In War-ravaged Corner of Central Africa, Israeli Widow Works to Pull 'Rape Capital' Out of Poverty

New Jersey-born aid worker Gila Garaway is go-to person for Israeli medical delegation.

UVIRA, Democratic Republic of Congo - Eastern Congo was the last place American-Israeli Gila Garaway wanted to end up. But that's exactly where the New Jersey native found herself, after her husband was killed in a plane crash here nearly 15 years ago. Today, she is Israel's unofficial liaison in the area, which has been termed by the UN the "rape capital of the world."

Gila Garaway
Cnaan Liphshiz

On July 13, Garaway welcomed five Israeli medical specialists to Congo's South Kivu district. They came to treat the burn victims of a deadly tanker fire that killed 230 and injured dozens at the beginning of July.

More than once, Garaway's diplomatic skills and determination have been the only thing making sure their expensive equipment makes it to aid the impoverished locals.

Garaway, 63 and a mother of four, started working in Congo in 1996 with her husband, Noah Garaway, with whom she had immigrated to Poriah in the Galilee from California in the early 1980s. They went with the hope of helping in the recovery of war-ravaged areas of post-genocide Rwanda. They returned to Israel a year later, with Gila vowing never to return to the war-torn Congo, rife with suffering and death.

"When we left Africa for Israel, I told Noah I never ever wanted to come back to Congo," she recalled. "We used to say that Africa was for Africans."

But after Noah was killed while on a short trip to the country in 1997 to celebrate the creation of the DRC, Garaway was called back to Africa to identify the remains and decided to stay. "I felt I had a mission to fulfill here," she says. "It just felt right." Later on in the conversation, she adds: "You need faith to make it in Africa."

Now she lives most of the year in Congo running Moriah Africa, an organization she founded with a focus on building local capacity through training. Still, she visits Israel on Passover and Rosh Hashanah to see her two sons and seven grandchildren. Gila has lived through years of brutal civil war in eastern Congo, where militia troops still use rape as a means of terrorizing and subduing the local population.

According to a recent UN estimate, one out of three women in the South Kivu region, where Garaway works, has been raped or sexually assaulted.

"When things deteriorate, the armed soldiers go for the NGO houses, because that's where the goods, the money, the cars, the televisions are," says Garaway, who works with international NGOs to train local labor and encourage small initiatives in rural areas. "Of course, if there are girls there, they'll take that too," she said.

In 2004, Congolese soldiers raped a number of female Western volunteers of one international NGO working in nearby Bukavu, after the city was attacked by a rebel force led by Brig. Gen. Laurent Nkunda. Garaway says she is relatively safe from meeting the same fate because she lives with local friends, "who would put themselves in harm's way to protect" her.

"In general, Africans would be very, very hesitant to assault or attack a white [person] in Congo because they don't know whom you know," Garaway said. "Whites generally are perceived as having a lot of power."

The fact that she is older than the average female NGO worker in Congo helps too, "because people don't quite know what to make of me, they don't now what's my story," she says.

Garaway has had a "very close call," though. Traveling via public transportation on a road in rebel country in 2006, she had an encounter with Mai Mai rebels. Trapped inside a minibus with a group of rebels in tattered uniforms, she managed to claw her way out of the vehicle in time to throw herself on the windshield of a passing UN car and out of harm's way.

Garawayhas been spending time this month escorting the Israeli medical delegation every day to the hospital in the border town of Uvira, where they performed skin grafts on the 50 burn victims from a July 2 fire in the village of Sange, started after locals opened an overturned fuel truck to siphon the oil inside its compartments. The wounded are hospitalized in four different hospitals in the area.

While doctors Eyal Winkler, Shmuel Kalazkin, Gil Nardini and Ariel Tessone and nurse Noa Anastasia Ouchakova operate, Garaway takes care of administrative issues. Communicating with the locals in fluent Swahili and with the visitors in Hebrew, she is there at the request of the Foreign ministry's aid agency, Mashav, which initiated the mission.

At one medical institution, she physically blocked employees from taking the material that the Israeli team brought with them to the central storage room. "They were in no way trying to steal the materials, but their good intentions were not backed by a clear set of operating protocols," she later explained.

The go-between is an important element of ensuring proper use of materials in this region, she says, "where there's so much need and where people have been conditioned to grab what they can."

Congo saw the eruption of several armed conflicts after the removal in 1997 of its late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled the nation since 1965. He was believed to have been one of the richest men on Earth, and his regime was derided as a kleptocracy concerned with plundering the country's resources.

Israel does not have a permanent ambassador to Congo, and its roving envoy to the region, Daniel Saada, had been called back to Jerusalem on July 14. "Our local knowledge in this trip rests largely on Gila," Saada told the delegation.

She is accustomed to extreme human suffering, and her reaction to it seems matter-of-fact. But her eyes soften when she speaks about Israel. "I still experience what a miracle it is to live in this generation, when we can live in the Land of Israel and not in the Diaspora, that we have a home," she says while sitting on a staircase at Uvira hospital, her voice breaking with emotion. One of Garaway's older sisters, Emunah Gorman, also immigrated to Israel, and now lives in Arad.

At home, the couple prepared their children for college early in Poriah. One of their sons had passed his matriculation exam at the age of 16, but could not go to university in Israel until he was 17. Noah was killed on his way to Congo for a conference, to deliver a blessing from Israel. After his death, Garaway and her two sons went to the crash site with a tallit, in the hopes of returning the body to Israel for burial.

Gila Garaway says her late husband was adamant that she not join him on the visit. He went instead with the couple's neighbor and friend, a recent immigrant from the U.S. by the name of Boaz Falco, a Messianic Jew. Both bodies were burnt beyond recognition and were unable to be transported back.

As an Israeli Jew, Garaway is "pretty isolated" from many of the other Western NGO workers in the region.

"Many of the large international organizations working here are very pro-Palestinian," she said. "I don't have a lot of contact with many internationals here. My work doesn't involve the traditional relief and development aid."

With the local population, by contrast, being Israeli is a major plus, she says.

"With the Africans it gives me a lot. Ninety percent of the population is Christian and they love Israel. Most of the poor people think it's in heaven somewhere. I have people asking me to pray for them all the time because I'm from Israel. And it gives a lot of responsibility because they hold us in utter high esteem."