Faces, hundreds of faces are what I recall of the 11 months I spent in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo working as a mental health officer with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
People ask me: “So … How was it?”
I try to respond. But I can't answer in just a few words.
It was one of the most beautiful, and yet one of the most challenging, experiences I have had. In North Kivu, torture, forced labor, harassment, rape, armed attacks, and killings occur regularly. When I look back, I recall faces: beautiful faces, faces of the young and the old, faces of men and women, faces of people of all backgrounds and groups. They are faces of people who experienced horror. But they are also faces of survivors and faces of people who transformed with our help.
One woman who had survived domestic violence, as well as rape by strangers, spoke of how “worms” had entered her body through her heel and crawled up her leg into her stomach, causing her severe stomach aches. They migrated into her head, giving her migraines. Her descriptions were vivid and powerful. She requested medication. As we explained to her the impact of trauma on the body, she became more open to the idea of trying what we could offer, of practicing orientation and grounding exercises. As her inner container developed, her symptoms became less severe and less frequent. She was able to move on with her life.
There is the face of a young man, beaten and tortured by armed men. One could see the fear in his eyes, the hyper vigilance in his moves, the hyper arousal in his breath. I could sense that he feared us as I coached his counselor. I could feel that counselor's amazement at his client's transformation: the young man's breathing slowed down and eased; his facial features smoothed out; his eyes lit up. We could not take away the risk of future attacks, but he returned to a more regulated state. And he understood how fear is necessary to help protect himself in the future.
There is the face of a 15-year-old girl, taken as a sexual slave by armed men and held captive for four months. After she tried to escape, two of her friends were killed in front of her eyes. Luckily, her second escape was successful. But she was left suicidal and unable to function. She could not regulate her body. Her voice shook and her speech was interrupted by sobs. We helped her begin to ground herself, to slow down, to orient herself. The fact that she had survived was amazing, and I hoped she would be able to feel that. Over the course of the work, her inner world changed. She started smiling, laughing, and conversing. And she felt strong enough to work the fields again.
There is the face of a 12-year-old boy who survived seeing his mother and siblings murdered. Somehow he had managed to flee. When we first met him, he was in a state of panic, asking for medication: “I am scared. I am scared ALL the time!” I could feel the tension and fear in the room and in his body. I wondered how I could help a child who had witnessed such atrocities. It took time, but he improved without medication. During one session, as we helped him connect to his ability to escape the danger, a big smile appeared on his face: “Yes … I am courageous!” and “I survived!” he said, proudly. For him, we had offered enough, and he was able to move on.
In the end, I recall so many faces … all amazing souls and true survivors. They are part of who I am today. I don't know what has become of them, but I know that our work transformed their lives.
Joelle Depeyrot, LCSW is a Somatic Experiencing® Practitioner. After spending six years working as a clinician in the Los Angeles area, she decided to share her knowledge and expertise with less fortunate communities. She joined Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders in 2008. She has served as a mental health officer on two different missions, the latest of which was in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She spent 11 months there working with people who have lived through the world's deadliest conflict since World War II.
Header photo by Steve Evans; team photo courtesy Joelle Depeyrot.