A Thousand Sisters

My Journey into the Worst Place on Earth to Be a Woman


By Lisa J Shannon

Foreword by Zainab Salbi

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Lisa J. Shannon had a good life—a successful business, a fiancé, a home, and security. Then, one day in 2005, an episode of Oprah changed all that. The show focused on women in Congo, the worst place on earth to be a woman. She was awakened to the atrocities there—millions dead, women raped and tortured daily, and children dying in shocking numbers. Shannon felt called to do something. And she did. A Thousand Sisters is her inspiring memoir. She raised money to sponsor Congolese women, beginning with one solo 30-mile run, and then founded a national organization, Run for Congo Women. The book chronicles her journey to the Congo to meet the women her run sponsored, and shares their incredible stories. What begins as grassroots activism forces Shannon to confront herself and her life, and learn lessons of survival, fear, gratitude, and immense love from the women of Africa.


A thousand Sisters AND LISA J. SHANNON
“Thousand Sisters brings to unforgettable life dozens of the women and girls caught in the crosshairs of the worst, and most underreported, humanitarian catastrophe of our time. It takes us into a literal heart of darkness on a personal journey that is by turns enchanting and chilling, always achingly honest, and never less than beautifully reported and wrenchingly true. Lisa Shannon’s brave book helps teach us how to care, and why.”
“Lisa Shannon’s beautifully written memoir is for anyone who thinks one person can’t make a difference in the world. A page turning read, A Thousand Sisters could inspire the biggest skeptic. Hard to put down.”
“A Thousand Sisters asks the question, ‘Can one person get off her couch and touch the lives of those in need on the other side of the world?’ This memoir answers, with poignancy and passion, ‘Yes, she can!’”


When we stood close
Together and your eyes
Looked into my
Eyes, I felt that
Threads passed from
Your eyes into
My eyes and
Bound our hearts
When you left me, and journeyed across
The sea, it was as
If fine threads still united us,
And they were tearing at the wound.

