Photo: Alan Hood

Beauty for Ashes

Victims of violence in war-ravaged Congo rekindle hope through Scripture-based, trauma healing workshops.

A massive, steaming volcano towers over the city of Goma, on the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). After nightfall, clouds of reddish vapour swirl above the summit of Mount Nyiragongo [ny-EAR-a-gong-go], reflecting light from a boiling lake of molten lava more than 200 metres wide. 

The volcano last erupted in 2002. Rivers of scalding lava flowed into the city’s streets, killing more than 40 people and destroying thousands of homes and businesses. Like Mount Doom in Tolkein’s epic Lord of the Rings, today the volcano’s eerie, menacing presence seems to fill the air with whispered threats that Death is about to visit Goma and vicinity—yet again. 

Death has been a frequent caller to the DRC, in the form of a brutal war that began in the mid-’90s. It has directly or indirectly killed an estimated 5.4 million people in the Central African nation. Violence still erupts from time to time in several eastern provinces. Most citizens there have been deeply traumatized by the unspeakable brutality that has touched nearly every city, village and hamlet in Africa’s third-largest country. 

Church leaders and social agencies have been ill-equipped to respond to the overwhelming needs they’ve encountered. But now a growing group of concerned individuals and organizations—including Wycliffe Bible Translators—are banding together to provide a biblical response to the deep trauma that has crippled the nation. 

A billboard in Goma urges citizens to say no to sexual violence and the spread of HIV-AIDS. Despite a 2008 peace agreement between the government and rebel forces, violence is still pervasive in eastern Congo and women are especially vulnerable. During a 2009 visit to Goma, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded to their plight by pledging US $17 million to support programs that assist female victims.
(Photo: Alan Hood)

Very, Very Hard 

Margaret Hill, a Brit associated with Wycliffe U.K., is a translation consultant who works closely with Bible translators throughout Africa. But in her work with Wycliffe’s key partner organization, SIL, she is also charged with promoting the use of translated Scriptures. 

“My work in Scripture engagement involves getting people to use relevant, pertinent Scriptures that really speak to their life needs,” says Margaret, one of the leaders of a recent trauma healing workshop held in Goma. 

“Trauma healing is using the Scriptures in ways that really speak to people and therefore, they’re likely to want and be able to use the Scriptures.” 

Margaret’s friend and co-worker, Harriet Hill, is an American and a former Wycliffe member who now serves as Director of Scripture Engagement Content for the American Bible Society (ABS). Harriet served for 18 years, with her husband Ralph, in a Bible translation project in Côte d’Ivoire, Africa. 

“The American Bible Society has taken a very strong interest in trauma healing and in East Africa,” says Harriet, “especially DRC.” 

Most participants in the Goma workshop are refugees, unable to return to their home areas. 

“They’ve lost everything,” Harriet says. “They have fields and lands . . . but they can’t go to them because it is so dangerous. People get attacked and killed. 

“So they’re living here in Goma as displaced people with no rights, no money—it’s just very, very hard."

Goma’s steady growth in recent years has been fuelled by the never-ending stream of refugees that pour into the city from outlying areas. Comforted by the presence of highly visible UN troops, they seek to rebuild their lives—in the shadow of one of the world’s most active, unpredictable volcanoes. 

But for millions of people living in Goma and elsewhere in the eastern provinces, daily life is more a struggle for survival. Rampant inflation, food shortages, malnutrition and malaria are just some of the challenges that confront the general population. AIDS, inadequate health care and a frail public infrastructure leave most Congolese living hand-to-mouth and without hope for a better future. 

Women Victimized 

While few Congolese adults have been untouched by past and continuing atrocities, women especially have had to endure mind-numbing violence. More often than not, it includes sexual assault—often multiple times, by multiple perpetrators. Some are forced into sexual slavery. 

During a short break in a trauma healing workshop held in March, 2011 in Goma, workshop leaders Harriet Hill (left) and Margaret Hill (centre) discuss the next exercise with Wycliffe’s Bettina Gottschlich (right). Through a book they co-authored and related workshops on trauma healing, the Hills (unrelated) have played a significant role in promoting emotional healing for victims of trauma throughout Africa and around the world.
(Photo: Alan Hood)

If women and young girls survive an encounter with one of the country’s numerous military groups still vying for power or profit, they are frequently left battered and bleeding from having limbs hacked off or private body parts mutilated by bullets, knives or other weapons. 

Untold thousands are also left pregnant and infected with HIV. The emotional fallout from such encounters is unfathomable. Bloodied, traumatized and afraid, many of these victims suddenly find themselves with few resources. Because of the stigma attached to rape, wives and daughters who have been sexually assaulted frequently find themselves rejected by husbands and fathers. With no resources and no support, many such women turn to prostitution. 

"They've lost everything. They have fields and lands . . . but they can't go to them because it is so dangerous. People get attacked and killed."
Harriet Hill

Furthermore, these victims may be left homeless because their houses—and entire villages—have been burned to the ground and their relatives have disappeared. 

