Congo clinic offers hope to rape victims

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.

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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