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Hearing the Cries and Running for Help

Friday, August 26, 2005

The Oregonian

Lisa J. Shannon is running for 31 lives.

The Portland filmmaker, obsessed with the horrors that confront the women of the Democratic Republic of Congo, hopes to rescue as many of them as possible, one mile at a time.

On Sept. 10, Shannon will run the length of the Wildwood Trail through the West Hills. So far, she's sacrificed most of her toenails and swallowed more spider webs than she can count, but she hopes to get enough pledges to sponsor one Congolese woman for each of the trail's 30.16 miles, rounding up. She'll donate the pledge proceeds from her solo Run for Congo Women to a global charity, Women for Women International, which supports women in eight countries.

Shannon, 30, first heard of the atrocities in the Congo, the central African country that used to be called Zaire, in "World Pulse," a magazine that focuses on women and children around the world. She learned a little more watching a January episode of "Oprah." Since then, she's had to troll the Internet to find even a handful of newspaper and magazine articles on the violence there. There is no shortage of horrifying news in the world but these stories from Africa, a continent Shannon has always been drawn to, had a profound effect on her.

"But no one seems to notice or care," Shannon says in matter-of-fact tones that belie the urgency she feels.

Rwanda's 1994 genocide, dramatized in the film "Hotel Rwanda," has spilled over the border into eastern Congo. Several other African countries have contributed to a four-year civil war in which independent militias hide in the Congolese jungles. They attack villages, killing men and sometimes children, raping women or kidnapping them as sex slaves, looting livestock and stealing crops.

Nearly 4 million Congolese have died in the conflict since 1998, according to the International Rescue Committee, and as many as 1,000 more continue to die every day. The United Nations says that more than half of the country's children will die before their fifth birthdays. About 35,000 Congolese girls and women have been gang-raped in front of their siblings, parents, children and husbands, says AFECEL, a Congolese women's organization, which suspects its estimate is too low.

These are not numbers that talk, Shannon says. They are numbers that scream. Sitting on the edge of a sofa, Shannon picks up the black-and-white print she's had made of a Washington Post photo of Nsimenya Kinyama. At 36, Kinyama has seen six of her children die of disease and malnutrition -- the results, observers say, of the havoc wreaked by the militias' violence. When the photo was taken, Kinyama held her seventh child, a 3-day-old son.
The reporter transcribed Kinyama's prayer: "God help me, so that this child can live."

As Shannon tells Kinyama's story, tears fill her eyes. "I can't believe people aren't talking about this," she says.

Shannon is determined to change that. Since the "Oprah" show, she has supported two Congolese women with monthly contributions of $27 apiece to Women for Women International. But it still didn't feel like enough.

"I talked about it all the time," Shannon says. "I had my birthday party in February and, believe me, nothing kills a party like talking about genocide."

Then, in March, she had the idea to challenge herself to a run that would require physical sacrifice, make her intensely mindful -- on a daily basis -- of the plight of Congolese women and raise more money to support them.

Shannon trains with Patti Finke, a private running coach who has logged thousands of miles on the Wildwood Trail. The tortuous path winds uphill and down from the Vietnam War memorial in Hoyt Arboretum to Northwest Newberry Road, near the St. Johns Bridge.

Finke says the rigorous course demands strength and focus. A runner must watch for tree roots, rocks and weeds, cross several busy streets, climb steep hills and take care on the downhill slopes. "It becomes instinctual," she says, "but it takes a lot of practice."

Finke has seen Shannon learn what she must do -- how to eat, drink and sleep -- to run the distances that her trainer sets for her.

"She's learning that she has to take care of herself," Finke says. "But mostly she's learning that she's tough and that she has very good mental focus. . . . She has a good reason to finish this run."

When she's not running, Shannon is in production on her second independent feature film, "Hinterland," which, she says, is too complex to explain succinctly. And these days, she'd rather talk about the Congo anyway.

"My dad died in September," she says by way of explanation. "He was a therapist who spent his career working with Vietnam veterans who had post-traumatic stress. It was Dad's work to heal war trauma. Maybe this is mine."

Before she started training, Shannon says she was a regular runner who averaged five miles five times a week. Once, training for a marathon that she never ran, she quit after 10 miles and called a cab to take her home.

These days, during her short and long runs along the trail, Shannon has a lot of time to think. When the trail challenges her to within her last bit of strength, she thinks about how Congolese women cannot call a cab to escape the militias or run away from their dying children.

In quieter moments, she thinks about the forest, which encloses her in shade and sunshine and quiet.

"I've always loved the forest," she says. "And sometimes I think about what the forest means to these Congolese women. It's a place where they hide themselves and their children. It's a place that hides the militias until they attack, a place where they hide their sex-slave camps."

Shannon has organized the first of what she hopes will be several gatherings where she'll talk to other women about the Congo and encourage them to tell their friends, make financial contributions to Women for Women or make a pledge toward her run.

"But that's not the most important thing," she insists. "I just want the opportunity to talk about this, and get other people talking."

Nancy Haught: 503-294-7625;

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