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Women in Congo speak out about rape despite taboos

Sunday, March 15, 2009

(Photo)
T.J. Kirkpatrick ~ Associated Press
Zamuda Sikujuwa, 53, seen Feb. 20 at her temporary home in Goma, Congo, was raped in 2003 by soldiers who killed her husband and two children. Rape has been used as a weapon of war in Congo.
DOSHU, Congo -- Zamuda Sikujuwa shuffles to a bench, pushes apart her thighs with a grimace of pain and pumps her fist up and down in a lewd-looking gesture to show how the militiamen shoved an automatic rifle inside her.

The act tore apart her insides after seven of the men had taken turns raping her. She lost consciousness and wishes now that her life also had ended on that day.

The rebels from the Tutsi tribe had come demanding U.S. dollars. But when her husband could not even produce local currency, they shot him in the head. When her two children started crying, the rebels killed them too. Then they attacked Sikujuwa and left her for dead.

The 53-year-old still has difficulty walking after two operations. Yet she wants to tell the world her story, even though repeating it brings back the nightmares.

"It's hard, hard, hard," she said. "I'm alone in this world. My body is partly mended, but I don't know if my heart will ever heal. ... I want this violence to stop. I don't want other women to have to suffer what I am suffering."

Rape has been used as a weapon of war in Congo, where conflicts based on tribal lines have led to dozens of armed groups amid back-to-back civil wars that drew in several African nations. More than 5 million people have died since 1994. Women have become even more vulnerable since a rebel advance at the end of last year drove a quarter-million people from their homes and fighting this year left another 100,000 others homeless, according to aid workers.

Now some of the women are fighting back the only way they know how -- by talking about what happened.

Breaking taboos

A campaign spearheaded by the U.N. Children's Fund is working with local groups to break traditional taboos around talking about the violence. They're using radio stations broadcasting in local languages, and more activists are getting to remote areas.

Five months ago, U.N. officials began bringing together women to tell their stories to rooms full of local officials, community leaders and children.

Video footage of the campaign Women Breaking the Silence shows officials startled by the atrocities recounted. A provincial minister interrupted to ask reporters not to film a woman's face. But she took the microphone to declare: "I am not ashamed to show my face and publish my identity. The shame lies with those who broke me open and with the authorities who failed to protect me.

"If you don't hear me, see me, you will not understand why it is so important that we fight this together."

That woman, Honorata Kizende, described how her life as a schoolteacher and the mother of seven children ended when she was kidnapped in 2001. She was held as a sex slave for 18 months and passed around from one Hutu fighter to another until she escaped. She is now a counselor and trains others to help survivors of sexual violence.

Using the law

One of the difficulties is the "huge problem of impunity," said Mireille Kahatwa Amani, a lawyer working at an office at HEAL Africa Hospital opened a year ago by the Chicago-based American Bar Association.

"It's difficult to prosecute perpetrators because they can buy off the police or a judge. There's no guarantee of justice," she said.

Still, with funding from the U.S. State Department, lawyers have interviewed more than 250 victims and pursued more than 100 cases. In 11 months, they have received 30 judgments with only two acquittals. Those found guilty have been punished with sentences of five to 20 years in jail, Kahatwa said.

Her big success this year was against a man who has been condemned to 20 years in jail for raping a 6-year-old neighbor and infecting her with HIV. Kahatwa said the judgment came just a month after the complaint was filed, a record.


Kasongo Manyema takes small, careful steps, fearful of unwrapping the cloth tied like a baby's diaper to catch the blood, urine and feces that has been dribbling from her body for 2 years.

She was 19 then, when men in military uniform attacked her as she weeded her family's cassava field.

A U.N. helicopter has brought her to HEAL Africa Hospital in Goma, where reconstructive surgery could help her incontinence and the stench that follows her and thousands of other Congolese women suffering from fistulas.

Fistulas usually result from giving birth in poor conditions. In Congo, they are caused by violent rapes that tear apart the flesh separating the bladder and rectum from the vagina.

Dr. Christophe Kinoma, one of only two surgeons who perform the reconstructive operations in east Congo, said there's a 50-50 chance that surgery can mend Manyema and others like her.

"Yesterday I did five fistula operations and we have more than 100 women waiting here and who knows how many out in the bush who never ever get to a hospital."

Kinoma said it has become the norm for armed men to use guns, knives and bayonets to rupture their victims' bodies. Sometimes they shoot bullets up women's vaginas. Victims often are rejected by their families, contract HIV, and are left to live in pain and shame.

In December, he operated on an 11-month-old baby raped by a 22-year-old neighbor. During one week in February, it was a 12-year-old girl who had been savagely raped by five soldiers. They stuffed a maize cob inside her.

Also treated last week was a 4-year-old whose mother sent her across the road to get something from a neighbor. She was kidnapped by soldiers and gang-raped.

"An American doctor who was here just burst into tears and collapsed. She couldn't believe what the soldiers had done to this child, just torn her body apart," he said.

Kinoma said he may be able to mend the physical damage, "but the psychological trauma never goes away for some." The hospital offers counseling but has no psychologists.

"The 11-month-old I operated on, every time she sees a man, including me, she starts screaming," he said.

The 4-year-old was infected with HIV, and they await results from a test on the 12-year-old. "If three, four, five soldiers rape you, you are almost assured of contracting AIDS," Kinoma said.


The trauma that haunts these children and women also affects those who help them.

Hortense Tshomba, who has been counseling victims for three years, said she hopes to give them the courage to return to their homes. Many are rejected by husbands and fathers who say the attacks have left them "unclean."

"We try to counsel them as couples. For girls rejected by their parents, we try to intervene. Some families accept them back; others don't."

When counseling does not help, HEAL Africa offers lessons in sewing and handicrafts to teach them to survive financially. She said rejected women who don't get help often are forced from communities and become beggars.

"Sometimes I have nightmares," Tshomba said. "When I leave after hearing all these horror stories, really it's like my brain is on fire. I have to listen to some jazz to ease my soul."

But there are successes like 13-year-old Harriet, who came to HEAL Africa four years ago. Harriet's parents were killed by the rebels who attacked her and then burned down their home in Rutshuru, north of Goma. She now lives with a woman who counseled her at the hospital.

On this day, Harriet is so delighted she cannot stop grinning, a wide beam that's infectious in its joy. Her fingernails are black with dirt, but she is wearing lip gloss and eyeliner.

"Today, I got my results and I am top of my class," she announces, flaunting a report that shows she averaged 88.5 percent in math, French and English exams.

"When I came to HEAL Africa, I had never been to school. I was 9 years old. Now I'm beating students who have been to school all their lives," she said. "My teacher said I'm very intelligent, that I should go to school in the United States."

As for the future: "I think I want to be a doctor, so that I can help people the way these doctors helped me."


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