A Congo Mother Survives Cannibalism to Save Her Children: Why Her Photo Matters

In 2003, Maria joined the victims of a terrible crime in the Ituri conflict. Her story still matters, and an aid group is telling it around the world, but does our attention also carry some risks?

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Marcus Bleasdale, VII

We don't know much about Maria. A photographer named Marcus Bleasdale met her in the Democratic Republic of Congo in August of 2003. She was breastfeeding one of her three children, resting the infant's head on her good arm. Her other arm ends at the elbow, where it's capped by a fresh cast that reads "31/8," probably meaning that it can be removed on August 31. Her older son is also in the frame, bandages dangling from his scalp.

Maria told the photorapher that she lost the limb defending her children from one of the militant groups then terrorizing Ituri province, her home. Soldiers hacked it off at the elbow and ate the flesh. Maria does not say if the soldiers forced her to watch as they cooked and consumed her arm, but she would not have been the first in Ituri's war. When the sub-conflict of the Congolese Civil War peaked from 1999 to 2003, stories of cannibalism started to trickle out.

Stories like Maria's, and the larger Congolese conflict of which it was a part, are something we still talk about today. An art exhibit, meant to raise awareness, is currently shuttling Maria's photo around the globe, showing it and others to people in the highest levels of government. But the reasons we talk about Maria are nearly as complicated as the story itself, which is now mostly over, and risks over-simplifying our understanding as much as aiding it.

One year before Maria lost her arm, 23-year-old Chantal Tsesi woke to the sound of pre-dawn gunfire. Soldiers marched into her home carrying machetes and told her exactly what they were going to do. "Today we are going to cut off your arm," one of them said. She feared for her six-year-old son, the only other person with her in the house. "They cut off my arm," Tsesi told The UK Independent's Eliza Griswold in 2004. "They cooked it, while they were drinking our mandro [traditional beer], and ate it with the rest of the beans and rice." She added, "They told me they were going to find my husband and eat his heart."

Later, while Tsesi was in the hospital, soldiers returned to her village. They stormed her mother's house, where Tsesi's sister Georgette also lived with her own four children. "We had a shed and they tore it down to build the fire. They took our food and cooked pieces of Georgette and the children," Tsesi recalled. Everyone in the house was killed.

The Ituri conflict "saw some of the most brutal and inhumane fighting of all the Congo wars, and 2003 was a time when that crisis was at its peak," Laura Seay, a U.S. academic with deep experience in Central Africa, told me over email. "It has since ended, and a woman in Ituri today is significantly less likely to experience this type of violence, although certainly the risk is there as the issues underlying the crisis (namely, land rights) have never been resolved."

A 2003 investigation by Human Rights Watch found a trend of rebel groups using cannibalism "to bring ritual strength to perpetrators and to inspire terror in opponents." Breaking that taboo of eating human flesh was a way both to indoctrinate fighters -- getting them to cross a psychological line, making them more willing to follow orders that would otherwise be unthinkable -- and to intimidate opponents and civilians, who might have come to view mere death as so commonplace that something more horrific was needed to coerce them.

It's still not entirely clear how this practice began in Ituri. Human Rights Watch traced it back to 1999, when fighting there began between tribal groups that Belgian colonists had pitted against one another as a means of controlling them. A Congolese bishop named Melchisedec Sikuli Paluku was one of the first to alert the larger world, broadcasting the story of a man who'd been forced to watch his extended family butchered and prepared for consumption. Bishop Paluku told Griswold he thinks it might have began with the routine mutilation of civilians, an earlier tactic to terrorize local communities. "Bemba's men were cutting fingers and ears off," he said, referencing prominent militia leader Jean-Pierre Bemba. "That was normal. But when they started feeding them to the prisoners - that was something new." Bemba went on to become Democratic Republic of Congo vice president from 2003 to 2006 and was arrested on International Criminal Court charges in 2008. He is currently on trial.

The Ituri conflict is largely over, as is the larger Congolese civil war, with its horrifying statistics of "one rape per minute" (a number that actually reflects 2006 data). But the world is still struggling to understand it and to absorb its atrocities, as well as its lessons, which is why Maria's story is being told all over the globe right now by a project called Congo/Women. The traveling exhibit displays photos by Bleasdale and other journalists who have worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo, telling the stories of women like Maria. "If we do our job right, the arts can help us come together and take that next step to support those with whom we share this earth," Leslie Thomas, the project's curator, told Rachel Halder of Women Under Siege.

There is a real value to mounting, even years after the fact, international attention to atrocities like those in the Congo. It helps us understand the stakes of peace-building and the risks of allowing that peace to falter. But that attention also carries risks. By so emphasizing the atrocities in Central Africa, we risk normalizing the region's suffering in outsiders' minds, unintentionally creating the idea that this is just how it's always been and always will be, when neither of those is actually true.

"It is important to bear witness to these crimes and to move the international community to support local actors in stopping the crisis," Seay explained. "But Congo/Women only shows a small aspect of what it is like to be Congolese and a woman." Most Congolese women aren't rape survivors, and the survivors do other things with their lives, but our emphasis on bearing witness can sometimes make Congo seem synonymous with atrocity, and its women synonymous with victim. "It reduces raped women to being victims whose primary identity is inextricably tied to their rape," lamented Seay. "Presenting these women simply as rape victims runs the danger of diminishing their humanity in yet another way."

Seay, like many Westerners who work in the region, has long criticized the way media cover sub-Saharan Africa, focusing mostly on its conflicts and ignoring the larger sweep and context of the region. I didn't expect her to be a fan of Congo/Women, so I asked her, if she and friend wandered into a gallery that was showing the exhibit and her friend balked at Maria's photo, what would Seay tell her?

I would try to focus on what is universal about the situation we see depicted. In the photo, Maria is doing something that women all over the world do -- feeding her baby while keeping an eye on her older child. She and that child have obviously suffered brutal violence, but they have also clearly gotten medical care from somewhere that has good equipment and the capacity to help -- note that the dressings on their wounds are clean and sanitary despite the challenging conditions around them. She also looks to be wearing a rosary, which suggests that her faith is an element that is helping her to survive this crisis, and that hopefully indicates she has some support from her church community. Maria is watching her baby nurse with concern and love, like any mother anywhere, even with the weight of the world on her shoulders. And she and her children are still alive, because she fought to protect them from her attackers. There's an incredible amount of courage and normalcy in this photograph, even with the obviously abnormal and horrific context.

"That said," Seay wrote me, "the unbelievable brutality and inhumanity that Maria and her children experienced is representative of the violence that rape survivors in the DRC face. It really is that bad." Bleasdale, talking to Women Under Siege, said he hoped the project would make policy-makers around the globe more aware of just how bad things can get when the world ignores a terrible conflict. "Photography is almost like a baton that we pass from user to user," he explained, "and hopefully through that we can give the tools to proper people who have access to other people who can change the world for the better."

Update: Congo/Women curator and co-director Leslie Thomas got in touch to challenge to point out that the exhibit "shows the root causes of violence, the history of natural resource exploitation and politics, and things women and families are doing to combat the issue. It looks at wider public health issues and then adds essays and spoken word testimonials to really bring a broader perspective." She notes that Congo/Women includes a "section of images of women who are tackling motherhood, economic development, public health issues, and political change." Exhibition dates for the show, though currently between tours, can be found here.