Congo (DRC) is often named the worst place on earth to be a woman. Not a week passes by without new reports of gender-based violence and abuse in East Congo. In this area The Dina Foundation has worked for over 10 years through humanitarian aid and peace conferences. More than five million people have been killed since soldiers from the horrific slaughtering in Rwanda came across the boarder to Congo 20 years ago. Guerilla bands like Mai Mai, M23 and military units from the Congo army are behind the indescribable sufferings inflicted on the population in this area, which ironically is said to be the most beautiful place on the earth with lush rainforests, mountains and lakes.
During the past years, close to two million women and children have been raped and tortured. These two million have suffered indescribable physical damages as result of torture of their bodies and minds.
A huge question arises in the rest of the world; How is this at all possible? The wars of the world have all had abuse and rape in their wake, but never like what we find in the forests of Congo.
- I believe the difference in Congo is the scale and the systematic nature of it, Anneke Van Woudenberg says. She is the senior researcher of Congo for Human Rights Watch, Africa Division. – This is not rape executed because the soldiers are bored and have nothing to do. It is a way to assure that community accepts the power and authority of that particular armed group. This is about showing terror. This is about using it as a weapon of war, she says.
The Dina Foundation has established an agreement with Dr. Denis Mukwege and the Panzi hospital. Dr. Mukwege is the chief surgeon on Panzi hospital, situated in the front line of the warzone against women. Girls and women in need of physical treatment that are on the mother home in Bukavu run by The Dina Foundation, are sent to this hospital. In 2006 Rune Edvardsen bought a property on behalf of The Dina Foundation in Bukavu. There we have build and run a mother’s home for women and girls impregnated as a result of rape.
Documenting the Sufferings
Both The Dina Foundation and other international organizations are using their time and effort to document the sufferings afflicted on the civilians. At the hospital in Panzi the major part of the patients are rape victims.
When reporter Anderson Cooper from the TV show «60 minutes» visited Dr. Mukwege, the world-renowned reporter heard the story of one of the most recent patients at the hospital, Sifa M´Kitambala. Soldiers who plundered her village had raped her only two days prior to his visit.
- They had cut her several different places, the doctor tells.
Sifa was pregnant, but this didn’t stop the rapists. Armed with a machete they completed the raps by cutting her in the female lower parts.
Panzi hospital is filled beyond capacity with patients like Sifa.
- These women are in deep pain. It is not just physical pain, but psychological pain you can see. Here at the hospital we see women who have stopped living, Dr. Mukwege says.
The female patients of the hospital range from 2-3 years of age all the way up to 75.
Force and Humiliation
In some villages a total of 90 per cent of the women have been raped. The men in these villages are normally not armed and not able to protect themselves and the village. Lucienne M’Maroyhi was home alone with her two children and younger brother in the village of Walungu when six soldiers broke in. They tied her up and began to rape her, one by one.
- I was lying on the ground and they gave a flashlight to my younger brother so that he could see them raping me, she recalls.
- They raped me like they were animals, one after another. When the first one was finished, they washed me out with water, told me to stand up, so the next man could rape me.
Lucienne was convinced that they would kill her, just as the soldiers had murdered her parents the year before. Instead they turned to her brother.
- They wanted him to rape me. But he refused. He told them: «I can not do such a thing. I can not rape my sister». So then they took out their knives and stabbed him to death in front of me.
Lucienne was then dragged through the forest to the soldiers’ camp. She was forced to become their slave and was raped every day for eight months. All the while, she had no idea where her children were.
- I was thinking that they had been killed. I didn’t think I would find them alive, she says.
Finally Lucienne escaped. Back in her village she found her two little girls were alive. She also learned that she was pregnant. She was carrying the child of one of her rapists.
Lucienne’s husband abandoned her when she came back home. This happens to rape survivors all over Congo.
- When a woman is being raped, it is not just her that is raped, it is the whole community that is being destroyed, Judith Registre says. She is with an organization called Women for Women, they run support groups for rape survivors.
- When they take a woman to rape her, they will line up the family and other members of the community to witness, Registre tells.
- What that means for that particular woman when it is all over is total shame, having been witnessed by some many while being violated.
Many of the woman at Dr. Mukwege’s hospital are not only blamed for what happened to them, they are abandoned for fear they have contracted HIV and because their rapes were so violent they can no longer control their bodily functions.
Dr. Mukwege can tell that he carries out five operations on damaged women every day. His patients have often had objects inserted into their vaginas, like broken bottles and bayonets. And some women are even shot between their legs by the rapists.
Why would anyone do such a thing? Shoot a woman like that, Anderson Cooper asks.
- In the beginning I also asked the same question. It is a show of force, of power and to destroy the person, Dr. Mukwege answers.
- Sex is being used to commit evil. People flee, they become refugees. They can’t get help. They become malnourished and it is a disease, which finishes them off.
For these women Dr. Mukwege is both healer and counselor.
The Most Difficult Thing
Dunia Karani is an orphan. She has polio and can’t walk, but that didn’t stop the soldiers from raping her. Now she is pregnant and has no idea how she’ll cope.
When he is asked what he tells this girl about her future, he answers that the most difficult thing is when there is nothing he can do.
- When I see a pretty 16 year old who has had everything destroyed, and I have to tell her I have to give her a colostomy bag, that is difficult.
Despite those difficulties, most often than not, Dr. Mukwege is able to repair the damages to these women’s bodies. They see him as a miracle worker, on of the only men they can trust.
During his round on the hospital Dr. Mukwege gets a thumb up from one of his patients.
-Now she is happy, he says. Very happy!
This gives him hope. Gives him strength to continue his work.
Strength is something few women in Congo lack. They bear the burdens, farm the fields and hold the families together. Yet nothing it seems, is being done to protect them.
The war is so wide spread that rapes are increasingly being committed by civilians. A few washed out billboards tell men that rape is wrong, but there is little evidence Congolese officials take the problem seriously.
In the prosecutors office complaints pile up. We were told that a 10-dollar bribe could get a rape accusation investigated, but few cases ever go to court.
Anderson Cooper asked the prosecutor to show him the prison to see how many rapists were actually behind bars, but when they got there they were in for a surprise. The prison had no fences and the guards had been kicked out. The inmates had taken over the asylum.
- The fact is the justice system is on its knees in Congo, Van Woudenberg from Human Rights Watch says.
- I can count on one hand the number of cases that we are aware of that has been brought to trail. Literally here, people get away with rape. They get away with murder. The chances of being arrested are nil.
Lucienne M’Maroyhi found no justice in the system. But she jumped to the chance of a new life that an organization gave her. She got help to learn a profession, and now she hopes to start her own business one day. She is holding her child in her arms, a baby girl born one year ago. She is the child of one of her rapist, one of the soldiers who killed her brother. Lucienne named the girl «Luck».
- I named her Luck because I went through many hardships. I could have been killed in the forest, but I got my life back. I have hope.
Hope is not something you expect Congo’s rape survivors to cling to. But they do.
Each morning in Panzi hospital, they gather to raise their voices in worship as they hold a chapel.
«Our sufferings on earth» they sing «Will be relieved in heaven».
Relief in Congo it seems, is just too much to ask for.