Congolese churches are filled with traumatized believers who need more than a prayer and a pat on the back to recover from the paralyzing trauma they have experienced. But sadly, most pastors and elders lack the training they need to help believers and non-believers alike find deep healing. 

Margaret first saw the need to train Congolese pastors in the ’90s, after she was forced to leave DRC twice because of the violence. 

“When I came back at one point, I realized the church leaders needed to be more aware . . . because they just hadn’t realized why people were angry and depressed, and why there was an increase in suicide and mental illness and all these things.” 

Margaret began talking with colleagues—including Harriet— about what she was seeing. Those discussions led them to write, with help from a psychologist and a counsellor, a book entitled Healing the Wounds of Trauma; How the Church Can Help. 

But even before the book was published in 2004, Margaret, Harriet and other colleagues had begun using what they’d learned to conduct trauma healing workshops in Kenya, for pastors from six war-torn countries in Africa. The workshops, which typically run up to two weeks, equip pastors and others to help trauma victims express their pain, bring it to the Cross and find grace to forgive their tormentors.

Straining to push a tshukudu, a kind of wooden bicycle used to transport everything from food supplies to lumber, a young man navigates a busy route in Goma where traffic passes within inches and jagged volcanic rocks litter streets. Similarly, thousands are weighed down by heavy emotional baggage as they navigate life as trauma victims.
(Photo: Alan Hood)

Distracted but Dedicated 

Last March, 20 Congolese church leaders from four language groups assembled for two weeks at a retreat centre in Goma. They participated in a trauma healing workshop with a unique focus: to produce oral translations of the stories and lessons contained in the trauma healing book. Three of the language groups represented still have no writing system, while the fourth—Chitembo—is currently translating the New Testament into their language. 

Using his hands to simulate a chopping motion, church leader Nganga Batasema demonstrates how several of his neighbours had their limbs hacked off when armed invaders attacked villages in his home area.
(Photo: Alan Hood)

“These four language groups were chosen because they’re in the areas that are in acute, traumatically disturbed areas and they have no Scripture in their language,” Margaret explains. 

Just days into the Goma workshop, five of the participants from the Kobo language group learned that militants had again attacked villages in their home area northwest of Goma. Their houses had been set ablaze—for the third time since 1994. 

At breaks during the workshop, the Kobo men broke away from the larger group to call home using their cellphones, trying to connect with friends, family members and neighbours. News about the welfare of individual loved ones was sketchy; they did know that 20 of 22 villages had been set on fire and their people had taken refuge in the two remaining villages. 

“It’s part of our lives, these difficulties,” said one, speaking through an interpreter. 

Their Tembo colleagues—who speak the Chitembo language—have similar stories and similar motivation to help their people find healing. 

“In one village, about 100 people were killed,” says Moise Mamlaka, a Tembo church leader. “There are several people who had their arms cut off and I have a family member that doesn’t have legs anymore. The region has been abandoned . . . so people really need assistance from those who know about trauma healing.”

That’s why Tembo believers have translated Healing the Wounds of Trauma into their language. 

“We translated this in order to find out how we can help our people,” says Bwenge Ndeshibire. “Because if somebody hears in his own language, and is consoled . . . that can really help in his soul and in his mind.” 

Stuka Elkan (far right) and his Kobo teammates used their cellphones to stay informed about the volatile conditions in their isolated home region northwest of Goma. During the two-week workshop, they learned that 20 of 22 villages had been attacked and houses set on fire. Desperate for news about the welfare of their loved ones, they took every opportunity to call home during breaks in the workshop. To add to his distress, Elkan was grieving the unrelated death of his infant nephew just two days earlier.
(Photo: Alan Hood)

Nailed to the Cross 

The stories and illustrations used in Healing the Wounds of Trauma are culturally relevant and true-to-life, making it easier for readers to identify with them. Augmented by exercises, object lessons and discussions in the trauma healing workshops, they become powerful tools for healing. Two concepts especially leave a deep impression on participants: Taking Your Pain to the Cross and How Can We Forgive Others? When teaching on the former, workshop leaders instruct participants to write their trauma on a slip of paper. Then, the participants take these papers and nail them to an actual cross (see the article “Pain and Paper” ). 

The reminder of Christ’s sacrifice sets the stage for forgiveness— and for those who choose it, a powerful step towards healing. 

In a 2010 paper titled Trauma Healing at the Cross of Christ, Harriet wrote about a woman who began applying what she learned about forgiveness at a workshop in Uganda. 

“A woman whose ears, nose and lips had been cut off by child soldiers from the Lord’s Resistance Army,” wrote Harriet, “was so disfigured, she hid inside her house.”

"We translated this . . . because if somebody hears in his own language, and is consoled . . . that can really help in his soul and in his mind."
Bwenge Ndeshibire, a local church leader

After the woman found help to deal with her trauma, she wanted to find the boys who had mutilated her—so she could let them know she had forgiven them. Her search led her eventually to a rehabilitation camp where the boys were being treated. After overcoming the guards’ initial reluctance to let her in, the woman met her attackers face to face and told them they were forgiven. 

