairs. And papers.
My fixer, Jack, and I were ushered into the office of the head of ANR in Bukavu. I’ll call him Mr. Maana (which, if Google Translate is accurate, is Swahili for “mean.” I tried “shout” and “loud” and a few other things but, in translation, they were multiple words). Jack pulled out my expertly prepared packet of papers and our passports to present to him.
Before we showed up at ANR, Jack and I had to decide what story we would tell them I was working on in the country. In a corrupt nation that is hostile to a free press, I definitely couldn’t say that I was there to investigate the government’s appalling incompetence in allowing the rapes of little girls in the village to go on for years. We came up with something benign: I was there to write about foreign NGOs and whether they were helping or hurting the country. (An interesting story in itself. If you’re me.)
Jack explained my “story” in Swahili to Mr. Maana, who suddenly slammed his hand on the desk.
“And are they?” he nearly shouted.
I wasn’t sure what the correct answer was, but fortunately he quickly answered the question himself (I believe he said “hurting.” I was unable to take notes at this meeting and my memory is unsure).
He then asked me for a list of every organization I would be meeting with while in Congo, pulling out a fat binder with information on every single foreign group working in the country. Again, I was stumped. I dithered, named some obvious charities, and said something about not being very prepared, that I didn’t have a list — I giggled on purpose like a silly American. Maybe he could suggest a few places?
This brought Mr. Maana great joy. With a wide smile, he said he’d absolutely do that. In fact, he’d be more than happy to accompany me to various places.
I demurred, saying that I had Jack for that.
Right about then, he launched into a warning about what my media accreditation meant: that I was sworn to turn over my pre-edited story and allow the Congolese government to make changes.
A laugh is trying to escape my chest right now, the concept is so absurd. We journalists don’t even show our own sources our pre-edited stories! (We will, however, show them their quotes if requested.) But this declaration was not funny at the time. Mr. Maana’s mood took a sharp turn.
Somehow, as all of this was happening, he had figured out who Jack was — that he’d met him before. And that, it quickly became clear, was a very bad thing.
“You never did show me your last story!” Mr. Maana shouted at Jack. “And the [major global newspaper] published horrible lies about Congo. Why should I let you work here again? No, no, I will not! No!”
Jack tried to argue that we already had approval from the head of the government media office in Kinshasa to work together, and that all Mr. Maana had to do was call them. That was when I noticed there were no phones. Not office phones, or the ubiquitous flip phones. And assuming he did have a cell phone, it would be expensive to call Kinshasa. Clearly, he was not going to do that.
I said repeatedly that I needed Jack, that I couldn’t do my story without him. That I didn’t speak Swahili and only very little French and had no idea where anything was in the city. Mr. Maana solved that one quickly: “I will work with you!” he yelled with something more like glee than anger.
After much shouting, Jack and I were separated. I was put into an musty room with a sunken, ripped couch and a couple chairs. A young man came in to guard me. Apparently, he was the only person there who spoke decent English. In the background, I could hear shouting and shouting. I was worried about Jack, and not thrilled about my situation either. But I started to chat with my guard, which turned out to be pretty fascinating.
He’d done a university degree in agriculture and wanted to use it. But this intelligence job had been offered to him, and in a country where jobs are incredibly hard to come by, he took it. As of 2012, so just a few years before this, the unemployment rate in DRC was 73 percent, according to African Economic Outlook, a journal that tracks economic indicators across the continent.
He told me he was paid $300 a month but had not been paid for six months. In order to eat, he would sometimes return to his parents’ home and help with their subsistence farming. He was a kind, shy young man and I liked him.
After a couple hours of sitting on that spring-ridden couch, I finally flat-out asked him, “Am I supposed to be offering money to get out of here?”
He said he was unsure, but, like the Mr. Miyagi of Congo, he told me that if that was what I was supposed to do, all would “become clear.”
Eventually, other men, including Mr. Maana, circulated through my room, shooting questions at me while my guard translated.
The next number of hours were an exercise in absurdity as I attempted to answer my interrogators’ questions, all while slowly luring them onto my side. I surprised myself. I automatically played Dumb American Girl. Even more to my surprise, it worked. And it was weirdly satisfying that they believed this act, not knowing instead the very serious work I was actually doing there.
They decided in the end that I was harmless and let me leave as the sun was sinking into the horizon. As I exited the building, I walked past the open door of Mr. Maana’s office, where Jack was frantically scribbling something on a scrap of paper. He pushed it into my hand, and I flew out of there.
Now reunited with my passport and phone, I started speed-dialing friends in Bukavu — I may have gotten out, but Jack was still being held. The paper contained a scrawl of a name and a phone number of an official at a high level in government.
My driver took me to my friend Inge’s house, at my request. (Fearless Inge worked for an international NGO and was my new friend. She was later killed in 2018 while home in The Netherlands; our entire community who’d worked on the Kavumu rapes was devastated. More about Inge later.) We set up a kind of command center on her porch, which overlooked serene Lake Kivu. From my years at the Committee to Protect Journalists, I knew that Jack was in serious danger. Local media workers in such authoritarian countries are the people the government is happy to jail or disappear.
I won’t get into why he was finally released, but he was, fortunately. We eventually said goodnight and went our separate ways, both of us unnecessarily exhausted.
After that, we thought we were in the clear from ANR. We were wrong.
A few days after our detention, we met up with more than a dozen families of the girls (and some of the girls themselves) at a secret location.
While seated in a crowded, dark wooden space, a vaguely distracting pig munching on the grass just outside the open doorway grunted, alerting us to two men in suits approaching. While they were still out of earshot, Jack jumped up to go see what was going on.
The two men, it turned out, were from ANR.
They didn’t know why we were assembled, and they were not at all happy about it.
We all froze.
Coming in Part 4 (or maybe another part after that): I’ll begin to tell you the wild ride of discovery those next few days brought. I’ll write about a plantation, a member of Parliament who was also a pastor and burying people in plastic, witchcraft, the murder of a German man and more about the girls themselves and their superhuman strength.
Thank you, as always, for reading.
Read Part 4 of “How a journalist chases a monster” here.
This is the kind of stuff that can give a father ulcers. If I had known what you were getting into I probably would have tied you up or had you committed. In retrospect, I can brag about my daughter and the brilliant work that she does. ❤️
oh my god, what a great story/truth. Love your playing "silly American girl."
Thank you. So glad I subscribed. Keep going...