Maybe more of us SIPA students should have sat down on Monday evening for the screening of “Pushing the Elephant”.
The documentary portrays the long journey of Rose Mapendo, whose story evokes one of history’s darkest moments. Mrs. Mapendo, her husband and their seven children were in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) when the Rwandan army invaded the country and war broke out in August 1998.
In response to the violent invasion, DRC’s president Joseph Kabila announced that some ethnic groups within the country were “the enemy” and therefore needed to be punished. Mrs. Mapendo and her family were amongst the proclaimed groups.
Thousands of women, men and children were hunted down, beat, raped, tortured, jailed, mutilated and murdered by their fellow Congolese. Those who were lucky enough hid in attics or ceiling compartments or were able to flee to neighboring countries.
However, Mrs. Mapendo’s family was not among the fortunate ones. They were all arrested and imprisoned along with relatives and friends.
In jail, soldiers murdered Mrs. Mapendo’s husband, and she watched helplessly as loved ones died of malnutrition, diseases and repeated abuses.
Shortly after her husband’s death, Mrs. Mapendo realized she was pregnant. By her eight month of captivity, she gave birth to twins in a dirty and dark prison cell. She recounts having to beg for a piece of bamboo to cut the umbilical cords and using her hair to stop the bleeding.
Mrs. Mapendo named her twins after two of the most brutal guards – in Kasai culture a sign of respect and love – in hope that this would allow her children to live. She managed to keep her babies alive despite overwhelming odds.
In prison, Mrs. Mapendo’s eldest son, John, was repeatedly beaten and her eldest daughter, Aimee, was taken by a soldier as old as her grandfather, and forced to bear his child against her will.
Following sixteen months of imprisonment, Mrs. Mapendo and her family were sent to a refugee camp in neighboring Cameroon. Ultimately, with the United States government’s intervention, they resettled in Phoenix, Arizona.
The family was recently reunited with Nagabire. Nagabire, one of Mrs. Mapendo’s daughters, was with her grandparents when violence broke out, and remained separated from her brothers and mother for thirteen years.
Mrs. Mapendo’s ten children and one grandchild are all healthy and attending school in the United States. Many of them have no recollection of life in prison or in the refugee camp.
Rose Mapendo’s life has been transformed, but she has not forgotten those who were less fortunate. She has transformed her unimaginable and immeasurable pain into strength and power, and has turned her status of victim into that of a true hero.
Mrs. Mapendo has devoted her life to challenge the international community to accept peace and reconciliation. She’s now a tireless advocate of anti-violence policies and for the protection of the rights of children and women in Africa.
She has been honored by the White House, and in 2009, Mrs. Mapendo was named The United Nations Humanitarian of the Year. She has inspired the creation of Mapendo International in 2006, an organization “working to fill the critical and unmet needs of people affected by war and conflict who have fallen through the net of humanitarian assistance.”
She is also co-founder for Mapendo New Horizons, a humanitarian organization that protects and cares for forgotten refugees.
Rose Mapendo has something to teach all of us: “if you think about the future and other generations, you will see that vengeance is not the answer.” For her, the answer is in unity and forgiveness, not in war. “We are all losers in wars,” she says.
Mrs. Mapendo asserts we ought not to think of what could have been done to change the past, but of what we can still do to impact the future.
If this remarkable woman, courageous beyond description, can find it in her heart to forgive her husband’s murderer, her daughter’s rapist and her son’s beaters, and still ask for understanding and reconciliation, then why can’t the rest of us do the same?
Let this incredible survivor, who has turned her life into a mission for peace, serve as an inspiration to us all.
This article was published on Columbia University's The Morningside Post, on October 26th, 2010.