MANCHESTER — When Coco Ramazani finally escaped the horrors of life in the war-torn Congo and arrived safely to live her sister in Manchester in 2000, she hoped to find some peace of mind at last. But years of rape and abuse had taken their toll.
Soon after her arrival, she was diagnosed as HIV-positive.
It was an unbearable irony, to have escaped death in the cross-fire of a war that has raged for decades, only to be confronted with a fatal disease when happiness seemed within reach.
Around the same time, she met Joseph Mwantuali, a Congo-born American college professor visiting mutual friends in the city. A professor of African literature at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., and a published author, he was immediately interested in telling her story, but she was far from being able to talk about it.
She reached a turning point in 2006, while hospitalized with complications from HIV and post-traumatic stress syndrome. "I decided I am not going to die without telling my story," she said. "I have to tell the world what happened. It's the only way I have to fight back."
The result is "Tell This To My Mother — a novel based on the true story of Coco Ramazani, a war rape victim," authored by Mwantuali, and published in March by Stragetic Books Publishing.
More than a decade of healing in America helped her regain her strength. The same courage and indomitable spirit that enabled her to endure life in the Democratic Republic of the Congo now enable her to take on a new challenge — raising American awareness of the tragedy in her homeland, where Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi have been fighting an on-again, off-again proxy war with Congolese rebels for control of resource-rich eastern regions since the 1990s.
"Americans, the way they accepted me, the way they saved me, they can save other Congolese women and children if they put pressure on their President," she said.
Despite estimates of war dead that exceed 5 million, and more than 500,000 women raped, Americans have little awareness of the scope of what has been called the Great African War, with 15 years of intermittent conflict.
"This is the most terrible tragedy since Hitler, yet the superpowers are staying silent," said Mwantulai in a recent interview with New Hampshire Public Radio.
Ramazani believes sanctions on Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda could stop them from destroying another generation of Congolese women and children.
A culture of rape
The title of the book is not directed at Ramazani's mother. She never knew her mother or her father. One of 21 siblings born to a man with five wives, and orphaned as a child, she was raised by a sister whom she thought was her mother until she reached adulthood.
"I have no picture to associate with my mother or father, no voice," she said. "I can't remember anything about them."
She's not even sure how old she is. A slender, short, attractive woman who looks to be in her mid- to late-30s, she estimates her age at 42, which is what her passport says. "I was born in a small village," she said. "They didn't give birth certificates."
Her life is a story of how rape permeates a male-dominated culture in which she was abused by male authority figures at every turn — in school, in church, on the job and finally by soldiers who were supposed to be helping her during her escape on a flight from Kampala, Uganda, in 2000.
It's also the story of child soldiers enlisted into an endless conflict marked by genocide — one of whom died in her arms in a battle that raged just before her escape.
She had come to know the boy, whom she estimated to be in his early teens, during the months she was serving as an aide to the spokesman for Ugandan-backed Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, a commander of a rebel group during the Second Congo War.
They were caught in the cross-fire of Rwanadan- and Ugandan-backed rebels and soldiers in the Congolese city of Kisangani in 1999, when the boy was brought to her with fatal wounds.
"We didn't even have a chance to get him to the hospital," she said. "He was screaming, dying, calling for his mother. That's what really triggered me because I was asking myself the same questions: Why am I in Kisangani? Why am I going to die here?"
As part of the Wamba dia Wamba entourage, Ramazani was eventually evacuated to Kampala, after three days of rape and starvation in a military encampment of Ugandan soldiers.
Hope for intervention
Thanks to the intervention of her sister in Manchester, and connections she had made while serving the Ugandan-backed rebel leader, she was able to board a flight from Kampala in April 2000, first to Newark, N.J., and then to Manchester, where her sister, now deceased, arrived in 1990 on a student visa.
Ramazani's life for the past 12 years has been one of recovery, from wounds physical and psychological. She obtained a work permit and worked at Filenes for five years, then went to work for a car rental company at the Manchester airport. In and out of the hospital over the years, she has dealt with depression and survived suicide attempts.
"I have an incredible team of doctors who became my family and my community," she said. Her blood tests have been improving, and show no signs of the AIDS virus.
Fluent in five languages, including English, French and Swahili, she graduated recently with a master's degree in business administration from Southern New Hampshire University and is serving an internship with an energy supply company in Merrimack.
Her experience in Manchester gives her hope that Americans will demand some kind of non-military intervention to end the bloodshed in her native land.
"Americans are a compassionate people," she said. "They never stay away from any other person who is struggling. I know Americans, and they can do this."