The opening ceremonies for the City of Joy were full ofsinging, dancing, cheers and signs of hope - in the smiling faces of women whohad survived rape - of being safe at last.
The City of Joy is a project to empower the women of theDemocratic Republic of Congo, centred around a compound of buildings that thewomen envisioned for themselves: Small houses for privacy, meeting rooms, openfields for gardens and children's playgrounds.
A six-month programme for its 90 residents includespsychosocial treatment, literacy and life skills and vocational training. Thegoal is to create a movement of female leaders for a peaceful future in thecountry.
"This is a turning point for the women of theCongo," said Eve Ensler, founder of V-Day, the international organisationagainst gender-based violence, and the guiding light behind the programme."The City of Joy will be a gathering place for the women to find theirvoices, their vision and their power. And when the women find their power, allof Congo will change."
Ensler, who was wearing her hair cropped short after comingthrough chemotherapy treatments, called the opening day "the happiest dayof my life".
During the 13 years of the ongoing conflict in theDemocratic Republic of Congo, it is estimated that over 5,00,000 women havebeen raped and tortured in the most brutal and savage way, resulting in seriousmedical and psychological suffering.
Women and young girls have endured kidnapping, sexualslavery and forced prostitution. Due to the stigma attached to rape, those whosurvive are often too ashamed to go back to their villages and have no way tosupport themselves and their children.
The recent ceremony - which drew a contingent of foreignwomen, including myself - gave some of the women a chance to speak out. Severalwomen stood at a microphone before the multitude of guests listing theirdemands for respect and equal rights.
Melanne Verveer, the U.S. State Department's global ambassadorfor women's rights was there. So were representatives from UNICEF (whichdonated some of the construction costs) and other philanthropists. A fewHollywood American movie stars were also among those who listened.
Speaking in strong voices and without notes - Ensler saidthe women had practiced their speeches for days - wearing T-shirts that read"stop raping our greatest resource", they demanded a legal systemthat would protect their rights and bring rapists to justice. They demandeddrug treatment for HIV/AIDS and support for children born of rape.
The ceremony was packed from early morning to late nightwith visits and briefings, as well as a performance of Ensler's play 'TheVagina Monologues' in French. Many Congolese men in the audience, which includedlocal politicians, seemed uncomfortable at first, but by the end they werelaughing and cheering.
Foreign visitors made it to the events in a motorcade of adozen jeeps that bounced through the potholed roads and insanely crowdedstreets of Bukavu, packed with scooters, cows, women balancing jugs of water ontheir heads and little girls hunched over from heavy bunches of firewood thatthey carried with head straps.
Even the hero of V-Day supporters, Dr Denis Mukwege, thecharismatic and humble founder of Panzi Hospital, which takes care of hundredsof women and girl survivors of rape and torture every year, many of whom areinfected with the HIV/AIDS virus, was there to lend support. "When I shookhis hand, I felt as if I was in the presence of the Pope," said oneawe-struck woman. "Oh, what a different world it would be if he werePope," added another.
Stephen Lewis, a former Canadian ambassador to the UnitedNations, who is a benefactor of the hospital, vowed he would pressure the worldgovernments to make HIV/AIDS drugs affordable and available. The women cheeredand waved their hands, their fingers spread into a 'V'.
"I thought this trip would be very hard for meemotionally," one visitor said. "But when you are around these women,you can feel their strength and see the determination in their faces to changetheir lives. There is such a feeling of hope."
Seeing the joyful exuberance of the women it was hard toimagine the horrors they have endured. Mama Bachu, the matriarch of the City ofJoy, noted that the women were still vulnerable, not only to ongoing rapes, butalso to domestic violence and denial of basic rights.
But this was a time for celebration and the woman everyonewanted to be near and hug was Ensler. "Feel the energy," a radiantEnsler said at one point, as she stood in a vast field at the centre of thecompound while giving a tour of the facilities. She envisioned classes for thewomen in dance, karate, yoga and jewellery-making, a radio station, a computercentre, even a sauna.
But inadequate funding limits the outlook for many of therape survivors who can't come to the City of Joy. Little of the $17 millionU.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged 16 months ago to fight sexualviolence has been delivered to the area.
"You know, money is not the answer," a USgovernment official said, adding that the volatile politics over control of theDemocratic Republic of Congo's vast resources and the after effects of theRwandan genocide, which has created a serious huma