THE CONFLICT IN the Democratic Republic of Congo has taken more lives than any other war since World War II, resulting in the death of more than 5.4 million people and the ongoing rape of hundreds of thousands of women. Despite these gruesome statistics, the conflict rages on amidst muted international response and blanket impunity for rape and war crimes in which all sides are implicated. It has been more than 10 years now, but every day, scores of Congolese people are still falling victim to some of the worst acts of violence known to humanity (if you can believe there can be a worst act of violence)—from the killing and mutilation, to the raping of women, men and children, violence continues to happen and the number of victims continues to grow. The world has yet to rise up with the political will to stop this war and the atrocities committed against not only the Congolese people but all of humanity as well.
It is hard not to be angry when you have witnessed the rape of your mother in front of your eyes, the killing of your child, the burning of your home, or the pillaging of all that you have worked so hard to build. The question for survivors is never their anger at injustice, but rather how to express that anger in a healthy way that can lead to building rather than destruction, to reconciliation rather than hate, to a profound perspective that marries both the beauty and the ugliness of life. A survivor’s need for action is understood and in many ways expected, even though at times that action can be destructive both for the self and the other.
That’s the predicament of the survivor. Then there are the questions with which the rest of the world must wrestle: What if one has the privilege of not directly experiencing or even witnessing firsthand injustice in front of one’s eyes? What if one never has to know what it feels like to be lynched, whipped, raped, chained, mutilated, enslaved; or know the pain of witnessing a loved one be killed without being able to do anything about it? What if one doesn’t know what it feels like to lose a home because a bomb fell on it, or because it was invaded by soldiers or rebels in the middle of the night while you were sleeping in your own bed; or be forced to walk days and weeks in the middle of the forest without any food just to save your life and that of your loved one? What then? Is that carte blanche to ignore, to pretend, to do nothing?
For much of the world it is. Much of the world is content to stand by and do nothing while the war rages on in Congo, while people die by the millions, and while women are raped by the hundreds of thousands. But, thankfully, it is not so for everyone. There are activists worldwide who do what they can on behalf of others who are oppressed, though they may not share that plight. These are the people who realize that their own privilege—the privilege of not witnessing atrocities, the privilege of being heard, or having the resources to survive—is a responsibility to humanity, a responsibility to be shared with others, and a responsibility to this world. That story, the story of a few individuals acting upon injustice even though they have not witnessed it firsthand has always existed, and that is the story that adds to the hope survivors share when they triumph over the evil they have witnessed.
With every story of injustice, there were always those who refused to stand silent, who made a conscious choice to act, regardless of the consequences, the price, and the impact on one’s life. It was a few individuals who had never been part of the slave trade who decided to act in the late eighteenth century in London, England, leading eventually to the global abolitionist movement. It was three white civil rights workers who were slain making a stand for equality in Mississippi in 1964. Like the abolitionists before them, they were making a political statement that slavery and segregation were not “black problems,” they were everyone’s problem and responsibility to solve.
Similarly, individual white South African activists made the point that Apartheid was a moral responsibility for all to end.
We see that in every story of injustice there is a movement for the good, one in which there are always survivors who decided to dedicate their lives to ending it, as well as those who have not been victims but know of their moral responsibility to stand up and fight. Lisa Shannon is one of those individuals who has decided to take a stand against an evil that does not oppress her directly but offends her with its very existence. She runs for Congo women. Lisa Shannon is a woman no different than those who stood up against slavery and apartheid before her, who decided to act, watch, hear, and even go into the heart of horrors as she did to witness the atrocities and listen to those who have seen evil. For survivors, their perseverance is a triumph over evil, the sheer force of will to survive and to stand tall. For Lisa, hers is a heroine’s journey of a woman who did not shy away from the ongoing horrors in the world. She is a woman who was not afraid to confront conflict in the Congo, who did not worry about how much it would cost her personally to engage. Hers is a story of compassion, clarity, determination, strength, creativity, and love. It is a story about the power of believing in the possibility of making a difference, in the possibility of good to triumph over evil, and in the power of love to triumph over hate.
I have witnessed the joy Lisa created in the hearts of women who have survived the horror of the war in Congo. I have seen their embrace, heard their laughter, and shared their joy when they learned that this one woman cares so much. Lisa loved them so much that she traveled halfway around the world to talk with them directly, touch them, assure them that there is still hope in this world, and that it is still possible for life to go back to normal. And, by organizing the Run for Congo events, she showed them that women all over the world care enough to run, and run in order to draw attention to their suffering and to create change.
Through the most honest and sincere portrayal of emotions, balanced with an astute understanding of the politics associated with the conflict, A Thousand Sisters gives a human face to war by showing that the beauty and resilience of Congolese women shines through even the darkest of times—through their sheer determination to stay alive, or love the child they bore out of mass rape; to process the pain they endured and the horrors they survived; to laugh despite all odds, dance despite all pain, believe in humanity despite all of the inhumanity they have witnessed; and to keep life going in the midst of death. That is what women always do in war, and they do that in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Lisa has borne witness to that; she has captured their strength expertly in this book.
A Thousand Sisters shows the power of communication, of reaching out, of building bridges of hope. It is the story of individual women from around the world who decided to take full ownership of their voice and their resources and become one thousand philanthropists, one thousand advocates on behalf of one thousand women whose resources have been stolen and whose voices have been ignored. The horror in Congo has been going on for so long, it feels as if the world has put the sounds of the women’s cries of injustice on mute. Lisa and a few American women have decided to turn up the volume, to shine the spotlight: they have listened and acted.
Public diplomacy, friendship, and peace come in many different forms, and Lisa’s journey of sponsoring Congolese women proves that it also comes from individuals who have made the conscious decision to act, to represent the beauty of who they are as individuals. Her story shows the power of connecting through our humanity, connecting through our common love for simple things—our trees and gardens, the sound of running water, and all that we have in common, regardless of where we are and where we come from.
I would like to offer a special thanks to Oprah Winfrey, whose vision and passion led her to cover the story of the women in Congo before anybody else brought awareness to the issue. If Oprah had not given me the opportunity to share the story of Congolese women, I would not have had the privilege of meeting Lisa and the thousands of other women who decided to act.
I will close with this final thought: a Bosnian journalist once told me that war shows you the worst side of humanity and in that same moment it shows the most beautiful side of humanity. Lisa’s story is a testament to the beauty of humanity that exists in the darkest and most depraved times of war. It is a beauty that has sparked the united action of women who gather in support of their Congolese sisters across the globe, who gather to speak out, and who gather to create change.
Rumi, a 13th century Sufi poet, wrote :
Out beyond the world of right doing and wrong doing
There is a field.
I will meet you there.
When the soul meets in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other no longer makes any sense.
I hope Rumi forgives me if I suggest that in between the worlds of war and peace, there is a field, and women are meeting in that field. Lisa is there; Honarata is there; Fatima is there; Violette is there; Barbara is there; so many other sisters are there. If you are not there already, come join us, for the “world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase each other no longer makes any sense.” We are just sisters gathering in a field, and we shall run—run and dance—dance until the end.

