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Women, transcendent

The Other Side of War Women's Stories of Survival & Hope Zainab Salbi National Geographic: 256 pp., $28

December 24, 2006|Lori Grinker | Lori Grinker, an award-winning photojournalist, is the author of "Afterwar: Veterans From a World in Conflict."

PLOMIA remembers the day her Dinka village was attacked by a militia loyal to the Sudanese government. The troops put all the men inside a cattle barn and set it on fire. "My husband was inside -- he was burning alive, I could smell the flesh," she said. "We were not allowed to cry -- if you cried, they would shoot you. Instead, they made us dance."

When Nybel was fleeing her village in civil-war-racked Sudan, she put on all the clothes she owned. On the way to a refugee camp in the south, she "paid one layer of clothing to a ferryman, another to cross a road, and others to buy food. By the time she arrived in Rumbek, one month later, she was wearing only a bra and a skirt."

And there is Jeannette, holding a toddler in her arms, although she has no hands. They were hacked off after she was raped by Rwandan militants who stormed into her farming village in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the mid-1990s.

In "The Other Side of War," writer Zainab Salbi, editor Laurie Becklund and photographers Susan Meiselas, Sylvia Plachy and Lekha Singh capture in deeply affecting words and pictures the struggles of these three women and many others who have survived rape and starvation, seen relatives -- even entire tribes -- murdered, yet have found the strength to begin anew.

"When you read this book," author Alice Walker writes in her preface, "you will be astounded at how far we have fallen, as a species, from what we assumed was our innate integrity, dignity, and decency as human beings."

Salbi and the photographers returned to six countries scarred by war over the last two decades to document the struggles of women who are trying, often against great odds, to rebuild lives, economies and even countries. Each country -- Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Colombia, the Congo, Rwanda and Sudan -- is a chapter, and each chapter sketches the history of conflict there. Many of the women profiled have been helped by Women for Women International, a nongovernmental group that Salbi founded in 1993 to provide emotional support, job skills, capital and leadership training to survivors of war.

Indeed, the women in these photographs are not victims. Instead, they are survivors who can lead the way for their people.

At a training center sponsored by Women for Women in Afghanistan's Varduk province, one woman says: "I have been here for four months, and I am learning about what is important in my life. I have found a community of women to support me, but I have only just realized that I have never once written my own name."

Marigul, 50, who fled to Pakistan when the Taliban took over and her husband was killed, is pictured assembling shoe boxes. After a year of vocational training, she was able to get a micro-credit loan to start a shoemaking business with her three sons. Coming back from late-afternoon prayers, she explains that she was praying for world peace. "We need peace. We are tired of wars."

In the Congo, Honorata stands proudly in a field she is tilling. Her story is horrendous, unimaginable: Caught in the crossfire between rebel armies, she was raped by soldiers and taken hostage with 11 other women to serve as sex slaves until their escape a year later. It took her two months to walk home, where she found her children but learned that her husband had taken another wife. A year later, insurgents swept into her town and she was raped again, this time along with her pregnant daughter.

Today, through Women for Women, she speaks publicly and calls for accountability for the suffering of Congolese women. "Having someone recognize my humanity again has dared me to hope," she says.

I've spent more than 15 years photographing and interviewing men, women and children from all walks of life who have fought in or been caught up by the world's wars. In southern Sudan, I met members of the Dinka tribe who'd been walking for a month in search of food and safety. Workers for a small aid agency were helping those most in need into a small van when several strong young men pushed their way to the front, not to assist but to get themselves a ride. Survival of the fittest at its basest.

People far removed from such experiences might wonder if they are real; it is so hard to believe the atrocities human beings are capable of committing. It is harder still to imagine surviving them, and even more difficult to understand how these women can be smiling, giggling, rejoicing in life again, as they are in most of the photographs in this book. If we are moved to tears by their stories, then perhaps we can begin to feel something of their reality. Whatever they have experienced, we are not so different; they are as deserving of a good, safe life as we are.

In Colombia, we meet some grandmothers who have endured decades of violence, yet "somehow, they have learned to giggle." They have started a fish farm, a community store and a restaurant. Here they are shown untangling a fishing net and jumping into the muddy water to cool off. They are laughing, trusting. Life goes on. Lovely. *

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