What does human flesh taste like?
Everybody I tell this story thinks I should have asked her this question. At some point I began to think that maybe I should have asked her. But then how could I? How could anyone pick that seemingly little, insensitive, mundane and morbid detail out of the raw and painful macabreness of her story? Wouldn’t that information belittle her story and reduce her to a mere mascot of dark, human curiosity?
The story starts a kilometer from a goldmine in Masisi, a town in North Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This is where she wore a rented white wedding dress and said “I do” to her husband, Munire, a man she describes as a strong character with the presence of a wise man. This is also where one evening, the people she calls the Mai-Mai, a dreaded militia group believed to have supernatural powers, stormed their little house where they were hosting members of the church, and accused them of hosting “Banyamulenges”, minority ethnic Tutsis who the locals believed to be witches. This is also where the Mai-Mai dragged one of the two male pastors out of the house and shot him in the head as her three children screamed and her husband begged them to stop. This is also the place where they turned to her husband, called him a “snake” for hosting these Banyamulenges, dragged him out, made him kneel beside the body of the bleeding pastor, and shot him in the head. The gunshots and the screams echoed in their small boma at the foot of a lush green hill. The sun was just setting in the hills beyond, and unbeknownst to her, it had also started setting on her life.
“They were around ten men,” she says. They beat her up. They beat up her children.
Then they took turns raping her. All of them. Her children watched. Her brother-in-law was amongst them. He too, raped her. Dusk fell quickly on this dark act. Bats and the sounds of darkness replaced the birds in the trees.
They bound the hands of her two kids to each other in the flickering light of her lantern. Her eldest was 7-years, her second was 5 and the youngest was a year old, still living on the milk of her bosom. She had moved from widow to prisoner in a matter of hours. Actually she hadn’t, she had become both.
Together with her two children and two pastors and carrying her one-year old on her back, they set off in a long file behind five or so Mai-Mai men into the expectant darkness of the looming forest. They headed East. The journey of hell had begun. They walked for a week, then two weeks, then a month. They walked until their shoes wore out and the soles of their feet got so bruised and sore that they had to tear strips of cloth from their clothes to wrap around their feet as shoes. The children cried.
The vast forests of Congo, she says, are like a parallel universe. You get in there and the forest claims you, turns you into its child. There are days they would walk without knowing if it was day or night because they couldn’t see the sun. The trees covering the sky were so tall they couldn’t see where they ended. “The forest has a roof,” she said, “and it’s made of trees.” And it was very cold in that darkness of day. It rained often. They ate leaves and grass and soon her one year old couldn’t get any milk from her breasts. They drunk water from the clear springs that sprung from the earth. At night they slumped against tree trunks and passed out from exhaustion. They were beaten constantly.
After over a month of walking they got to a clearing in the forest. The sun was shining that day and she recalls how strange the sun on her face felt, like a mockery from God who was watching her suffer with her children. They were filthy and exhausted and scared. They were nearly naked because thorns had torn off most of their clothes. They were made to sit in a circle on the grass, their legs spread before them. There were birds, she remembers, but they didn’t sing. The men asked the pastor to confess that he was part of the Banyamulenges. He, weak from hunger, said he was a man of God. He wasn’t a Banyamulenges and didn’t even know anyone who was. They kept beating him to confess but he didn’t. He started saying a prayer. That made the men even angrier.
One of the men took out a knife and while the rest held the pastor’s arms and legs, cut off his head. He didn’t resist much because he was so weak already. Blood gushed out like from a burst pipe, bright red, like anger. The earth drunk it up; it was as if the earth was dying for his blood. A thirsty earth. Her children screamed and the men threatened to kill them as well.
“I thought they were going to kill my children too,” she says. We are sitting on plastic chairs in a hut-like gazebo in the compound of Lutheran World Federation – UNHCR’s implementing partner – at Kakuma refugee camp in Turkana County. I’m doing some work for my host, UNHCR on a project. A very lanky Sudanese boy, as tall as a giraffe’s hind leg, leans on a pillar of the building before us, staring at the phone in his long hands. Behind us, some boys shoot pool under a shade. The tea and mandazi before me are ignored. So is her now warm Fanta. It rained the previous night and I smell the warm moisture rise from the soil.
