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Photo exhibit shows 'Beauty in the Middle' of war-torn Congo

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Nearly a decade after “Africa’s world war” – a five-year battle that killed more than 5 million people in Democratic Republic of Congo – rape is still a weapon in the eastern part of the conflict-torn African country.

But a new photography exhibit highlights the beauty that endures, despite the violence.

“Beauty In the Middle: Women of Congo Speak Out” – opening at SAW Gallery – portrays the female activists, doctors, lawyers and journalists working to help survivors of sexual violence. Photographer Pete Muller – who shoots for Time Magazine and the New York Times – travelled to the Congo last year with the Nobel Women’s Initiative for this project.

Zuzia Danielski, the art curator, was part of that group.

“We kept hearing stories of immense suffering,” she said. “Incredible testimonies of sexual violence, of rape, of women fighting for justice and struggling to get into peace negotiations and provide for their families … But within all of that was this thread that women were also peacemakers within their communities.”

The exhibit starts with a series of cloaked women. They were among the roughly 50 victims called to testify in military tribunals against soldiers who raped them in the town of Fizi, South Kivu. Because they risked facing social stigma, they hid their identities.

The exhibit includes a section on female “powerhouses” in the community – including Neema Namadamu, a disability activist who also provides media literacy training to women.

The exact rape statistics in the Democratic Republic of Congo are unclear. A 2011 study in the American Journal of Public Health says more than 400,000 women were raped from 2006 to 2007. The United Nations’ figures are more conservative: more than 3,600 people were victims of sexual violence from January 2010 to December 2013.

Still, when Danielski travelled there last year, she said she felt a sense of hope.

“Women aren’t victims. Women are survivors,” she said. “They’re activists and they’re very much these powerhouse women who are making change despite all these obstacles within their community and within an entire country.”

A vernissage for the exhibit will be Jan. 22 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. It’s also a fundraiser for the Congolese Women’s Fund. Its founding director, Julienne Lusenge, will speak at the event.

The show will be open until Feb. 6.