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Congo clinic offers hope to rape victims

Goma center provides medical treatment and counseling to survivors.

The impact on the victims is not important to their attackers, nor are the attacks about sexual desire or gratification. The real targets are the husbands, brothers and fathers left demoralized, humiliated and emasculated by the rapes.

More pragmatically, rape and impregnation dilutes the gene pool, making it a particularly potent weapon in ethnic conflicts — ethnic cleansing through procreation rather than murder.

Most of Cirimwami's patients suffer from fistula, a tear between the anus and vagina often causing incontinence. Every year more than 1,000 women and girls are treated for fistula at the Goma clinic, arriving at a rate of almost four a day. Cirimwami said that up to 98 percent of these patients have been raped.

Marie is 13 and tiny with stick legs, wide eyes and short hair pulled into neat cornrows. Mama Muliria brought Marie from her home near Kindu, an hour's flight to the west (there are no roads through the thick jungle).

Marie was carrying bananas from the market when four armed men stopped her. Two of them snatched the fruit from her and started to eat while the other two dragged Marie off the path, stuffed a banana in her mouth to shut her up and raped her. Then the men swapped and the other two took their turn. They left her bleeding on the ground.

Mama Muliri explained that although Marie's rapists were arrested, they bribed the authorities and were released. This is a common pattern thanks to the lack of a functioning state in eastern Congo. With an ill-equipped and easily corruptible judiciary there is little hope of an end to impunity for rapists.

There is equally little hope of a return to normal life. The stigma of rape is still powerful despite the work being done by various NGOs to end it. As Marie said, “I have been raped by four men so I'm not a girl anymore, anyone can have me.”

Many victims are rejected by their husbands — if they are old enough to have one — or abandoned by their families.

At the clinic in Goma there are beds, food, care and treatment. In their home villages, all but the lucky few will find none of these things. The wards may be crowded, hot and pungent with the smell of sweat, but no one points at them, no one threatens them. For a couple of months, at least, they are safe and cared for.

Congo has seen little but oppression, violence, tribalism, dictatorship and war since it was first drawn onto a map 125 years ago. Hundreds of thousands of people are still on the move, forced from their homes by rival armies, huddled desperate, hungry and exhausted in makeshift camps around Goma and other towns.

Children are being forcibly recruited to fight and women and girls are being raped. The best efforts of people like Mama Muliri look like little more than firefighting.

Marie has now had the surgery to repair her damaged body and is receiving counseling for her damaged mind but, Mama Muliri asked in whispered English so that Marie would not understand, “How are we supposed to tell her that she has HIV?”

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