In the late 1990s, ethnic violence consumed the Democratic Republic of Congo in a conflict that has since claimed the lives of some five million men, women and children.
Rose Mapendo, brought by the Women’s Empowerment Foundation to speak earlier this week at Tel Aviv University to mark International Women’s Day, said she became a global human rights activist as a result of the upheaval.
“My life today is the life I fell into because of the experience I had a long time ago,” she said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
“This is not the life I had planned.”
Mapendo and her husband, both members of the Tutsi tribe, were living in the DRC with their seven children in 1998 when Rwanda’s Tutsi army invaded. In response, DRC President Laurent- Désiré Kabila branded all members of the tribe as national enemies – the equivalence of a death sentence.
She, her husband and six of their children were taken from their home and put in a death camp for 16 months.
The couple was separated from their four-year-old daughter Nangabire, who was staying with her grandparents.
Mapendo’s husband was executed. Later, she discovered she was pregnant. While in prison she gave birth to twins, managing against all odds to keep her remaining family alive.
“Imagine for 16 months there is no hope and nobody is encouraging you that everything is going to be alright,” she recounted.
“Every night you didn’t know who they were coming to kill – you, your child or your friend.”
Mapendo described a reality in which she and her children were surrounded by men with guns every minute of every day, “even when you had to use the restroom,” she said.
“I used to say men were the lucky ones because they were killed quickly, but the women, they killed us a different way,” she said. “They killed our soul through the children.”
She named her newborn twins after the military commanders in an effort to create a bond with her captors so that they might spare their lives.
“They could not kill somebody who was named after them,” she explained.
Eventually, she and her children were moved to a camp in Kinshasa where she also witnessed brutal murder, torture and starvation.
Following their terrifying ordeal, they were relocated to a safe haven and finally to Phoenix, Arizona, where they reside today. Eventually, she was reunited with Nangabire.
Recounting her ordeal has become an inseparable part of Mapendo’s life and her current humanitarian work.
In 2012 she created the Rose Mapendo Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to empowering women and children around the world who have been the victims of violence. She is now a global human rights activist advocating forgiveness.
“I used to pray to God asking why I was a woman, why I was a Tutsi, why I was in the Congo, and why could You allow these things to happen,” she said. “But I think God didn’t do this. This is a choice people made to put other people in suffering, like the choice I made to speak on behalf of other women.”
While she said she could forgive, she can never forget.
“I didn’t survive the day I was rescued; I survived the day I chose to forgive the enemy,” she stated.
Mapendo believes the key to peace is through the united efforts of women, saying that all her humanitarian work to date has been in part to encourage women to forgive and join together to bring peace.
“Women count. We are the moms, we raise the generations and we raise the nations of tomorrow,” she said.