“They then cut open his chest and removed his heart,” she tells me. I look at her. She says it casually like you would say, “they then spread butter on the bread.” The men, these men, then started fighting for the pastor’s heart. They eventually shared it amongst themselves. Eating the heart of their enemy, apparently, added to their powers, she tells me. The other pastor had passed out after the first blood spurted out of his colleague’s open neck. They laughed at him.
We don’t say anything for a while. Rather, I don’t ask her any question. I picture that scene; the men, these animals, sitting and eating another man’s heart, her children whimpering in terror. The sun shines. The birds don’t sing. Men eat another man. I’m reminded of a scene in Fury, Brad Pitt’s World War II movie where a greenhorn marine recruit is dropped in the middle of Nazi Germany at the height of the war, death, destruction and evil, and he -scared witless – is told by one of his war-hardened colleagues, ”Wait till you see what a man can do to another man.”
“What kind of men were they?” I ask her. “Describe them.”
She doesn’t say anything for a while, doesn’t look at me, she never really looks at me, the only thing moving on her are her hands on her laps. They massage each other. This is how I will learn to read her emotions, through the motion of her hands, because her eyes don’t betray any emotion. There are no lights in those rooms.
“They were not men,” she says finally.
“Did you eat…what they were eating?” I ask, slightly embarrassed.
That question seems to stab her. She looks away. I watch her squeeze her hands, as if
wringing off that evil memory.
“They were going to kill me,” she mumbles.
They set off again. Through thick forest. Trees with trunks as big as a house. Whenever they stopped for the night, the men raped her. And threatened them with death. They threatened to eat the heart of her one year old, because it was “not filled with dirt.” Her one year old cried constantly from hunger until she didn’t cry anymore. She slept for so long that her mother had to put her ear close to her nose to confirm if she was still breathing. They smelled.
Finally after walking for another week, they reached their destination and the men debated on who would take the prisoners to their leader. Just not anybody was allowed in his presence. She learnt that his name was Mokolo and he was some sort of mythical medicineman, the high priest of evil. One of them volunteered to proceed with them. Goodbyes were bade. The rest then disappeared back into the deep forest.
Mokolo was a very short man. He was stocky and hairy. He had a big scraggly beard that was more mysterious than the forest. He had small beady snake eyes. He had no front teeth. He was naked, save for a patch of leaves around his groin. Mokolo was an animal, not a man. The first thing he did to welcome the prisoners was to rape her. Then he invited his lieutenants – men as equally wild as him – to have their way with her. Then they raped the pastor. They didn’t touch the children.
That camp – if you could call it that – was their home for four months. Mokolo lived in the dugout trunk of a tree while the rest slept under the canopy of a tree on a bed of leaves. They ate plants and the men went out and came back with honey. She became Mokolo’s wife, and the official cook for the camp. Sometimes Mokolo would let his right hand man have his way with her as his reward. Once in awhile the men would go out and after days they would show up with people who they would slaughter and have her boil for food.
“One day they brought back this girl, a small girl about 12-years old,” she tells me. “They didn’t slaughter her; they tied her to a big twig and roasted her over a fire.” She pauses. “She screamed for so long as she roasted over the fire. I still hear her screams….” She says that for a week after that, the girl’s burnt skin was all she could smell.
They taunted her. They told her constantly that she would be eaten next, that they were fattening her for a meal. But first, they said, they would eat her children, whom they would make her boil.
I sat there thinking how surreal her story was. Then I started to think that perhaps it was fictitious, a figment of a very wild imagination. I later asked Philip Odary at UNHCR how credible these stories were, and he said they were credible and that in the camp he heard countless similar stories and worse, of the capacity of humans to hurt other humans.
“What was your state of mind at this time?” I ask her.
