NEW YORK CITY – Imagine lying in bed listening to gunshots echoing in the night. Imagine looking into the eyes of war survivors who have seen the worst in humanity and hearing their stories of living through years of civil strife.
That is what Hannah Smith, a senior at The King’s College and Intern with Justice Rising International experienced for two months in the summer of 2015 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Since its independence in 1960, DRC has been filled with political-ethnic conflicts. A 2015 United Nations report states “…a resurgence of violence by armed groups, including an increase in rape and forced displacement” in 2014.
A nonprofit NGO established to help active war-torn communities rebuild themselves, Justice Rising International has been working in countries like DRC, Kenya and Somalia.
Part of International Justice Rising’s work includes education for youth and children affected by the violence, as well as providing jobs to help the families support themselves.
Smith and a small team traveled to Beni in North Eastern DRC where they spoke with appointed leaders in the area to find a few stories to bring back to the United States. Besides stories of survival, Smith brought back photographs of the individuals.
The idea of these war-affected people telling their stories is one that Justice Rising International uses in one of their programs. The organization calls it the ‘Storytelling Movement’, and believe that there is healing through storytelling.
Last Thursday, Smith along with three guest speakers held a silent auction and exhibition of the photos she brought back from her time in DRC.
Titled “Faces of Courage”, the event featured three guest speakers: Jacqueline Murekatete (survivor of the Rwanda genocide and founder of the Genocide Survivors Foundation), JD Stier (film producer who has worked in the White House and contributor for Politico and Huffington Post) and Cassandra Lee (founder of Justice Rising International).
Smith said that among the many stories they heard while traveling, one still resonated with her. It is the story of a grandmother Phileomena who lost her husband in a rebel attack three years ago and then, eventually witnessed the death of her son and daughter-in-law by rebels again. She now takes care of their two children along with her own 13-year-old daughter.
“It was impactful to me because the little girl, the granddaughter, was so happy and carefree,” said Smith. “She sat on my lap and played with my hair. She had no idea what happened, and I thought about what it would be like when, someday, someone would explain what had happened to her parents.”
“I was struck by the wrongness of it all; this was not a reality any child should face,” she added.
Smith also stated she wished her images (shown below) will raise awareness about the distress of the Congolese people and bridge the gap between individuals here and there. “I want them [people in United States] to have the same experience I had,” she said.
“My son and daughter-in-law screamed in terror and pain, and then fell silent. After the rebels left, I returned to find their mangled, bound, and bloodied bodies face down.”
“Even though I lost everything and am very sick, I press on for my family and for my children’s future.”
“They tried to behead me but when the man swung at my throat, the rope prevented the blade from going too deep… The scars on my throat make breathing and speaking hard, and I am not able to work with my hands because of the nerve damage.”
“I […] care for my six remaining children […] I do not have a reliable job to make money.”
All proceeds of “Faces of Courage” will go towards helping Justice Rising International educate and heal those in DRC.