THIS IS A TRUE STORY. In a place as extreme as Congo, there is no need to make anything up. Everything in this book happened; the vast majority of it happened on videotape. Most of the dialogue has been transcribed directly from video, as it was translated to me in the moment. Some interviews are compressed, having taken place over multiple meetings. Some portions are not presented in the exact order of actual events. There are no composite characters. Congo, nonetheless, is an active war zone and I have a duty to protect those I met and interviewed. Most names have been changed, primarily for safety reasons, and in some special cases (as clearly noted in the text) details of context were omitted due to serious safety concerns.

Congo in a Nutshell
AT THE END of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, more than two million Hutu refugees fled over the border into Zaire. Among them, approximately 100,000 Hutu genocidaires, known as the Interahamwe, found safe harbor, melting into refugee camps facilitated by the United Nations.
In the absence of an international effort to identify Interahamwe, in 1996 Rwanda and Uganda sponsored rebel leader Laurent Kabila to invade Zaire. The Hutu refugee camps were destroyed. The remaining Interahamwe retreated to Congo’s forests, where they re-branded themselves as the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (the FDLR).
Backed by Rwandan troops, Kabila ousted Zaire’s long-time kleptocratic dictator Mobutu. Kabila was installed as the new President of the country and renamed it The Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The alliance between Rwanda and Kabila was short-lived. In 1998, again citing security threats posed by the Interahamwe (FDLR), Rwanda and Uganda invaded once again, now backing the militia Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD), which took control of North and South Kivu provinces. Ragtag splinter groups and homegrown militias jumped into the fight, including the Mai Mai, a local defense force known for its use of witchcraft. Kabila formed his own alliances with neighboring countries like Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia, dragging half a dozen countries into the conflict that grew to be termed Africa’s World War.
In January 2001, Kabila was assassinated. His son, Joseph Kabila, took over as President of DR Congo. The conflict technically ended in 2003 and many countries or their proxy militias returned home. In the summer of 2006, with heavy international support, Congo held its first elections since independence, and Joseph Kabila became the first democratically elected President since 1960. Despite this, chaos continues to reign in eastern Congo.
Congo hosts the largest United Nations peacekeeping force in the world, with 20,000 troops and a robust mandate to protect civilians. But given the enormity of the country and its chaos, the UN force, also called MONUC, is “pathetically spare,” while the Congolese army, a force of 125,000 troops, is comprised primarily of former militias integrated into this notoriously corrupt, ill-disciplined army.
The FDLR remain, still known by the locals as Interahamwe, “Those Who Kill Together.” Though they have shrunk to an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 combatants, they control 60 percent of South Kivu.
National Congress for the Defense of People (a.k.a., CNDP), a Congolese-Tusti defense force led by General Laurent Nkunda (widely reported to be backed by Rwanda), has caused major unrest and massive displacement in North Kivu through 2008. Nkunda was arrested in 2009.
The United Nations has accused all nations involved in the conflict of using the war as a cover for looting Congo’s vast mineral wealth. Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi, as well as Congolese government officials, have made hundreds of millions of dollars off of the Congo plunder.
The result? As of January 2008, more than 5.4 million people had died due to the conflict, making it the deadliest war since World War II. Forty-five thousand continue to die every month. Sexual violence is rampant. Congo has been widely termed “the worst place on earth to be a woman.”
Journalist Lisa Ling has termed Eastern Congo, “The worst place on earth. And the most ignored.”