One Step Further 

Dr. Ahuka Longombe [long-GOM-bay] is a Christian physician who specializes in reconstructive surgery for women who have been brutally raped. Longombe realizes that he and his small medical team are limited in the help they can offer.
(Photo: Alan Hood)

At the conclusion of the trauma healing workshops, each participant is encouraged to take what they have learned and share it with others. As a result, principles contained in Healing the Wounds of Trauma have spread to churches and schools elsewhere in DRC, as they have in dozens of countries around the world (see the article “Giving the ‘Gift of Tears’”). 

Another Wycliffe facilitator of the March workshop in Goma, Bettina Gottschlich, believes it’s important for those who have attended such sessions to work through their existing partnerships and networks to help meet needs in their communities. 

“This training course is only a beginning,” says Gottschlich, a German Wycliffe member who has worked in DRC since 1987. “It transforms people from where they are, one step further. . . .” 

“What they’re going to do with it depends largely on what they’re ready to do . . . and what they let God do with them.” 

Gottschlich adds that even when financial resources are lacking, church leaders can integrate teaching on trauma healing into their various ministries. And by networking with other ministries and agencies, they may be able to help traumatized people find help for their physical and material needs as well. 

In Goma, outreach workers have an ally in Dr. Ahuka Longombe [long-GOM-bay], a Christian physician who specializes in reconstructive surgery for women who have been brutally raped. But Longombe (left) realizes that he and his small medical team are limited in the help they can offer. 

“We can care for them in a medical way, but we cannot heal. The One who can heal is God, and the instrument we have for that is the Word of God. 

“Without the Word of God, you cannot come to true healing.” 

Another man, Thomson Kadorho [ka-DOR-oh], heads an Anglican development and rehabilitation agency that does its best—despite limited funding—to provide practical assistance to traumatized people throughout the city (see photo essay, “Faces of Trauma”). 

Kadorho attended one of the first trauma healing workshops held in DRC. He readily identified with the teachings on forgiveness, because God had already challenged him to forgive the people who were responsible for his own pain. 

As a teen, Kadorho nearly drowned when a boat he was riding in capsized on nearby Lake Kivu, killing 50 fellow-travellers. Around the same time, while still dealing with trauma from the boat accident, he witnessed armed soldiers kill his brother-in-law. 

“When God told me [to forgive], it really changed something in my life. I had many things hidden in my heart, but when I decided to forgive, I had peace.”

Twenty-year-old Conso (in wheelchair), can still smile despite enduring a savage, repeated sexual assault three years ago that left her disabled—and homeless. Abandoned by her family because of societal attitudes towards rape, she is the oldest resident of a Goma orphanage that houses some 40 children. Shown here with her caregiver, Conso shares the small room with another young woman.
(Photo: Alan Hood)
"What they're going to do with their [trauma healing] training depends largely on what they're ready to do . . . and what they let God do with them."
Bettina Gottschlich, a trauma healing facilitator

Overwhelming Needs 

Kadorho sometimes finds the needs of people he encounters in Goma overwhelming. His small team at the Anglican ministry does what it can, while hoping and praying that God will provide additional resources to help Goma’s suffering citizens. 

Thankfully, many secular, humanitarian organizations are also hard at work in DRC, providing medical care, shelter, food, clothing and other basic needs for the people of DRC. The needs are great, and God is using both Christian and secular agencies to help meet them. 

Participants in the trauma healing workshop held in Goma join hands as they offer up prayers of thanksgiving and worship. The 20 church leaders—most of whom have suffered through severe trauma themselves—share a common motivation to help traumatized people from the four Congolese language groups they represent. Galen Johnson (in foreground, right), a co-leader at the workshop, represented the Goma event’s co-funder, The Seed Company, a Wycliffe U.S.A. affiliate.
(Photo: Alan Hood)
"When God told me to forgive, it really changed something in my life. I had many things hidden in my heart, but when I decided to forgive, I had peace."
Thomson Kadorho

More help is on the way. Recently, the American Bible Society launched a program called “She’s My Sister.” It will help traumatized women and children in the Great Lakes region of East Africa, including Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Central African Republic, Sudan and DRC. 

Partnering with DRC’s Bible Society, the U.S.-based program will provide funds for a consortium of faith-based groups and enable local leaders to provide holistic, restorative programs for the traumatized—including trauma healing workshops. 

For more than two decades, Death has haunted the Democratic Republic of Congo. Like the dark volcano that looms over Goma, its shadow has fallen on every corner of the country and robbed nearly every household of hope and happiness. 

But Jesus has never forsaken the people of DRC. 

He still walks among them, as a high priest who identifies with their suffering. His Word continues to heal wounded hearts, restore hope to the weary and assure His followers that He has conquered death and hell.


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