DUNGU, DRC— A nun in the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo has won one of the U.N.'s most prestigious awards for her work with displaced people and brutalized survivors of LRA attacks. She has few resources at her disposal, but, Sister Angélique has helped thousands of displaced women.
Suzy was 14 when she was captured. She did not want to use her real name, but says she was in school when the Lord’s Resistance Army invaded her village and dragged her into the forest, where she would spend the next year and a half in captivity.
“Life with the LRA was brutal,” she said. "I was given to a rebel soldier as a 'wife', and have been repeatedly beaten and raped. Food was scarce, they marched nearly every day and I was forced to help kill anyone who tried to escape."
The LRA crossed the border from Uganda into this remote corner of the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008. Since then, kidnapping stories like Suzy’s have been common, and hundreds of thousands of people displaced.
Suzy eventually escaped her captors after she had given birth to a child in the forest. She made her way to the nearby town of Dungu, which was heaving with displaced people - most unemployed and desperate.
But there her luck changed. She met Sister Angélique Namaika, a Congolese nun who runs an organization for displaced women, and she learned to make pastries. Soon Suzy began selling them door to door, earning enough to support her young son and even go back to school.
"Women like Suzy need to be sought out by someone who can listen to their stories and help them heal. When women are traumatized, the entire society is traumatized, because it is the women who are raising the next generation," said Sister Angélique.
Over the past four years Sister Angélique’s organization, the Center for Reinsertion and Development Support, or CRAD, has helped nearly 2,000 displaced women and girls in Dungu recover from their experiences and learn skills they can use to support themselves.
She runs classes on cooking, sewing, pastry making and literacy, as well as a community garden and a small orphanage. In September, the United Nations gave Sister Angélique the Nansen Refugee Award for her work - one of the U.N.’s highest honors.
But, she says, it has not been easy, especially since CRAD has almost no funding. Sister Angélique travels around town on an old bicycle, and the half-dozen orphans she supports share her own small, three-room mud house. Three of the infants sleep in her own bed.
"Sometimes, I have to go door to door asking wealthy people and organizations for money. But since funding is so uncertain, I also sells pastries, bread and produce to try to keep CRAD as self-sustaining as possible," she said.
The women she works with say the money they make helps them buy food and medicine for their children, and plan for the future. But Pascaline, who lost two children to the LRA, says the group classes at CRAD provide more than just an income.
"Spending time with other displaced women makes them feel united and helps her forget the past. It is better to be together, sharing their joy in life," said Pascaline.
In 2009, Sister Angélique visited the United States to plead the cause of Congo’s displaced people, speaking before the U.S. Congress and the United Nations. She says she hopes she can help bring the LRA to an end, so that the mothers of both Congo and Uganda can take their children back.