Thousands of Rwandan and Congolese women met in the middle of the Ruzizi Bridge that joins their countries. Honorata Barinjibanwa was one of them. She was tied to a tree and gang-raped for five months by one of the Congo’s roving militias. Rope marks still ringed her delicate neck when a New York Times reporter visited her in hospital two months later. A Rwandan woman named Fatuma was there too. Her son and husband were murdered in front of her by men who then raped her and sliced the fetus — she was pregnant — from her womb.
On the bridge, the women sang and danced and tied two sides of a banner together, demanding peace.
That same day, women moved on to 108 bridges around the world in solidarity. In Sarajevo, thousands reclaimed the bridge where the entwined corpses of Bosko Brkic and Admira Ismic lay rotting for a week at the height of the Bosnian war. The lovers, shot by snipers while trying to flee the city, embodied peace. He was an Eastern Orthodox Serb, she a Muslim.
In New York City, women flooded the Brooklyn Bridge, drumming and singing.
That was last March 8, International Women’s Day. This March 8, women will gather on more than 280 bridges in 30 countries to demand peace, human rights and dignity for women around the world.
The movement was sparked by the Rwandan and Congolese workers with the international human rights group Women for Women International. The organization helps female war victims in eight countries. Its founder, Zainab Salbi, remembers her mother’s puppet shows during Iranian air raids near their Baghdad home. Her mission is to focus on the “backline” of war, where women scramble to find food and defend their children, and to include women in peace talks between warring nations.
“There are two sides of war. There is the side that fights and the side that keeps the schools and the factories and the hospitals open. There is the side that’s focused on winning battles and the side that’s focused on winning life,” she said last year in a lecture. “There is the side that is led by men and there is the side led by women.”
Men are war’s vehicles, women their wreckage. There are sterile United Nations statistics as evidence: 75 to 80 per cent of the world’s 27 million refugees are women and children; 70 per cent of the causalities of war are civilians, most women and children. Then there are the cruel rape statistics: up to 50,000 women and girls raped during the Bosnia war; up to 500,000 during the 1994 Rwandan genocide; more than 200,000 in the ironically named Democratic Republic of Congo since civil war broke out a decade ago. . . . The figures are numbing. The stories behind them, though, are chilling.
Marie-Carline Marcellus is my age, exactly. She has three teenage children. Her husband was crushed in their home during the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti. When I met her, she was living in a metal hut constructed on the edge of what was once a leafy city park, and now a squalid refugee camp. It was a sauna inside. Two days after the earthquake, she was digging through the rubble of her home when three men dragged her into a tent and raped her at gunpoint. A few months later, she was peeing in the portable toilet across the street when two men broke in with ice picks and raped her. Now, like most women I met in refugee camps there, she pees in a bag in her shed. “Haitian women have the worst life,” she told me, sweat dripping from her chin. “It’s misery.”
I wonder, will Marie-Carline go to a bridge on International Women’s Day?
Tuesday marks the event’s 100th anniversary. It began as a workers’ rights movement but quickly stitched in the theme of peace. In 1917, Russian women ditched their petticoats for pants and took to the streets demanding “bread and peace.” So it seems fitting that women this Tuesday will take to bridges in peace.
There’s something about bridges. Yes, they connect sides. But they also seem so supple — up there in the air. “Buildings and bridges,” sings Ani DiFranco, “are made to bend in the wind. To withstand the world, that’s what it takes.”
These past weeks, men have taken the squares in countries like Bahrain and Yemen, fighting for democracy. I inspect the photos, looking for female faces. I see none. But they will be meeting next week on bridges in Tehran and Baghdad.
Two women are organizing a “Join Women on the Bridge” event in Toronto on International Women’s Day. They’ve chosen the Belt Line pedestrian bridge spanning Yonge Street, just south of Davisville. They’ll be there on March 8, from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., with candles and posters. Sounds like a good place to be.