Rose Mapendo was born in Mulenge within the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 1963. She was a member of the Banyamulenge Tutsi tribe. Mapendo grew up in a Christian household. As is customary for women in her culture, she was married at the young age of sixteen years. In 1994, she moved to the city of Mbuji-Mayi where her husband could successfully pursue his career as a butcher her children could go to school.
These plans, however, were severely disrupted with the outbreak of genocide against the Tutsi people that began in neighboring Rwanda. On April 7, 1994 members of the Rwandan army murdered ten Belgian peacekeepers as part of strategy to eliminate the Tutsi people from Rwanda. In three short months, the Hutu- led government of Rwanda, killed an estimated one-half to a million innocent civilian Tutsis. This madness ultimately spread to the DRC. Mapendo and her family attempted to hide from the invading troops but were eventually found and captured. They were taken to a prison camp on the night of September 23, 1998.
She remained in that camp for sixteen months. Her existence there is hard to imagine. The government ordered the extra-judicial killing of all the men; Mapendo’s husband was among them. The camp lacked sanitation, medical care and the food provided was woefully inadequate. During this time, Mapendo was pregnant with twins. In order to save her own life, she was coerced into giving her seventeen-year-old daughter to a soldier for sex. Mapendo managed to give birth under abysmal conditions and tied and cut the umbilical chords with a piece of wood. She wisely named her newborns after two of the camp’s commanders. This strategy ultimately saved her life: for, when orders from the government came to have the prisoners executed, one of the commanders had her and her family were transferred to another prison facility in Kinshasa, capital of the DRC. Within weeks they were delivered to a human rights center and ultimately to a Red Cross center in Cameroon through an American effort to resettle Tutsi refugees.
Finally, in 2000 Mapendo and her children received refugee status and settled in the United States. In 2007, she received word that her eleven-year old, daughter was alive, and Nangabire ultimately rejoined her family in the U.S.
Once securing the safety of herself and family, Mapendo could certainly have chosen to quietly pursue her new life. However, this is not what she chose to do. Instead, she chose the path of forgiveness and women’s empowerment. She was compelled to tell her story. As a result, a PBS documentary entitled, Pushing the Elephant was released that describes Mapendo’s mission and experiences culminating in the reunion with her daughter.
The following is an audio excerpts from that film (hosted by Michel Martin) –
“And now we meet a remarkable woman. Her name is Rose Mapendo. She was the 2009 United Nations Humanitarian of the Year. She is from the Democratic Republic of Congo. She is an advocate for global health and women's empowerment and a mother to 10 children. But those words don't really capture her story, which is both remarkable and all too common. That story is told in a new documentary called "Pushing the Elephant." It premiered this week as part of the PBS series "Independent Lens."
And, again, I have to say that this conversation does touch on the issue of sexual violence and thus might not be suitable for all listeners. With that being said, Rose Mapendo is with us from Tempe, Arizona. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. ROSE MAPENDO (2009 United Nations Humanitarian of the Year): Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: The documentary tells your story of surviving the violence that your family encountered doing what many people call the African world war. Certainly, living through those events had to have been incredibly painful. I must tell you that watching the film is painful. But recounting those events time and again must also be painful. And I wanted to ask why you were willing to do it.
Ms. MAPENDO: First of all, it is to raise the awareness and to tell a story of the innocent people. And I truly believe I just survive for reason. It was a choice for me to be a voice even though I knew nobody will change my past. Because I think the people can learn from the past to fix the present.
MARTIN: Just to some of the things that you lived through, which are recounted in the documentary, at the time that your community was invaded, your husband was killed, you were captured with how many children at the time? Seven, at that time. Correct?
Ms. MAPENDO: Yes.
MARTIN: You were separated from one child. And while you were imprisoned in, really, what can only be called a death camp, women and children were really just kept there to die with terrible conditions. You found that you were pregnant with twins and this presented a terrible dilemma, not just because the conditions that you were suffering were so terrible, the children were very sick. There were no conditions.
But, also, that if you revealed that you were sick in any way, you would be taken away. And many people who were ill, understood to be ill, were taken away and never seen again and it was assumed that they were killed. You talk about how at times you did pray that you would not survive this, that you just could not take any more. And I did want to ask, how did you find the strength?
Ms. MAPENDO: The strength, I believe, is the strength from God, because first of all, I grew up in a Christian house, but I was rejected that, like, resentful, according for what I have been through, but it was a pregnancy situation. Because in my belly, it was - the skin was came off because sleep on the cement. The lice was everywhere.
And of course I still hungry. Like, when you feel hungry, when the baby's inside, you feel like baby is look like he want to jump - to pass through your mouth. And I became weak and my body changed to yellow. And when I stood and I would feel dizzy, and I fell sometimes, down. And I thought my life was really freezing, stopped, and I thought I cannot pass. And I said, no matter what, there is a God - creation.
I came from somewhere and that God always give people choice. I believe in a God who put them in that situation. God can use people. And I made a decision to forgive the people who thought I am their enemy. And when I changed that, when I made the decision to forgive them, I became free from angry.
MARTIN: You made the truly remarkable, what many people consider the truly remarkable decision, to name your newborn twins after two of the prison guards.
Ms. MAPENDO: Yes.
MARTIN: Why did you do that?
Ms. MAPENDO: When you name somebody mean you love the person. But the decision to name the commanders who killed my husband, it was the way I try to think I can save my children's' life. And that way to try to tell them I am not your enemy. I know nobody understood, but I do that because I forgive you no matter what. I am one of your people.
MARTIN: One of the most difficult things, I think, for any parent, though, is to see a child suffer. And your son, John, was beaten every day that you were in the camps. And your daughter, Amy, essentially saved his life. And what happened is that you made the decision to essentially give Amy to a soldier for a sex partner.
Ms. MAPENDO: Yes.
MARTIN: And I'd like to ask you if she has forgiven you.
Ms. MAPENDO: Yes. My daughter - I didn't - first of all, I love my daughter. I did - she knew I did not do because I hate her. She understood exactly the situation. And this is not - sometimes I think this is not our shame. It is not my shame either. It's not my daughter's either. It is the government's shame. I love my children. This is not my shame. And my daughter, I believe my daughter, she's forgiven. And we talked. I told my daughter before, I said, my mom, I will not left you behind, because even though my daughter, she survived, but she pay a lot price. And I believe one day she's going to tell her own story -it will be in the public.
MARTIN: Well, as I said, it is a remarkable story and we do appreciate you being willing to talk about these very difficult things. As we are speaking now, there are many parts of the world which are in conflict, as you know. In the Ivory Coast is in the midst of a terrible, you know, political conflict, which has already led to the loss of life. There are a number of places around the world which are in conflict. What do you feel - what do you think we can draw from your story?
Ms. MAPENDO: I believe it's everybody's responsibility to take the action to save these people's life. There is many thousands of people who are seeking for life, who need my help, who need my voice, who need your voice, who need the world's attention to save their life. If I forgive somebody, if I united by myself with somebody who kill my last husband, or somebody who tortured my life, somebody who kill my own people, you can try the best to unite with that person.
It's not to change the past, it's to change the future for your family, for your neighbor, for your friend. That's change your family. You know, be better, let our children pursue the happiness like everybody because the past is gone.”
It is stories like these that need to be told regardless of how uncomfortable it might make the reader feel. Otherwise, to remain in ignorance, is to allow this colossal inhumanity to continue. There is, in fact, a powerful women’s movement arising in all of Africa and it needs the world’s encouragement and support.