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Congo clinic offers hope to rape victims

Goma center provides medical treatment and counseling to survivors.

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — Rose is 41; Florence 23; Cecile is 34; Alima 19 and Alfonzine 70. In eastern Democratic Republic of Congo age isn't important, all that matters is gender: If you are female you are fair game to the many armed militias that roam the forests.

These five women are only a handful of the hundreds of thousands raped during and after a brutal civil war that erupted in 1998 and led to the deaths of more than 5 million people, according to estimates by humanitarian groups.

Officially the war is over, but the fighting goes on.

Rape has long been a low-tech weapon of choice, but in Congo it has become an epidemic linked to battles that have flared up periodically despite numerous peace agreements.

With every fresh bout of fighting comes a tide of sexual violence. Most of the victims are attacked by rebel militias, such as the ethnic Hutu FDLR, commanded by men who fled to Congo after carrying out Rwanda's 1994 genocide, in which up to half a million women were raped. Others are raped by the government soldiers, many of whom are little more than brigands in government uniforms.

More than 90 women and girls were raped in the last two months alone by government soldiers and FDLR fighters during and after a failed month-long offensive aimed at rooting out the rebel force.

"The FDLR are deliberately killing and raping Congolese civilians as apparent punishment for the military operations against them," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Wading into this sea of horror is Mama Muliri, a formidable Congolese woman, mother and rape counselor who ventures into the war-torn jungles to rescue raped women and bring them to the lakeside city of Goma for medical treatment and psychological counseling.

“Here, today the number of rapes can be down and tomorrow up again because when there is new fighting there is new rape,” she explained.

Dr. Flori Cirimwami, a surgeon at the hospital in Goma, said, “Our patients are usually aged 11 or 12 upwards although sometimes we get babies too.”

The health clinic is one of only two hospitals in a country the size of Western Europe designed specifically to deal with the medical aftermath of sexual violence.