Congo’s burden is a story of humanity
MWESO - It is another cold morning here in Mweso, North Kivu in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). As I’m writing this, the strong sweet smell of morning dew drifts into my room; the birds are already busy about their business - and causing a ruckus about it - and the first few rays of sunshine are struggling to penetrate thru the thick morning mist.
The nearby Catholic Church rings its bell signifying the start of morning prayers. Outside I take in my first breath of truly fresh air. Yes, it is truly serene and tranquil here. I am grateful for these moments of solitude, however brief, where I can truly hear myself think. I hope for just a few more minutes of silent solitude before the rest of my team stirs from their slumber and we all start preparing ourselves for the day’s labor ahead.
My thoughts these days turn to a single question I have been searching the answer for: How can such a tranquil, spiritual and awe-inspiring place be so violent?
Here, violent incidents occur in a daily basis. Villages have been pillaged and destroyed, armed men have forced people to flee, and rape has been used as a tool of war. Throughout the country, the decades of neglect of the health system have resulted in a rise in infant and maternal mortality rates and life expectancy is among the lowest in the world.
I have seen more than my fair share of what human cruelty can be capable of. As a field surgeon for Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in four years, I have been on many assignments in varying contexts and have witnessed first hand the ugly side of humanity. I thought I had seen it all.
In May, I received three patients from a nearby town. It seems that their village was attacked by one of the many armed groups that pillage, rape, and wreak havoc in this mineral-rich part of eastern Congo.
Conflicting reports abound but what we have learned is that retreating fighters have descended upon the village and killed many people. The survivors have either died in hiding in the bush or made their way to nearby villages. There were reports of widespread shootings then the armed men would dump all the bodies in the river in an apparent attempt to cover up what they had done.
The first patient I attended was an adult male who had been severely stabbed multiple times. His wound pattern suggests that he was lying face down when they did it to him; as all of his stab wounds were on the back of his chest and his spine. They apparently used rifle bayonets on him.
The next two patients were a two-year-old boy and a two-year-old girl. Both had been repeatedly stabbed while lying prostrated on the ground. Both had severe multiple stab wounds on the back of the chest and on their backs. One was so brutally stabbed with a rifle bayonet that the blade apparently went through and through to the anterior part of the chest, effectively skewering the baby. Both were severely shocked, physically and mentally. Both had lost relatives to the attack, one of them orphaned for life. Most important of all, both are INNOCENT.
My first instinct was to clinically assess each patient’s status and my mind went through the motions of clinical decision-making. Then we proceeded to give the appropriate surgical treatments. As we started the interventions, my training in surgery had taken over as I went through the motions of the surgical procedures. My hands started going through the procedures automatically as if they no longer needed instructions or stimuli from my brain.
Deep inside, my heart was tearing in two. Why would anyone wish to murder a baby this way? What kind of hatred could drive a man to commit something like this? Is it just because they belong to a different tribe or ethnicity?
I struggle to hold back tears as my emotions welled up inside me. As always, I had to always be in control of my emotions, no matter how strong they may become for the good of the patients and of the team spirit as well. My Congolese colleagues appear to be used to seeing horrible things like these.
The continuing story of Congo is the story of us - of humanity. What is happening here can happen anywhere else in the world. The seeds of this kind of hatred can be seen everywhere in the world. Even in Asia, people try to decimate each other because they are different, or because they don’t have the same religion, or for natural resources, or simply because one people can. What I witnessed was clear and concrete evidence that in this day and age of supposed enlightenment; humankind could still be reduced to his base instincts.
It is one thing to read it on the news or see it on TV. But it is truly eye-opening to see the violence firsthand.
Martin John S. Jarmin III, MD is an experienced trauma and war surgeon for MSF. He has been to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, and currently his third-time to be assigned in Congo.