A woman in North Kivu

BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of the Congo (WOMENSENEWS)–At just 13, Gisele Buhendwa possesses a tough exterior that reveals little.

She tells her story in a matter-of-fact manner: her deep, scratchy voice never changing tone, and her scrawny, boyish body never showing a hint of emotion. The only physical sign that displacement, kidnapping and rape affected her, like thousands of other girls in war-tortured East Congo, is that she refuses to look anyone in the eye.

In July, Buhendwa and her older sisters fled to escape the fate of other girls recently snatched by militiamen raiding their village in South Kivu. Knowing the kidnapped girls would be raped and most likely never heard from again, Buhendwa’s parents told her to run to Bukavu, the largest city in South Kivu, where they believed she would find safety living with her sister high on the mountain.

Two days after her arrival, she was raped.

She got lost, she said, staring out the window, her neck constantly craned away from those in the small room without electricity. She lost her way home while fetching water, and was approached by two men in uniform who said they’d help get her back home.

One instead took her to his militia camp and spent the night violating her, telling her when he left in the morning to have breakfast ready when he returned or she would be killed. Another man wearing a uniform appeared after her rapist departed, advising her to escape while she had the chance. For the second time in 48 hours, she ran.

"When I remember it, I feel I might go mad. I get a headache and I feel very sick," Buhendwa said. "When I see any soldier, my heart starts pounding and I run away."

By this war’s standards, Buhendwa was lucky. It took her five hours, but she made it to her sister’s house and received support from her family, rather than shame. She bled after the rape, still has stomachaches and cannot bear to go out after dark. But she was not held for months, beaten and sexually assaulted every night like many of the girls at a center for women and children in Bukavu where she spent time last fall.

Rape Used as Brutal Weapon in Five-Year War

Rape is frequently used as a weapon in war and the five-year conflict in the Congo has proved just how brutal that weapon can be. No reliable figures exist as to how many women and girls have been victims, but in the South Kivu region bordering Rwanda and Burundi, it is difficult to find a family not affected by sexual violence.

The most horrifying stories include those of as many as 3,000 women in Shabunda–an area in central South Kivu–who were raped between late 1999 and mid-2001, primarily by tribal Mayi-Mayi fighters. Some who were sexually violated escaped to outlying towns and cities and reported being raped again by rival militias along the way.

"All different rebel groups fighting in the area have made terror against civilians their way of fighting the war and sexual violence is part of that," said Juliane Kippenberg, co-author of a 114-page Human Rights Watch report, "The War Within the War: sexual violence against women and girls in Eastern Congo," which was released last year.

Soldiers or militiamen are frequently the perpetrators, but victims often can only make educated guesses as to which rebel group or army their assaulters belong. At least a dozen rebel groups have sprung up since the war began and six foreign armies have fought in Congo.

Rwanda and Uganda invaded eastern Congo in 1998 to protect their borders from hostile militias, including the Interhamwe, which participated in carrying out the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 before fleeing to Congo. The Rwandan and Uganda armies, along with militaries from other African countries allied with the Congolese government, pulled out most of their troops last fall in line with a peace agreement, but the area remains more unstable than ever.

The war between neighboring countries, anti-government militias and nationalistic rebel groups in nearly half of the Congo–Africa’s third-largest nation–has devastated its civilian population. A United Nations report released in October on the plundering of the country’s vast mineral wealth–widely believed to be a major cause of the conflict–estimated that if the mortality rate continued as it had since 1998, the war would have taken 3.5 million lives by late 2002.

Most have died of malnutrition and disease. International relief agencies, accustomed to providing food, medical supplies and other basic-needs services, found sexual violence so widespread in the region that they established crisis and follow-up medical care for victims. Doctors Without Borders has one of the largest operations and is still treating women from the Shabunda attacks.

Local, International Organizations Aid Victims

With the U.S. war in Iraq, some non-governmental organizations are concerned that international attention and money may be diverted from humanitarian aid in the Congo and elsewhere, said Kris Torgeson, spokeswoman for Doctors Without Borders in New York.

"We’re needs-driven, not media-driven," she said. But, she added, "Donor dollars often follow media attention."

Local organizations have emerged as well to support women and girls, particularly around the Bukavu area. Once a playground for former dictator Mobutu Seso Seko, who renamed the nation Zaire during his 30-year reign, Bukavu is home to lush mountains, a beautiful lake and the most important universities in the east that make it a center for civil society.

"Women and children have suffered the most in this conflict. They’re not protected," said Claudine Mwa Mulegwa, secretary-general of Amaldefea, a non-governmental organization in Bukavu supporting mothers and children.

Many of the girls who learn to read, write and sew at Amaldefea also find common, tortured histories. Like Buhendwa, 18-year-old Alima Malehe now lives away from home. Since August, she frequently gets stomachaches and her heart thunders whenever she sees a soldier. That is because one night, men in uniform pounded on her front door, demanding to see a girl who fit Malehe’s description. Her family begged them to take whatever they wanted and leave, but they searched the house until they found Malehe hiding under bed.

Dragging her out into the living room, the soldiers tore her clothes and raped her in front of her parents. She does not know how many assaulted her because she, like other girls and young women interviewed, passed out after the third began his rape. Malehe sought refuge from her village in Kabare, north of Bukavu, with her sister in the Bukavu mountains. Since September, she began receiving a certain level of comfort at Amaldefea.

The neighbors in her village now whisper about her, she said, and it isn’t with sympathy. She worries she contracted HIV or another sexually-transmitted disease but has not received medical care. Her potential to marry and have children, Malehe believes, is over.

"I’ve been raped," she said, her eyes fixated on the floor. "My reputation is spoiled."

Many Families Reject Raped Women

The widespread rapes of women and girls are "very well-known," said Karin Wachter, who works with the International Rescue Committee’s sexual- and gender-based violence project. "People are talking about it, but women and girls still aren’t let back into their families sometimes and definitely not by their husbands."

Malehe’s family does not reject her, she said, but the few times she returned home were uncomfortable. Her concern about HIV is valid: Human Rights Watch reports that 60 percent of troops and militiamen involved in the Congo conflict are infected with HIV/AIDS.

She does not know to which militia the men in uniform who sexually assaulted her belong, and she does not expect to receive any kind of justice. With the war, Eastern Congo is dominated by violence, lawlessness and poverty: elements that allow fighters to act as they please, according to Tony Tate, who helped research the Human Rights Watch report.

"They’re basically making sport of the whole thing," Tate said. "Probably a lot of them feel like they’re never going to get caught. They don’t care."

After learning of her sister’s rape, Buhendwa’s older sister marched to the notoriously dangerous military camp where the 13-year-old was held and demanded the commander reprimand the soldier. The commander, in turn, made a veiled threat by reminding her that the militiaman could also identify Buhendwa–and figure out where her family resided.

The camp is run by the Congolese Rally for Democracy, a Rwandan-backed militia controlling Bukavu and parts of South and North Kivu. The militia officially stands for democracy, peace and justice, but locals said that in practice, the exact opposite is true. One official from the Congolese Rally for Democracy reluctantly admitted the militia, along with others such as the rival Mayi-Mayi and Interhamwe, sexually assaults girls.

"We are also participating in the injustice," said Prosper Mushobekwa Nyalukemba, president of the South Kivu Province Assembly.

Christianity runs strong here. Many girls said because of their religious values, it is more important that they forgive their rapists rather than wait for justice.

"Even if I get angry about it, I can’t change anything," Malehe said. "What’s done is done. It was fate."

Tiare Rath is a New York City-based freelance reporter.


For more information:

International Rescue Committee–
"The IRC in The Democratic Republic Of Congo":