“There is a point where you have no fear left in you to feel. Where you have been so fearful and terrified you stop feeling it. You become hopeless. In fact, you die before they kill you. Those men took away the human in me. We had become things, objects they could use at will. We had become animals. I knew I was going to die in that forest, that I was sure of, I just didn’t know when. I was ready for it. I wanted to die but the only thing I was living for was my children; I was not going to die and live them alive in the hands of these men.”
“Did they harm the children?” I ask.
“They beat them up all the time. Even my one year old. They would hold her by the legs and dangle her and laugh as she screamed. They called us snakes. Banyamulenges. ” Pause. “They raped my girls,” she says. I see her pulse quicken at the base of her neck. I don’t ask another question. We sit in silence.
“Pastor said that we would never be human again,” she says.
One morning Mokolo’s right hand man asked her to make a fire. Normally this would be a sign that they were bringing another human to eat. Instead, Mokolo instructed her to boil her one-year old child. She begged and cried but they beat her up severely and she relented and placed her daughter in this big earthen pot that had water. Her other children cried and tried to save their sister but they were beaten and thrown into the bush.
“What could I do?” she asks. Her baby screamed as the water started boiling. The men stood around that fire, laughing and cheering. She cried and knelt before Mokolo and begged him to save her baby and cook her instead, eventually he told the men to remove her daughter. Half the skin on her lower body had peeled off by then. Over the next few days the baby cried constantly, her burns became septic and she started to emit an foul smell.
Weeks passed and the men informed them that Christmas was near and that they were going to bring “food.” A week later they came back with a lot of alcohol and some personal belongings of people they had ambushed on the road far away from the camp. They didn’t bring back any humans and they told her that the following morning they would boil her one-year old for Christmas. That night the whole camp drunk the alcohol and by morning they had blacked out.
They took that opportunity to escape. They didn’t know the forest. They didn’t know where they were. They could have been eaten by animals, which she says would have been better than being eaten by the men. They walked for days, stumbling through the darkened forest of day, avoiding any paths that seemed to be used by humans or animals. They walked until her daughters’ feet were swollen and their soles peeled off. “Mother, why can’t I die?” The 5-year old cried. “Why can’t I die and sleep?”
“We knew that if they caught us, they would tie us to a tree and cut pieces of us and eat them until we died,” she says. They knew there were chances of meeting another group who would abduct them and do worse things to them. The pastor carried the baby and her skin was rubbing off on him. They ate wild fruit and leaves. They tested them for poison by first rubbing them against their skin; if their skin itched they were poisonous.
After about 12 nightfalls (that’s how they counted days) they ran into forest guards that she refers to as Nyibinza, their version of KWS, I guess. They shot at them, or over their heads, as they walked through a clearing. “We knew the end had come,” she says. They knelt and waited. The guards, in green uniform, approached them with caution for they were naked and hairy and wild looking and they smelled.
“They surrounded us, these six or seven guards, and they started debating amongst themselves whether we were evil spirits. They asked us what happened to the baby without half her skin. Were we trying to boil her? Were we evil spirits?”
“I didn’t want to tell the truth lest they are a part of the Mai-Mai.” She says it wasn’t uncommon for the Mai-Mai to infiltrate government bodies. The guards remained suspicious.
The pastor told them that they would rather be eaten by animals than go back to where they had been. The guards wondered where they had been that was so bad that they preferred to be eaten by animals instead. When they eventually told them the truth, they were shocked and scared because if the Mai-Mai caught up with them they would all be killed.
“But they had guns!” I say.
“The Mai-Mai can’t be killed with guns,” she says. “The only way to kill a Mai-Mai is if you shoot him through the ear.”
The guards took them to camp and hid them in a small hut away from the rest of the guards. They ate real food for the first time in many months and the baby was given First Aid. The next morning, a few guards set off with them. They had been given ranger clothes to wear, and they avoided known paths in the forest because the Mai-Mai, who could move much faster than them in the forest, were probably now looking for them.
