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Georgianne Nienaber Headshot

Witness to Rape in Congo: "What is the Future When the Heart of the Community is Broken?"

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Image: Kivu 2007 © G. Nienaber

On August 1, the BBC reported very troubling news that Congolese government forces and rebel troops in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are rearming in spite of a January peace agreement. A source reported to the BBC that "six plane-loads of arms and ammunition" had been flown into Goma by the Joseph Kabila government in the last 10 days. Congolese Defense minister, Chikez Diemu, would neither confirm nor deny the reports. Mainstream media is not reporting this in the United States, except for ABC news, which had three lines posted on its Olympic News webpage.

MONUC (The United Nations Mission to Congo) and the Voice of America report that at least 150,000 more people have been displaced in Eastern Congo since the January agreement. Human Rights Watch supports that figure. Rape and other attacks against the civilian population have continued, unabated. This continuing horror story appears to have no end, despite eloquent appeals by Anneke von Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch and American playwright, Eve Ensler.

Perhaps the scale of the humanitarian tragedy is too much for people to comprehend, or perhaps the hidden corporate agenda of mainstream media in the United States will not allow this story to see the light of day. The rape and plunder of Congo's resources is behind the great silence which surrounds this story. The proxy armies of Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda serve the international corporate agenda. The story is complicated, and will never be fully understood except within the confines of historical analysis.

Meanwhile, six million are dead in the last ten years, 1,200 people die every day, unspeakable crimes against women's bodies go unreported, and the 1.2 million innocents in refugee camps cannot afford the time to wait for history's analysis of the reasons behind their despair and misery. More than 2,000 rape cases were recorded last month alone in the Democratic Republic of Congo's violent North Kivu province.

Foreign journalists have literally begged for western coverage of this carnage. Photojournalist Marcus Bleasdale, who has worked in Congo for eight years, told the UK Independent, "If journalists aren't writing about it, or editors won't run the stories, they are just as guilty as the warlords."

Perhaps the only way to gain attention for this story is to let the witnesses speak for themselves. It will be shocking testimony, and anyone with a queasy stomach should read no further. What you will read is horrifying, sickening and disgusting, but perhaps it is time for the average American to look at what we are allowing to happen in the Democratic Republic of Congo so that junior can have his Playstations, and so that we have the minerals necessary to operate our strategic weapons programs and download music into our cell phones and Ipods.

The following is testimony from a witness. His story has been verified by his former associates. Heed what he has to say. The decision was made to not show photos of the victims. To do so would only compound their shame and feed voyeuristic instincts. The job of the writer is to paint the picture with words, hoping that the sword arm has the strength to do so.

The Congolese witness in this case is also the victim. The Post Traumatic Stress induced by his journey to hell and back does not allow him to sleep or live a life free from flashbacks. He struggles through the sunrise of each new day in exile in a foreign land, not knowing if the tears will flow -- or not. His life is spent straddling the maws of Hades -- redemption a false promise from a god that has abandoned all that is holy. Ironically, his real name is the Latin for the Supreme Being, "Deo." God may not be dead, but god is certainly wounded, incapable of fixing all which greed, lust, anger and hate has destroyed.

Deo mailed his story to a writer. This damaged writer, Deo's contact, is flawed, filled with anger, and also understands the stress of seeing too much and the hopelessness of despair and abandonment. But together the wounded will try to describe what must be seen and understood by anyone with a heart and soul willing to step forward and cry out that this heinousness must stop. For anyone who reads this account, anyone who can do something to raise public awareness, the victims with one voice shout, "Morituri te salutant!" in the language of their colonialist oppressors.

The Witness

Deo worked as a psychological consultant with refugees from Darfur and as a trauma counselor with World Vision in Congo. The job which eventually rewired the synapses of a compassionate man's nervous system involved evaluating a living hell. This fiery forge of hate still stalks the victims of rape and other atrocities born of armed conflict in the Eastern DRC -- specifically in Bukavu, Uvira, Kalehe, Bunyakiri, Katana, and the Mwenga conflict zones. Deo is Congolese by birth and his fluency in the Swahili, Lingala and Kinyarwandan languages and dialects of Kivu Province made him ideal for the job.

Fate found Deo telling his story to a writer who was recently in the same conflict zones. His testimony follows and has been minimally edited for flow.

"God's" Testimony

I was working in Congo since 2004 as trauma counselor, and from my activities with women victims of rape, did my best to help women, girls, boys, and men cope with the trauma they faced due to the wars and assaults.

I found many psychological wounds in them but also I learned from them to be with hope myself. To share what I saw is a way to cope with the flashbacks that come to me as a result of what I saw and what I heard. A lot of countries around the world are at war, but what's going on in Congo is something different -- it is a war with the aim to destroy all of society by destroying women and girls.

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Image: Village Women North Kivu 2007 © G. Nienaber

I'd like to share a bit about what exactly what women are facing in Congo as a witness.

Repetitive wars in DRC since 1996 and especially in the eastern Congo have destroyed social, economic, and family structures. It has also destroyed human beings. Sexual violence and rape have been used as weapon of war to destroy entire communities. Women have been raped in silence for long years, mainly since 1998, and they are also victims of the taboos that surround all sex in our culture.

