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Inspire Awards 2004 Honorees

Jessica Lange, Actress and Activist

For days, Lange shuttles from one hospital camp to another, witnessing the aftermath of the war's atrocities. "I need coffee and a cigarette," she says one morning (she allows herself two smokes a day), after visiting a hospital that treats the war wounded. "Last night, I woke up after a couple of hours and couldn't get back to sleep. So many awful experiences these people have been through. It's difficult to believe that we are all living on the same planet."

In a small, dimly lit ward at the Panzi Hospital—near the Rwandan border—Lange meets 18-year-old Cecile. The girl limps on crutches, a large surgical pin from her knee to her ankle. "What happened?" Lange gently asks. The skinny teenager responds in a voice so low it's hard to catch her words. "Soldiers forced their way into our house and beat everyone in my family. They tied my arms, and with other girls I was taken to the bush. They kept me for two months as a wife. Then the Mai-Mai [a rebel group] attacked us. In the fighting, I was shot several times in the leg. I couldn't walk, and the Mai-Mai captured me. After a week, they threw me in the bush and ran away."

The following day, the teen was found lying helpless in the jungle by a local farmer, who carried her to his home. A passing U.N. patrol refused to take her to the city for medical aid. "They said it was too dangerous for them," Cecile says.

But after several weeks, with the help of individuals who took pity on her, she arrived here. "Doctors took three bullets out of my leg. They said my bones are shattered, and they don't know if they will mend."

Throughout her heartbreaking story, Cecile fidgets with her fingers. Lange, unconsciously emulating her, balls a handkerchief in her hands.

"Is there anything else you'd like to tell me?" she asks the young girl.

"I'm hungry," Cecile says.

Lange falls into stunned silence. In many underfunded African medical facilities, patients must rely on their families to bring them meals. Cecile has been relying on the charity of other patients for food.

"Oh," says Lange, blinking rapidly. "I'll get it. What would you like?"

"Anything," Cecile smiles shyly.

Before leaving the hospital, Lange quietly pays for the teenager to receive food and clothing. She also buys sewing machines for the girl and other young rape victims at the hospital, so they can earn some income.

As we fly from one war-devastated town to another in the Congo—distances are too vast to drive here, and rebels control most of the roads—Lange immerses herself in a Buddhist text, highlighting passages as she reads. She became interested in Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, in her 20s. "I didn't pursue it then, but about five years ago, I began seeking out a teacher, and I found one at the Gyuto Tibetan Monastery in Minneapolis," she says.

It is, perhaps, the Buddhist focus on compassion that has guided her continued relationship with her former husband. Following their divorce, Paco Grande progressively lost his sight to retinitis pigmentosa—a particularly harsh fate for a photographer. "I don't want to discuss it," she says. "Paco has his dignity. We had seven years together during that pure time of youth. He is a great and dear friend of mine, and I love him with all my heart."

It was Paco who encouraged her interest in photography. And when Sam gave her a small Leica camera 10 years ago, "I immediately started shooting documentary photographs and people."

Still, as we visit a nutrition center for kids in the DRC, Lange stops a local news photographer from trying to get a particularly powerful shot. In a cramped room, a severely malnourished infant is being weighed by a nurse in a hammock-type scale. Shooting through a window from outside, the photographer misses the shot—and asks for the wailing baby to be placed back in the scale. "I don't think so," Lange says firmly. No one contradicts her.

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