They walked for five days until they eventually got to a farming community, Nyamirima, but since they weren’t sure if there were some Mai-Mai people in there, they sought refuge in a church where they stayed for four days. “We were so exhausted we couldn’t eat or sleep,” she says. The pastor of the church told her that if they hadn’t died already then they were not going to die.
She doesn’t remember her birthday, but she estimates that she turned 40 either in that forest or after the ordeal.
Eventually they got to the border of Uganda and the guards left them in the hands of a man who would cross the border with them the following day and drive them to Kampala. “Go to Kenya,” the guards told them. “They take refugees.” (Actually Uganda has received more refugees than any other African country, close to a million last year only, according to the BBC).
“I had heard of Kenya before, but it seemed so, so far away. I never thought I would ever come to Kenya in my life,” she says.
They spent the night in the house of the man they were handed over to. “He tried to rape me at night.” She says. She remembers the man coming into the room where she slept with her children. She was in pain, physically and emotionally, and as the man tried to remove her ranger trousers she told him to go ahead and finish quickly to allow her to sleep because she was tired and the man stopped and without a word left the room.
“I had been raped so many times that rape wasn’t something that scared me. I had stopped being a woman,” she says. “I felt worthless, like something that nobody had any use for.”
They got to bustling Kampala the next day. She had never seen so many people in one place. She was still afraid because she had heard that the Mai-Mai had people as far as Uganda. They parted ways with the pastor, but before that, he prayed in the throng of people, who stared at them because they hadn’t shaved, smelled and they looked like “mad people.”
“What was the last thing he told you before you parted?” I ask.
“He said ‘God knew.’” She sighs. She doesn’t expound. I don’t press. They got on a bus using the little money they got from the man who brought them to Kampala and eventually arrived in Nairobi at dawn. They huddled under a shade at the bus station for an entire morning, hungry and confused until a uniformed man walked up to them and asked them if they were waiting for someone. She told them they wanted to get to a church, any church.
“That man took us to his house which was one room separated by curtain and he and his wife gave up their bed and let us use it for two days,” she says, and for the first time I see some emotion in her eyes.
“Do you remember his name?”
“No, but all I remember was that he worked for G4S .”
“How do you know it was G4S?””
“He had a uniform with a badge. I thought he was a policeman. He was the first person who showed us a lot of kindness. He gave us clothes – he had one child and he gave my children his child’s clothes. He took my baby to the hospital. When I came here to Kakuma I saw many other men with the same uniform and I only then did I realise he wasn’t a policeman.”
“When I came here I was thin and miserable,” she says when I ask her how life has been in the camp since she came here eight years ago. “I was ridiculed and some people looked at me with pity. But now I have put on some weight. I look much better now.”
She’s wearing a blue kitenge dress, probably her best, as she was told that she would be meeting someone to interview her. Because she’s still a lady, she completed this ensemble with a blue plastic purse. I can smell her lotion from where I sit. She is also someone’s wife now. She met a man, another refugee, and together they got a child. I want to ask her about that, her attitude towards sex and men. I want to ask her about forgiveness and God but in the past three hours I have asked her so many questions that took her back to those terrible days and she looks worn out, as worn out as I am.
I get distinct impression that she isn’t happy in the marriage because she feels that the man treats his own child better than he treats hers. So I ask her if she is happy with the marriage and the man. She says, “It’s better to be married in the camp and have someone take care of you than to be a single mother – men here will take you as a prostitute if you don’t have a man.”
She is in the Lutheran World Federation program and sometimes cooks at the centre to earn some money to live on. Her husband, a mason, hardly makes enough. Life is tough.
What strikes me as completely astonishing is the deadness around her and how she tells this macabre story while seeming divorced from it, as if she is narrating someone else’s story. But her eyes betray her; they are filled with secrets. They are like dark lights. She seems to leave everything she looks at with a stain of sadness. I couldn’t look her in the eye for too long because I felt apologetic.
“How are your children?” I ask. “Have they adjusted?”
