Foreword to A Thousand Sisters
By Zainab Salbi
The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo has taken more lives than any other war since World War II, resulting in the death of more than 5.4 million people and ongoing rapes of hundreds of thousands of women. Despite these gruesome statistics, the conflict rages on amidst muted international response and blanket impunity for rape and war crimes in which all sides are implicated. It has been more than 10 years now and still innocent Congolese people are every day falling victim by the scores to some of the worst acts of violence known in humanity (if you can believe there can be worst act of violence)from the killing to mutilation, to the raping of women, men and children; this continues to happen and the numbers of victims continue to add up. Except for few, the world is yet to rise up with the political will to stop this war and these atrocities committed against not only the Congolese but all of humanity as well.
It is hard not to be angry when you have witnessed the rape of your mother in front of your eyes, the killing of your child, the burning of your home, or the pillaging of all that you have worked so hard to build. The question for survivors is never their anger at injustice but rather how to express that anger in a healthy way that can lead to building rather than destruction, to reconciliation rather than hate, to profound perspective that marries both the beauty and the ugliness of life. Survivors’ action is understood and in many ways expected, even though at times that action can be destructive both for the self and the other.
That’s the predicament of the survivor. Then there is the question with which the rest of the world must wrestle: what if one has the privilege of not directly experiencing or even witnessing first hand injustice in front of one’s eyes? What if one never knows what it feels like to be lynched, whipped, raped, chained, mutilated, enslaved, or the pain of witnessing the killing of a loved one in front of you without being able to do anything about it? What if one doesn’t know what it feels like to lose a home because a bomb fell on it, or because it was invaded by soldiers or rebels in the middle of the night while you were sleeping in your own bed, or forced to walk days and weeks in the middle of the forest without any food just to save your life and that of your loved one? What then? Is that carte blanche an excuse to ignore, to pretend, to do nothing?
For much of the world it is. Much of the world is content to stand by and do nothing while the war rages on in Congo, while people die by the millions and women are raped by the hundreds of thousands. But, thankfully, it is not so for everyone. There are activists worldwide who do what they can on behalf of others who are oppressed, though they may not share that plight.
These are the people who realize their own privilege, the privilege of not witnessing atrocities, the privilege of being able to be heard, or having the resources to survive is a responsibility towards humanity
a responsibility to be shared with others, and a responsibility to this world. That story, the story of few individuals acting upon injustice even though they have not witnessed first hand has always existed and that is the story that adds to the hope survivors share when they triumph over the evil they have witnessed.
With every story of injustice, there were always those who refused to stand silent, who made a conscious choice to act, regardless of the consequences, the price, and the impact on one’s life. It was a few individuals who had never been part of the slave trade who decided to act in the late 18th Century in London, England, leading eventually to the global abolitionist movement. It was three white civil rights workers who were slain making a stand for equality in Mississippi in 1964, like the abolitionists before them making a political statement to their own community that slavery and segregation were not black problems” but everyone’s problem and responsibility to solve. Similarly, individual, activist white South Africans made the point that apartheid was a moral responsibility for all to end.
We see that in every story of injustice there is a movement for the good, in which there are always the survivors who decided to dedicate their lives to end it as well as those who have not been the victims but know of their moral responsibility to stand up and fight. Lisa Shannon is one of those individuals who has decided to take a stand against an evil that does not oppress her directly but offends her in its very existence. She runs for Congo women.
Lisa Shannon is a woman, no different than those who have stood up against slavery and apartheid before her, who decided to act, watch, hear and even go herself into the heart of horrors and witness the atrocities herself, listening to those who have seen evil. For survivors, their perseverance is a triumph over evil, the sheer force of will to survive and to stand tall. For Lisa, hers is a heroine’s journey of a woman who did not shy away from the horrors ongoing in the world. She is a woman who did not fear that it may be too overwhelming to confront conflict in the Congo, who did not think about how much it would cost her personally to engage. Hers is a story of compassion, clarity, determination, strength, creativity, and love. It is a story about the power of belief in the possibility of making a difference, in the possibility of good to triumph over evil, and in the power of love to triumph over hate.
I have been a witness to the joy Lisa created in the hearts of women who have survived the horror of the war in Congo. I have seen their embrace, heard their laughter and shared their joy when they learned that this one woman cares so much. Lisa loved them so much that she traveled halfway around the world to come talk with them directly, touch them, assure them that there is still hope in this world, that it is still possible for life to go back to normal again. And, by organizing the Run for Congo events, she showed them that women all over the world care enough to run, run and run in order to draw attention to their suffering and create change.
Through the most honest and sincere portrayal of emotions balanced with an astute understanding of the politics associated with the conflict, A Thousand Sisters gives a human face to war by showing that the beauty and resilience of Congolese women shines through even the darkest times of war. Sometimes through their sheer determination to stay alive, or to love the child they bore out of mass rape, to process the pain they went through and the horrors they survived, to laugh despite all odds, to dance despite all pain, to believe in humanity despite all of the inhumanity they have witnessed, and to keep life going in the midst of death. That is what women always do in war, and they do that in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Lisa has borne witness to that; she has captured their strength expertly in this book.
A Thousand Sisters shows the power of communication, of reaching out, of building bridges of hope. It is the story of individual women from around the world who decided to take full ownership of their voice and their resources and become one thousand philanthropists, one thousand advocates on behalf of one thousand women whose resources have been stolen and voices ignored. The horror in Congo has been going on for so long, it feels as if the world has put the sounds of the women and their cries of injustice on mute. Lisa and a few American women have decided to turn up the volume, to shine the spotlight: they have listened and acted.
Public diplomacy, friendship, and peace come in many different forms, and Lisa’s journey of sponsoring Congolese women proves that it also comes from individuals who have made the conscious decision to act, to represent the beauty of who they are as individuals. Her story shows the power of connecting through our humanity, connecting through our common love for simple thingsour trees and gardens, the sound of running water, and all that we all have in common regardless of where we are and where we come from.
I would like to offer a special thanks to Oprah Winfrey, whose vision and passion led her to cover the story of the women in Congo before anybody else brought awareness to the issue. If Oprah had not given me the opportunity to share the story of Congolese women, I would not have the privilege of meeting Lisa and the thousands of other women who decided to act.
I will close with this final thought: a Bosnian journalist once told me that war shows you the worst side of humanity and in that same moment it shows the most beautiful side of humanity. Lisa’s story is a testament to the beauty of humanity that exists in the darkest and most depraved times of war. It is a beauty that has sparked the united action of women who gather in support of their Congolese sisters across the globe, gather to speak out, gather to cause change.
Rumi, a 13th century Sufi poet wrote
Out beyond the world of right doing and wrong doing
There is a field
I will meet you there.
When the soul meets in that grass
The world is too full to talk about
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other no longer makes any sense.
I hope Rumi forgives me if I suggest that in between the worlds of war and peace, there is a field, and women are meeting in that field. Lisa is there; Honarata is there; Fatima is there; Violette is there; Barbara is there; so many other sisters are there. If you are not there already, come join us for the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase each other no longer makes any sense”we are just sisters gathering in a field, and we shall run, run, and dance, dance until the end.