Today is International Womens Day. It's a pretty big deal for me because every day I meet women who demonstrate phenomenal feats of resilience, strength, persistence and hope. So, today we want to honour them.
Would you lend me your imagination for a minute?
Imagine that you’re in your garden, pulling weeds, trimming your carefully grown tomato vine. The sun is shining, the birds are singing. It is another beautiful day. You smile, thinking about your family - your hard working husband, your three beautiful children. You are happy, and you are blessed. Thinking about the news you’ve heard from the surrounding villages, you stop and pause - surely that won’t happen here. Surely the soldiers won’t come to this place.
A loud bang, the birds stop.
More bangs. Too many bangs. Gunshots? Your neighbour screams and you know it’s now or never. You shout for your children to run. Drop everything and run! You grab the baby, dropping his blanket. No time to pick it up. Your 3-year-old is sitting on the ground, crying. You scream for her to come but she doesn’t move. Your 5-year-old runs and grabs her, dropping the clothes and your bag in the process. You don’t stop.
Drop everything and run.
Looking behind you, soldiers set fire to your home. The home where you got married, the home where your children were born. The home that holds every precious memory, goes up in flames.
You can’t stop to think about it. You run faster, pulling the children, hearing soldiers behind you, trampling through the forest. More bangs! More shouting! A young girl behind you falls, screaming.
Realizing suddenly that your husband isn’t with you - he wasn't at the house - causes hot tears to blur your vision. Silently praying that he is safe, that he is also running, you keep going, clutching your newborn to your heaving chest.
The sun has disappeared as you reach the lake. Your legs are numb, your arms are locked from gripping the baby tight, but you’re halfway to safety. The sigh of relief is choked in your throat - there are thousands of people littering the shoreline. Thousands, and only six boats. People are shoving, crowding around the six, shouting and waving money and jewellery in the air. The boatmen are asking them to pay. You have no money; you have nothing.
Your mama instincts kick in and you push through the crowd, with the children clinging to your skirt. Somehow, you make it and start pleading with the boatman, you tell him you can’t pay. But the children, if you stay the soldiers will kill the children. He points to your wedding ring, it’s all you have left of your husband now, all that reminds you of a time before the war but you know that a future is more important than the past. He drops it in his pouch and lifts your children onto the boat. The stench hits you in the face; breathless mothers, sobbing children, and men with vacant stares.
You huddle with your children in the only space available. The boat pushes out onto the water and you begin to breathe again. Your heart is beating against your rib cage but you can’t slow it down.
Breathe in, breathe out.
At the shoreline people are continuing to tumble out of the forest and onto the sand. Some are wounded. Many are crying. You offer a silent prayer of thanks that you and your three children are safe.
After a few hours, the water around your feet has risen to your ankles. The wind is cold against your skin so you draw your children closer. No one has a spare blanket. The three-year-old is shivering, the water is halfway to her knees. A kind old man picks her up and puts her on his lap and she snuggles into the stranger and falls asleep. It is so dark. There is no moon. How do the boatmen know where to go?
It feels like there is no light left in the world.
The water is now knee deep. The baby is still clutched to your chest. When was the last time you fed her? When was the last time any of you ate or drank anything? The water is calm. Across the lake you can see the glimmering lights of fishing boats. Shore! You should be happy, but panic sets in again - you have no money, no food, no clothes, no husband! How will you survive? Will you be sent back? You can’t breathe for the fear of what might happen.
Was it really just this morning you were in the garden?
The boat shudders as it pulls up to the shore. You lose your balance and almost drop the baby. Almost. The old man holding your daughter catches you as you fall. Your legs go weak and you collapse. How are you going to get off this boat. Many hands lift you and your children and lower you to the shore. The sand is wet and cold, but not as cold as the bitter wind that is whipping around you. Dawn breaks through into the distance, just as the rain begins to fall on your upturned face.
Scrambling up the embankment to the small shelter behind the barbwire fence, the sign reads “Fisheries and Marine Department of Uganda.” Another sign reads “Sebegoro”. Sebegoro. You made it. Weeping uncontrollably under the big UNHCR banner, women gather around you, consoling you, crying with you. A kind woman, kneels and takes the baby, she gives you water. Overwhelming grief washes over you.
And then relief.
You were strong. You have your children, and you have hope. And that is enough for now.
To the Congolese mamas who stand strong, who fight for their children, who face hardship and adversity beyond anything we could imagine, and who refuse to give up - we honour you.