“The smallest is now 8 years old and can’t recall it. But the other two – now 13 and 15 – remember. Sometimes they wake up screaming. Sometimes they are fine, sometimes they are not.”
“Are you fine?” I ask her.
“I’m here,” she says. What she actually says is, “bado niki hai” which could be anything from a statement of defiance to a statement of revelation. She sips her warm Fanta for the first time.
“Did you still believe in God?” I ask her. She looks at me for a long while and for a moment I think I have offended her. We sit in the brief silence and when I cross my leg ready to change that subject and ask her what her dreams are, she speaks.
“Sometimes I wonder why God would do that to me. How God can be that cruel to one person over and over again. My mother died when I was 13-years old and God allowed it. He then didn’t do anything when my father also died years later. Then he watched my husband get killed and then he put me through the problems in the hands of those evil men. I have had a very tough life. I understand there are people in this camp who have gone through a tough life, but I have gone through such a series of hardships and cruelty and God has never given me space to catch my breath. He brings one misery after the other after the other and I wish I could get answers, why me? Why was I chosen to live this life? What have I done…?”
She suddenly stops speaking. I don’t look at her.
“Maybe I did something to deserve this,” she says softly, “but what did my children do to God to allow this? What did they choose?”
She breaks down and starts crying, for the first time. And she doesn’t stop. It’s a cry I can’t be bothered to describe because I’m tired of writing this sad story. Hers were tears of loneliness.
I have learnt that if you stare at one spot and not blink tears will not come out. So I stare at a stone at the corner of the compound and I tell myself, don’t blink, don’t blink. Sitting next to her cry is more difficult than listening to her story. I’m filled with such sorrow. I slide further into my chair. Then I blink.
After she is done crying we sit there in a long uncomfortable silence. I suddenly feel very exhausted and guilty. Guilty that I will get on a plane in a few hours and head back to Nairobi and on to my “pressing” life, onto another “pressing” story, and deadline and my important plans and my useless moanings about life’s inconveniences while this woman wrestles with immense ghosts here in a camp filled with both hope and hopelessness.
Maybe it’s because of this that after she has dried her tears and it has become obvious that I should fill this silence with a voice, or maybe because it’s because her story had bent my moral arch so far that I ask her, “Is there anything I can do to help you? Is there a small business you want to start that I can help you start?”
She fetches a neatly folded handkerchief from her plastic purse and blows her nose.
She says she’s fine, holding onto what’s left of her dignity.
I ask for her number so that I can check up on her later and she says she doesn’t have a phone. Never owned a phone. So I call Ann Kathure of LWF and request for a car, which takes us to this shopping center called Somali Market. At a phone shop we stand at a phone display and I tell her to choose any phone she wants. She doesn’t move, just stands there. She’s taken aback. She gets emotional because she probably can’t remember the last time she had a choice; she didn’t choose to be a refugee at Kakuma, she has had no choice over her own body with men using it whenever they chose. So choice is something she isn’t used to.
She points at a big ugly looking phone that resembles a disfigured grenade.
“Why this one?” I ask her.
“It has a radio,” she says, “I miss listening to music.”
I remember her telling me how those men had turned them into things, worthless objects to be used, expendable things. I remember how she told me she had been raped so many times until she had lost the very feeling of being a woman, of being human, and of the horror of watching your own child slowly boil in a pot. If you would have told her that she would spend her 40s in a refugee camp in a far away country, she would have thought you cuckoo. I remember how she told me her story from the echo of emptiness inside her and I was afraid that she had died inside and only carries a shell that she feeds and bathes. But when she mentioned in that shop that she wanted to listen to music, I realised with relief that there was something that still lived in her, a small ember that if fanned would turn into a fire again, and that thing, that little flicker needed music to get it alive again.
You have or know someone in their 40s with a compelling story they want to share? Drop me a line on firstname.lastname@example.org
To support the many refugees with a story like hers, donate here http://bit.ly/2gO8Xv7 the amount will help The UN Refugees agency help them get their lives back on track.