This systematic crime and its horrible consequences have devastated communities and individuals. These heinous acts obliged victims to come forward and speak about what they faced. To accept the necessity to tell their stories was an S.O.S--women realizing it was acceptable to call for help.

I always remember a girl, "Mya," 14 years old, from Bunyakiri village. During the counseling session I held with her in 2004, she shared with me that she was raped by 11 armed soldiers after her village was attacked. Orphaned due to the war in 1996, she was living with her mother and two brothers in the same house. One night, people with guns and knives and sticks came to her house. It was not difficult for them to force and open the door. Eleven men gang raped her mother after they killed the two brothers who tempted to shout and ask for help. Mya was injured during the rape and the executioners introduced sticks and bottles into her vagina creating a fistula -- a unification of the anal and the urine tracts.

They said they want to punish her because she was resisting them during the rape and didn't treat them nicely. With her mother, Mya decided not to share what happened to them to any one. So, they just presented the bodies of the killed boys to the community for mourning ceremonies.

But Mya could no longer remain in silence with her fistula. Her mother used to take her in the early morning to sit in the river near the house, as it's believed that cold water from the river is a treatment. She also drunk several kinds of potions made by a mixture of grasses and roots for one full year.

As this treatment did not give any result, and hearing that I was in the area implementing a psychosocial project for victims of sexual violence, she decided to come and share with me what she faced.

I asked her why she didn't go to the health center near the village. She answered that she couldn't as all the nurses are from the village and her story of rape would be known. She was carrying after her a characteristic smell as the urine was passing without stopping -- soaking her body and clothing.

As an emergency case, I referred her to the Panzi hospital, the only one hospital where she could find gynecologic expertise to deal with her case. After 6 operations, in one year and a half, Mya recovered physically. But she is carrying with her the deep wound of what she faced and what she saw. Panzi hospital is now specialized in repairing women's' vaginas that are being destroyed by rapists. At least 60 women are undergoing surgical operations per month. She told me that a lot of girls have been raped but no one wants to speak about it, as it's shameful. And if the community know that a girl has been raped, it will be very difficult for her to find a husband, even after many years.

Raped women and girls can't go to Panzi hospital (80 km from Bunyakiri) as they have to cross at least 50 km of forest. They are afraid to be again raped there (as the forest is infested by Interahamwe, Rwandese Hutu militias controlling the area after they committed genocide in Rwanda). It took me six hours to reach Bunyakiri by a 4x4 land cruiser, and I was not sure about my security in the forest during the travel.

No one will know exactly the precise number of women that were raped and murdered in DRC.

A lot of women, after they have been raped several times, are suffering from a prolapse of the uterus neck and others cannot contain their urine. This presents social death as they can not access public places or even share normal life with their relatives or neighbors because of the smell they emit.

Destroying Worth as a Human Being

"Doria," 38 years old, told me during a counseling session in Kando that her husband and children are disgusted by her and run far from her as she smells so terrible. She can no longer access social places such as the market, water point, or even prepare food for her family. She feels like her worth as a being human being has been destroyed. She also feels like her femininity has been destroyed. She told me that she prefers death rather than her current situation.

You will want to ask me, "What is happening, exactly, in DRC?"

Mobutu, the previous dictator that ruled Congo since 1965, was overthrown by a rebellion supported by Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda in 2006. He left the country in poverty. Since 1994, eastern Congo has received about six million refugees fleeing from genocide in Rwanda. Among these refugees, there was Interahamwe, the authors of genocide, still with weapons and a continuing spirit of genocide.

In 2008, Laurent Kabila, who took power in 1996, was himself facing a rebellion from the east before being killed on the 16 of January 2001. This rebellion, which managed to occupy one third of the country (including all the eastern Congo) facilitated the emergence of several militias formed by people that mostly wanted to defend their land. The punitive attacks made by one militia against another produced victims among civilians and mostly among children and women. In fact, women were used as sexual slaves for a militia to demonstrate to the enemy side that he is the toughest, the one in control. When someone sleeps with your wife and takes your children in slavery, you must surrender to him.

Losing the Taste for Life

This strategy resulted in a lot of victims, women, children -- and men that attempted to protect their wives.

"Pauli," from Kaniola village, lost his virility for two years due to trauma accumulated after he was raped in front of his wife and children in 2002. The mistake he made was to try to protect his wife against a band of rapists. This man was crying for two years. You could see the way tears were flowing from his eyes, with a deep feeling that he was no longer a man. After intensive counseling sessions and chemotherapy at Panzi hospital, this man recovered but he is carrying within himself a deep wound. He has lost the taste of life.

In villages, health centers are regularly looted, and materials as well as drugs are taken. Since 1998, Congolese, especially people from the east (South Kivu, North Kivu, Maniema and Ituri) can not assess good health care.

International crisis groups in the area report that at least 1000 persons are dying everyday in Congo due to lack of medicine. Most of them die because of the endemic diseases in the area such as malaria, cholera, HIV and post traumatic stress syndrome diseases.

