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‘Ruined,’ a Drama of Sexual Violence in Congo War

Sexual violence has become a signature of the ongoing civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Women and even young girls have been raped in front of family members, kidnapped into sexual slavery, and sexually mutilated. The suffering of victims, and their attempts to rebuild their lives, is the subject of the new play Ruined, now at New York's Manhattan Theatre Club. Ruined has been praised by critics as "heart-wrenching," "riveting," "beautiful and hideous."

Ruined is set in a bar and brothel in the Congolese rain forest, near a mine where workers dig for the metal ore known as coltan. The brothel owner, Mama Nadi, takes in two young women who have been cast out of their villages, one because she was kidnapped and raped by rebel soldiers, and the other because she was sexually mutilated by soldiers and will never bear children.

Playwright Lynn Nottage says the work began when she became "obsessed" with the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2004, she and director Kate Whoriskey traveled to Uganda to interview refugee women from Congo.

"Most of them were incredibly traumatized and yet they still found the strength to tell their stories. As painful as it was, I felt this urgency for them to recount every comment," Nottage said in an interview. "At times I wanted to close my ears and stop listening. But I think they really wanted to go on record, very much in the way that Holocaust survivors feel it's incumbent on them to bear witness. They wanted the world to hear their stories, and they were extremely frustrated that there wasn’t a forum for them."

Nottage says the play is loosely based on German writer Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, although it lacks that play’s grim satire. Some critics have suggested that Ruined edges at times into melodrama. In one scene, Mama Nadi, played by Saidah Arrika Ekulona, discovers one of the "ruined" girls skimming off brothel profits. "Tell me what you were planning to do with my money!" she furiously demands. "I'm sorry, Mama!" "No! I will put you out on your ass. I will make you walk naked down that road!" Mama Nadi shouts at her.

Despite her exploitation of the girls she has "rescued," Mama Nadi is also capable of moments of kindness. The play even hints at a happy ending for Mama Nadi, if not for everyone.

"One of the greatest challenges I faced in trying to tell the story of these women is figuring out a way to end with optimism," Nottage said, "to marry the horror with the humanity, and tell a balanced tale that reflected the complexities of the Africa that I experienced, which was not just the horror. There was also a great deal of joy and humor that I encountered, and I wanted to capture those textures."

The play accomplishes that in part through music. Ruined features Congolese-rumba music composed by Zairean-born Dominic Kanza, with lyrics by Nottage.

Despite the ongoing violence, Nottage said she has hope for the Congolese women she met, "if other countries in the region come together to commit to the healing of Congo. If that’s able to happen, I do think there’s hope.”

But she says that the issue of coltan will have to be addressed. Coltan ore funds both sides of the war in Congo, according to human rights groups and the United Nations. It's been called Africa's "blood metal." Nottage argues that people in developed countries should boycott consumer electronics that use coltan.

"This is not just an African war, this is an international war," she said. "Because 90 percent of the coltan used to generate cell phones and Nintendo and Wii and a lot of those kinds of products, comes out of the earth in the Congo."