Monday night. It had arrived, the night the play 'The Peacebuilder' was going to be performed. Henri Lady, the real peacebuilder the play was about had flown in from Congo, and so had I. It was a damp, drizzly New York evening, more like London than New York. One difference – plenty of yellow taxi cabs to take us to the Yale Club, just around the corner from Grand Central Station.
As we walked in – myself and my wonderful husband, who was there for support - it was clear that we had entered the American Establishment. The Yale Club is very like an English gentleman’s club, but with men carrying gym bags - I think UK gentlemen prefer to drink than ‘to gym’.
I was beginning to get a bit nervous, because I knew that what people were going to hear that night was anything but Establishment. It was a world away from this - old school ties, blazers, high-powered lawyers and bankers. It’s a world that’s everyday for people like Henri - the Congolese Peace builder - but deeply shocking for anyone else. But so it should be. If you’re not shocked by the violence and terror that’s overtaken so many people’s lives in Eastern Congo, then there’s something wrong. So how would people react?
The performance was in the library - a bit like Cluedo, but with 100 people all watching one person for the answers. That person would be the actor Mark Rylance. He was in a suit minus the jacket. A waistcoat kept it smart but informal. This was not just a performance. People were here to learn about Peace Direct and what they do, to perhaps become supporters. The play was to help them understand - to engage them.
The play began:
My name is Henri. I want to build peace. I come from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is the heart of Africa. But this heart is bleeding. It has been bleeding for a long time.Hearing Mark reading it, I heard it properly for the first time. I’d read it aloud so many times to check the pacing, to check the rhythms, to see if it worked. Maybe I’d stopped hearing it after a while. The monologue is about 20 minutes long and tells the story of Henri Bura Ladyi. It’s not an easy story to hear, and I wondered, as Mark read, would it be too much for this audience? We were a long way from Eastern Congo, with its intense beauty and intense violence. I had almost forgotten that there was so much death.
They tell us this war is over but there is still fighting. Guns are everywhere. They say that 45,000 people die every month. Still. Even today.I’ve been immersed in Congo for years, and most especially in these last few months, writing this play and making a film there. I wondered, “Have I become inured to the level of violence? Has it all become too normal, too everyday? Will it alienate these people? And what about Henri?” He was here, in the audience, to be part of the evening. What would he think?
But it was OK. As Mark came to the last stanza and finished, there was one of those moments. A moment when you realise that things have gone well, maybe even better than you expected. Mark asked Henri to come and join him on stage, to talk about his life and his work. But Henri was so overcome he couldn’t speak.
Then Mark suggested we sit in silence for several minutes, to reflect on what we’d heard. You could have heard a pin drop. I sneaked a glance at my husband - a retired but still tough colonel with a military OBE for valour and personal bravery. There was a tear in his eye.
The evening raced away after that. There were Q & As with Henri and Mark on stage, more talking and information about Peace Direct. Then it was time for the schmoozing, with a glass or two of wine. It was great to hear the feedback. Americans are so much better at giving compliments than us Brits. They don’t have a problem being positive - it was great to hear. More importantly, every compliment meant more support for Peace Direct. Hopefully, the play has succeeded and done what it was supposed to do - give people a new understanding of Henri’s work and his remarkable bravery.
Congo needs Henri now more than ever. Its future is about to change. Elections are fast approaching and many people fear the fighting will start again.
When I was last with Henri in DRC, in February this year, he introduced me to two Mai Mai militia commanders (pictured below). They’re the people he is trying to persuade to leave their life of the gun. They told me how they had tried to integrate into the mainstream – they had accepted invitations to be absorbed into the Congolese National Army. They had gone to the capital Kinshasa to meet leaders and talk politics. But, they said:
Nothing’s happened, nothing’s changed, people are still living in poverty. Come the elections we have no alternative but to go back to the forest and take up our arms again. We will have to fight for change.
So we now depend on Henri and his work, to stop this from happening. It’s only people like him who have the experience and contacts to persuade these militia not to pick up the gun again, that fighting isn’t the answer.
As he says in The Peacebuilder:
My name is Henri. I am looking for peace. I am searching for solutions. I go to them, the militiamen and ask them, ‘Please my friend, it is time to leave the bush. It's time to stop living the life of the gun. It is time to leave the forest. It's time to end the militia.We must hope that he’s successful. Because if he isn’t, it will mean more pain and suffering for the ordinary people of Congo, who have already been through so much. I blogged last week about the new Harvard study, which reports that 48 women are raped every hour in eastern DRC. In the past few days, some have criticised it, saying that the figures are not accurate. But I welcome anything which makes people sit up and say “That’s horrific, it’s got to stop.”
Put down your gun and come with me.’ And sometimes they follow me out of the forest.
What’s most frustrating is that I’ve seen incredibly detailed records, which local Congolese organisations have been gathering for years. They’ve painstakingly recorded the names, the dates, of how yet another woman’s life has been decimated for ever. If these could be formally collated, we’d know accurately what’s been going on. The information is all there, but with renewed fighting it could be lost forever.
When I first went to Shabunda, South Kivu, in 2001 at the height of the war, a woman called Helen showed me the records she was keeping. It had everything - the names, dates, locations and number of men who had committed the rape. Four years later, when I returned, she told me how she’d had to bury the papers under a tree when fleeing from the fighting. She had nothing to put them in, and when it was safe to return, she went to the spot under the tree where she had buried them for safe keeping. But there was nothing left, the papers had disintegrated. We need these records. But Congo also needs peace. Let’s hope Henri is able to continue his work.
In a week or two, I will be going back to Congo to finish my film. I’m following another amazing Congolese person. A woman brutally raped many times, who has started up her own centre to help other rape survivors. These people are extraordinary, and need all our support to keep doing their work, risking their lives to try and make a better future for Congo.
The Peacebuilder says:
I know that one day, because of this hard work I am doing, I can die. I know this. But I close my door to this, I won't let it in just yet, because God will protect us. I will do this until my last breath.
My name is Henri. I am building peace. I will continue until peace has been built.