Congo Rushes
THE CALLS COME during the remote, panic-inducing hours of morning. I scramble for my cell phone; a number beginning 011-243-99 appears on my caller ID. Congo calling. Sometimes it’s the United Nations, a Sergeant Something-I-Can’t-Make-Out, with a heavy South Asian lilt, who requests my immediate reply but is never again reachable. The president of a militia calls for a job reference after being fired for “political affiliations incompatible with humanitarian work.” Or it’s the distant voice of my Congolese driver, Serge, who says, “Some f——ing job.” He is using his precious phone minutes to prank call me. We both giggle until he hangs up.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo—otherwise known as the worst place on earth. Home to Africa’s First World War, the deadliest war on the planet since World War II. I’ve spent months trying to shake that place, but it keeps knocking at my door, like a bill collector or an old lover anxious to wrap up unfinished business.
This morning is different, though.
“Do you remember there?”
Yes, Eric. I remember there.
It’s news from the village of Kaniola. One Sunday, many months ago, I walked through its far-flung settlements, which are scattered along the ridgeline, butted up against vast stretches of forest. Since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the forests, thirty miles inland from the Rwandan border, have been ruled by Hutu militias known as Interahamwe, a Rwandan word meaning “those who kill together.” The group is also known as the Forces Democratiques de Liberation du Rwanda, or FDLR.
I thought about Kaniola just the other day while strolling past the Old Portland houses and walnut trees that line my street, sipping my takeout tea. I’m not religious, so Biblical passages almost never cross my mind, but that psalm flashed in my head: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . . I realized that if there is anywhere on earth that qualifies as the valley of the shadow of death, it’s Kaniola. In the five and a half weeks I spent in Congo, the most horrific stories I heard came from that valley. I walked through it and I felt no fear. I’ve done that, literally.
I chuckled to myself.
This morning, sitting in front of my laptop with another cup of tea, staring at my email in-box, it is not amusing in the least.
My friend Eric, a Congolese conservationist with whom I maintain regular contact, writes, “I am forwarding you an article about seventeen persons who were killed by knives in Kaniola. Do you remember there?”
Of course I remember.
The international news report outlines the attack. “It was a reprisal. They targeted houses. They silently entered the house. They started by strangling some victims before stabbing them to stop them raising the alarm. . . . The assailants left a letter saying they would return in force.”
Twenty injured. Eighteen kidnapped. Seventeen killed.
On my second read of the article, I stop cold at a line I initially missed: “The victims included the father of a girl kidnapped by the FDLR and recently freed by the army.”
From the hundreds of people I interviewed in Congo’s war-ravaged
South Kivu province, I heard plenty of stories of abductions and countless reports of the army running away from the Interahamwe. But I heard only one account of the army protecting civilians, a shocking story because these kinds of heroics are so rare. In Kaniola, I met three girls who’d been abducted by the Interahamwe and rescued by the Congolese Army.
Is this article about that same family? It must be.
It will be days before I hear from one of the United Nations majors who escorted me that day, who confirms my guess. “If you remember the last walk, it was that same area.”
I went to Kaniola on a tip, a shred of paper, on a day I had nothing better to do. I spent less than a day there—just a Sunday morning—walking through the village, hoping to talk with the rescued girls. We visited the girls’ home and spoke for more than an hour with the cool-tempered teenagers, their brother, and their desperate father. Afterward, their dad turned to us and asked pointedly, “Now that we’ve talked with you, what are you going to do?”
I drag out the plastic storage bin packed with videotapes from my trip, long since left in a corner of an empty room, its contents unviewed. I’m up late, combing the unfiltered, raw footage, which are called “rushes” in the film industry. Finally I find the Kaniola tapes.
It’s peaceful enough there. Certainly, there is no gore. (I never once saw a dead person in Congo.) Still, I notice my hands shaking as I watch. I have to stop, pace the hall, and return to inch through the footage, frame by frame, until I land on the clearest image of each person I so much as scanned with the camera that day. I capture them in still frames. I export them, save them, print them out in pixilated eight-by-tens, and file them in a white plastic three-ring binder.
I missed so much when I was there. I had heard that when you cross the border into Congo, the look in people’s eyes changes. I noticed it the first day, then never again. Now, as I scan the video footage, it seems so obvious. I study their eyes. Countless people have referred to that look as one of numbness or shell shock. Journalist Lisa Ling once called it “a look of utter death.”
As days fly by and I continue to dig deep into the footage, I stumble across a shot of myself on my second day in Africa, standing on the Rwandan side of the border with a rickety wooden bridge in front of me. I’m about to cross over. I’m already disheveled from the thirty-five-minute flight from Kigali, Rwanda.
That’s odd. In the footage, I am blinking rapidly. My eyelids are fluttering. I didn’t feel afraid at the time, but as I watch myself, I’m clearly scared. Why did I invite that place in? Why did I pursue it, track it down?
It wasn’t because I wanted a feel-good pet project. I needed a solution.

