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Auntie Harriet, Portrait Of A Congolese Woman

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Auntie Harriet, Portrait Of A Congolese Woman

Posted by Enough Team on February 8, 2010

Guest post by Lisa Shannon, who is currently working in eastern Congo.

I went to see Antoinette’s baby boy again today. When we entered the dingy hospital ward, his bed was empty. On the floor between two metal beds, we found him sprawled on a UNHCR mat, covered in biscuit crumbs, alone.

A minute later staff called his aunt to come back. She had left him alone while she went to take a bath and didn’t want him to roll off the bed.

I picked him up and just held him, this adorable, soul-crushed little guy. He rested his head on my shoulder.  His aunt asked me to watch him so she could have a break. Koko wanted to check on another relative, so I took him outside for some fresh air. No filming, no pictures, just some long quiet time with him in my lap, playing with his toes, engaging his limp interest in heart stickers that I stuck on his feet and arms, and a flower postcard he seemed to like.

Finally his dad showed up, auntie returned, and Koko offered to hold him. He put up his little arms in welcome, the boldest action I’d seen him take.

Yesterday, on a short walk to the funeral for Koko’s baby cousin (who we met last week on our first hospital visit to meet Antoinette’s baby), an elderly woman sitting under the shade of a tree, called to Koko. Since it seems like half of Dungu is family or old friends of Koko, it wasn’t out of the ordinary. But this lady’s slow turn to face us, the sober look about her, clued me in. She turned to reveal the bullet-wound-size bandage on her chest.

This is Koko’s Aunt Harriet, shot in the chest during the LRA attack a few weeks ago. Antoinette was visiting Auntie Harriet when she died.

She was in pain and hungry.  So after the funeral, we packed up a picnic lunch in the family’s sky blue plastic mesh picnic basket and visited with her. We went back today to deliver the only painkiller I have – some over the counter ibuprofen. We talked at length about that day.

Auntie loved to host young children in her Bamokandi compound, so Antoinette was a frequent guest, with kids in tow. She lived right across the way with her husband, though she was a more frequent guest these days, seeking Auntie’s advice in sorting out her marital problems. Her husband was trying to kick her and the kids out. At the moment, though, one of Antoinette’s children was visiting his dad at their hut across the way.

Auntie Harriet had just come back to her hut with a bucket of water. When she set it down, she heard screaming, a gunshot, and saw men in camouflage with guns. A neighbor screamed, “LRA! We’re dead!”

Chaos. Everyone started to run. Antoinette’s husband pushed his four-year-old son, telling him to run back to Auntie’s house – towards the LRA – while he jumped on his bike and rode away alone to safety.

I’ve interviewed so many people in Congo, and heard so many heroic stories of Congolese fathers who died trying to protect their children, even neighbors. I’ve never heard of any parent pushing his own child toward a militia in the middle of an attack. Stunned, I asked her, “What did you think of that?”

“What can I say?” Auntie Harriet shrugged dryly, “He’s not getting those kids.”

The LRA kicked Auntie Harriet’s daughter in the stomach, knocking her down, while another LRA cocked his gun, preparing to murder her. The daughter collapsed in resignation, knowing what must come next.  Harriet ran towards the LRA, screaming, “Oh God, please, don’t kill my child! Kill me instead!”

The LRA swung his gun around to face Harriet, pointed squarely at her chest, and fired the bullet meant for her daughter. While Harriet collapsed on the ground, they stomped on her daughter. Believing they were both dead, moved on.

Harriet called out to one of the children nearby and, to her shock, her daughter answered. They both managed to get up and walk with the children to safety. As they made their way up the road, they heard a gunshot and Antoinette scream.

Once they reached a bicycle, Auntie Harriet collapsed and was taken to the hospital.

“You’re a hero,” I said to Harriet. She didn’t say anything. Didn’t even crack a shy smile.

There we sat inside the little grass hut, looking at Harriet’s little bandage on broad display.  I thought of Antoinette’s husband. In dramatic writing they say choices under pressure are the only true measure of character.

Then I asked her, “Where will the children go to live?”

“When I feel better,” she replied,  “I’d like to have them."


Lisa Shannon is the founder of Run for Congo Women and the author of the forthcoming book A Thousand Sisters. She is currently traveling in eastern Congo and posting regularly to her blog Her previous posts for Enough Said are available here and here.