GOMA, Congo (AP) — For Virginie Magumba, a 22-year-old professional dancer from Goma, in eastern Congo, dancing is more than just a career.

“Dancing helps me liberate myself, manage my emotions, and not feel all alone,” she said. “All that I have become I owe to dancing.”

Magumba won the prize for Best Congolese Dancer at this year’s Goma dance festival, the largest dancing event in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The annual festival, which sees dancers from all over the world flocking to Goma, has been held in the city for the past seven years despite ongoing attacks by rebel groups in Eastern Congo. The region has long been overrun by more than 120 armed groups seeking a share of the its gold and other resources as they carry out mass killings.

“This festival built me as a dancer,” said Magumba. “It showed me I could follow my dreams.”

Magumba started dancing relatively late. She watched dancers practice in her father’s sports club for years, but it wasn’t until she was 17, freshly graduated from high school and about to start a degree in humanitarian studies, when she decided to give it a go.

Over time, dancing became a sort of therapy for her. It made her forget family troubles and the ongoing violence in the region — and allowed her to keep hope.

“We try to keep hoping, but it’s hard when nothing is improving,” she said. “The festival embodies this spirit of perseverance.”

Although her career as a dancer gives her the rare opportunity to travel outside the country, she says she’s not planning on leaving Congo.

“So many people left in recent years,” she said. “But I built my career here, in my city, in my community. There are only two professional female dancers in Goma. I tell myself: if I leave, who is going to show the other girls it is possible?”

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