The UN refugee agency has awarded Angelique Namaika for helping thousands of women who had been abducted, raped and abused by the LRA rebels in northeastern Congo. She, too, was once been a victim of the conflict.
"I was very happy about this prize, but I was also very surprised," says Sister Angelique. She looks a little tired, it hasn't been long since she landed in Geneva, where she is to receive on Monday (30.09.2013), this year's Nansen Refugee Award from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
It was a long journey for Angelique Namaika. From her town of Dungu, she travelled the vast expanse of the Democratic Republic of Congo to the capital Kinshasa. That's where she took her plane to Switzerland. "When I heard that I was selected among all the candidates around the world, at first I could not accept the prize, because I 'm so far away and the world couldn't possibly know anything about me," she said. "God has given me everything, but somehow it still sounded so unreal."
The 46 -year-old nun with a warm open smile is full of vitality. This is the same strength that she inspires in others - women who have experienced unimaginable suffering.
For the last 30 years, rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) have spread terror and and wreaked havoc in the border region between Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. The LRA conflict has displaced approximately three and a half million people from their villages. The rebels are notorious for kidnapping children. The girls are raped and tortured.
Sister Angelique helps such victims to cope with what has happened to them. She also teaches them a trade so they can earn a living. She knows too well the fear and pain of being on the run. As a young woman she had to flee her home village and hide in the bush for a year.
One of the LRA's victims is 18 -year-old Monique. She was only 14 when they abducted her. "One boy tried to escape, they whipped us and said we should kill him. We beat the boy until he was dead." Then we were made to line up and they told us the same fate would await us if we ever thought of trying to escape. " It took one and a half years before Monique was finally liberated by the Congolese army.
Monique's freedom was tinged with bitterness. Her family didn't want to have anything to do with their traumatized pregnant daughter. She had been struggling to make ends meet until she met Sister Angelique. The Catholic nun has taught Monique not only how to read and write but also how to sew. Today Monique earns money by making school uniforms. She can take care of herself and her child.
Helping people help themselves
Sister Angelique has helped some 2,000 women to become self-reliant.
"These women have died an inner death, their dignity has been destroyed. That's why I organize the training," she said. "My aim is to bring out the intelligence of women who have never been to school and help them to learn how to read and write. Then they can forget about how the LRA abused and violated their bodies," she added.
Helping the women has not been an easy task. Since her project had only meagre financial resources, it took all the determination she could muster just to carry on and not give up.
For a long time she had to travel many kilometers by bicycle from camp to camp. A special center to help the women reintegrate, offering them courses in sewing and baking, was only opened recently.
Breaking the cycle of violence
Angelique wants to break the cycle of violence that has plagued northeastern DRC. Only the women who have taken control over their own lives can raise their children with love and affection. Many women find it difficult to accept children born out of sexual violence. Such kids are left traumatized, making them easy prey for rebels.
Thus the cycle of violence is repeated over and over again, said Sister Angelique.
That's why for many years she has been taking care of abandoned children. "Sometimes I had no money to take these orphans, who had been left in the bush, to the doctor," she said while admitting that she cried a lot in those days. "But with God's help I summoned up courage and asked other people for help."
Sister Angelique says as a child she was inspired by a German nun who worked in Kembisa her home village in northeastern Congo. The German nun used to take care of the sick in the village. "Her work and dedication to the sick impressed me, and I wanted to be a nun - without knowing whether Africans could also become nuns, "she said.
Sister Angelique is a member of the Augustine Sisters of Dungu and Doruma.
With the prize money of 74,000 euros ($100,260), she hopes to buy a semi - industrial baking system for the reintegration center. With this, she said, more women will be able to earn their living from the sale of bread and thereby put their past behind them.