The Greenest Grass
IT ALL STARTS with Oprah, as these things so often do.
It is August 2004 and I am sitting in my therapist’s office. She zeroes right in. “You’ve been watching Oprah a lot lately.”
I am not one to advertise my daytime TV habits, but my four o’clock appointment with Ms. Winfrey has recently become the sturdy anchor in my day. “How did you know that?”
“Depressed people who are at home during the daytime always watch the show.”
Wait, depressed? I don’t have a clue where she’s getting that. To me, depressed is someone in a dingy bedroom in mid-afternoon, blinds closed, watching the digital clock click from 2:12 PM to 2:13 PM to 2:14 PM, or rattling around the house in day-thirteen socks. That is not me. Some stress issues? Sure, and there is my dad’s end-stage cancer. But I feel fine.
I have a great life. At twenty-nine, I am on a solid trajectory, working my plan. I have a little Victorian house with a flower garden in a hip, walkable Portland neighborhood; a creative business with cash-flow charts that tell me freedom is just around the corner; and a good man to snuggle with at night. My quirky English business partner, Ted, is also my significant other. We aren’t married, but there’s no need. We have a bond just as strong, with all the legal protections to match. We are a corporation.
Ted is wonderful, truly. Everything I’ve always had on my list. Kind. Creative. Fun. Cool. Though he’s fifteen years my senior, at forty-four, he prefers to think of himself as twenty-two. Playful and charming to the bone, he can squeeze a smile out of even the most sour grocery-checkout lady or snarky video store clerk. He’s not one to talk much (did I mention he’s English?), but we have between us the quiet harmony of best friends.
We shoot lifestyle stock-photography, the kind of images you see on display in health food stores, dental brochures, and advertisements for online dating services. The beauty of the stock shot is that it can be used to sell anything. One aspiration fits all. A winning photograph will convey two things: perfection and genuine emotion. Correction: The illusion of genuine emotion, which, it turns out, can be manufactured with a few rounds of “One, two, three, yay!”
Ted shoots; I art direct and produce. I haul perfect size-2 models out to a cloudless beach or field of the greenest manicured grass and tell them to lift their arms to the sky like wings so we can capture pictures that will rise to the top of online image searches tagged with the keyword “freedom.”
We call it “image pollution,” just to be clear we’re in on the joke. At parties, Ted likes to say facetiously that we’ve sold our souls. For us, stock photography is strictly a means to an end. As though such things can be coaxed from the universe—or from hundred-dollar-an-hour models, for that matter—Ted often rocks back and forth as he shoots, chanting, “Happiness. More happiness.”


On Sale
Apr 6, 2010
Page Count
336 pages
Seal Press

Lisa J Shannon

About the Author

Lisa J. Shannon is a human rights activist, writer and speaker. In 2005, she founded Run for Congo Women, the first national grassroots campaign in the US working to raise awareness of the forgotten humanitarian crisis in Congo. Since then, she has spearheaded multiple major media and human rights campaigns for Congo and Somalia. She was a 2012-2013 Gleitsman Fellow with Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership and is a 2013-2014 fellow with Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights. Shannon holds a Masters in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School and an Honorary Doctorate from Georgetown University.

She is the author of the award-winning A Thousand Sisters and she has been featured on countless media outlets including The Oprah Winfrey Show, National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, the Economist, and more. In 2010 she was named one of O Magazine‘s 100 Most Influential Women on the Planet.

She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Learn more about this author