Until now, in a lot of villages (90% of the villages), people are sleeping in the bush where they expect to be more safe. They prefer the coldness and the tropical rain than to be raped or killed. Children and women are the most affected. In fact, in these conditions, children are supposed to continue going to school after a whole night in the bush, and women are expected to continue farming activities. Unfortunately, teachers are living also in the same conditions, and the whole education system is touched. In a lot of villages, schools just stopped.

Spoils of War

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Image: Near Mbingi Kivu 2007 © G. Nienaber

When it's time to harvest crops from the field, most of the time it's the Interahamwe or other militias that come, and after they have chased the villagers using extreme violence, they take everything; leaving people dying with hunger. Rare are the families that manage for now to have one meal per day in the villages. The World Vision Fund is supplying nutritional centers for sick children and adults because of malnutrition.

From reports in the field, a lot of women and girls are said to have been raped during their displacement at some check points by militias. It's not understandable or believable from outside as the situation in Congo is defined as "post conflict" -- meaning the elections have been held in 2007 and the country has a democratically elected government.

Several reports estimate the number of raped women and girls up to 200,000 (new figure added). 90% of the survivors lost everything during the assault and have to live on charity. In the deep east Congo, it's hard to determine the number of victims as the area is not accessible.

Hellish Statistics

From a survey I made in 2004 in four different zones of Kivu Province, among 807 raped women interviewed, 75% of the victims were raped once, 22% twice, and 3% twice. Typically, 2-4 perpetrators were involved in 63.4% of the incidences. But in quite a number of incidents, there were 5-10 perpetrators.

In 90% of cases, women are raped in front of their children and husbands. The ages of the victims fluctuated between six months and 80 years, and were mostly women. The cases of raped children less than one year old were reported during the brief capture of Bukavu by rebels in 2004.

Different types of rape are observed in Congo.

Systematic Rape During a Village Attack.

For example in Kabona village (Kabare territory), all of the women were raped by at least 2-3 men in August 2003. A lot of other villages are in the same situation. In such villages, all of the social structure is destroyed.

Ongoing Rapes

This means that every day, a woman is exposed to be raped on her way going to market or while looking for firewood or water. The rapists will be hiding near water points or near farms, and then they will target a victim or group of victims. In her daily life, it's impossible for an African woman to pass one day without going to look for water or for food for her family. This increases the danger of being raped. Sometimes, men will organize themselves to accompany their wives to the market but sometimes, some of them are shot by the rapists who are heavily armed.

Punitive Rape

I will explain this by an example. During the night of the 27th May 2007, Interahamwe Rwandese rebels coming from the Kahuzi Biega National Parc (sic) passed through several villages (Bumba, Birundu and Lwashunga) before they reached their targeted village of Kaniola in which they killed 17 people, wounded to death 13, raped all the women, and took with them five others as sexual slaves. Villagers were accused of collaborating with the "army" and had to be "punished."

Sometimes it's the army that accuses the population of collaboration with the militia and, in this case, the army will behave the same. Another kind of punishment occurs when the rapist, who wants to loot goats or money, finds that the family is too poor to give. The price will be to rape the mother and children and babies found in the house. It's very rare that men have been raped.

Sometime also, "accidentally" a woman can encounter armed bandits on there way back to the bush (their home). She will be raped, but most of the time it will be in hurry. From the survey and the counseling sessions I was holding, these victims were more affected psychologically than physically. Some girls and women are taken to the bush and remain there for 2-4 years.

The perpetrators as mentioned by the victims are from Interahamwe Rwandese rebel groups, Congolese rebels called CNDP, the regular army, Mai Mai movement and other non formal bands. Rape inside the family is not mentioned at all. But for sure, it exists and victims prefer to keep quiet. The ones who decide to speak are those in medical treatment.

From the interviews I held with groups of returned women I met in Bukavu in June 2007, I heard that sometime they were gang raped in the bush and were forced into hard labor, such as carrying heavy weapons or fire wood or bringing water for soldiers. 90% of raped women with children said they faced sexual slavery. For now, it's a big problem to integrate these children into the society. They are extremely stigmatized by the community.

More Grim Statistics

While working at Olame center in 2005, from a total of 1251 raped women, 50 were pregnant, 111 were with baby from the rape, 151 lost their husbands during the assault, 146 couples divorced because of the rape, and 15 women were infected with HIV.

70% of the perpetrators were Hutu Rwandese; the remaining 30% were CNDP militia, government soldiers, the Mai Mai group and other bandits.

Are There Solutions?

There can be no peace without justice and the rapists are identified. At least victims will feel the sin repaired if their executioners are judged and punished. It's an ongoing genocide, which is happening in Congo now.

For now, until a solution is given to them, raped women are organizing self help groups to speak and share about what they have experienced and heal each other. They also use what little money they have to purchase pills such as aspirin and other anti-pain pills to share with those in need. All of this is done in secret as they fear to be stigmatized by the community.

Meanwhile, women are wondering if they have to commit a collective suicide rather than live with animals, called men in Congo. What is the government doing to protect its citizens? What is the future when the heart of the community is broken? -- Deo