Rachel stands behind a row of metal buffet trays full of pasta and fried fish, lined up on a table skirted in white fabric. She is demur and quiet. She, unlike many of the men in the room, exhibits no desire to be in the spotlight or consume the oxygen in the room.
Her past, much like this region's, is complex and fraught. In 1996, Rachel was 16. Neighboring Rwanda's genocidal ethnic war had been spilling into Congo for several years, bringing economic, political, and personal chaos to millions of people. Rachel was one of those people.
"My family had left, they fled when the soldiers were coming," she remembers. "But I had gone back to the house, I was trying to hide."
"They came into the house, five or six soldiers. They raped me," she says.
Tragically, Rachel was just one of the millions of women who had to endure sexual violence during Congo's long and vicious wars.
Rachel stayed with an elderly neighbor for a few months, but decided to leave. "I felt like I had no value in my neighborhood anymore," she says. "So I decided to become a soldier myself. I wanted people to fear me, to respect me."
She joined the Mai Mai rebel group, one of many dozens rampaging through Eastern Congo in the late 90's and early 2000's (and to some extent still today) as the social fabric and infrastructure of the region became unmoored.
30,000 children were serving as soldiers in 2003 in Eastern Congo, many conscripted against their will. Living in the forest, they moved from camp site to camp site, sometimes witnessing or participating in violence of the most brutal kind.
Rachel says her wish came true. People did fear her. "They knew that I could kill them or hit them or do something to them," she says. "They knew I had the capacity and spirit to do it."
When fighting began to calm down, her group agreed to merge with the Congolese army, which represented the same forces who'd raped her years before. It was at this time she also found out her mother was still alive, back in Bukavu.
"I deserted, and I came back to Bukavu. They arrested me there for desertion," she says.
In prison, she became pregnant. Out of prison, and now with a three month old, she moved back in with her mother—A happy, if complicated reunification. Making a living proved tough. What once made her feared now made her suspect.
"People said, 'Oh she's a soldier! She'll kill us! She's a thief!'" she says.
She became a prostitute for a time. Another child and a failed marriage later—her husband shunned her after learning about her past—she decided to learn a trade.
She arrived at Laissez Afrique Vivre, a school for ex combattants, where she learned how to cook: "I studied hospitality, hotelerie."
Behind Rachel are shimmery lavender bows and pleated white fabric covering the walls and table. "All of these decorations, I did them," she says.
Buffet trays of rice and fried plantains are added to the lineup, part of a banquet for special guests.
"I can cook anything int he Congolese kitchen," Rachel says. "Not so much your European food, but any Congolese food you like, I can cook!"
Rachel caters, she makes street food. She likes to make wedding cakes. She has two children now and pays their way to school. Her dream now is to work in a hotel.
"I don't think about the past."
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