Women at Panzi Hospital

BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of Congo (WOMENSENEWS)–Twenty-five-year-old Mywazo is the proud mother of two.

But she doubts her husband can ever accept that about her. Not after what happened.

For three and a half years, beginning in 2004, Mywazo was held hostage in the forests surrounding her village. There she was raped by men she identifies as Interhamwe, Hutu militias linked to Rwanda’s genocide and implicated in rape-and-pillage attacks on villages in the border provinces of North and South Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"The first days, all the men slept with everyone," Mywazo told Women’s eNews. "Then each chose a woman to keep. They cut the sex of the women they killed and hung it on their tent walls. I despaired. Each day, I expected to die."

Mywazo, whose last name is withheld for safety reasons, comes from a small farming village in Walungu, near Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu. In this densely forested area, rapes remained rampant this year despite a January peace agreement between the Congolese government and diverse armed groups operating in North and South Kivu.

Women’s eNews interviewed Mywazo in mid-August when she fretted about her livelihood and safety if she returned home to her husband. Since then, the situation in eastern Congo has further deteriorated. On Aug. 28, renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda clashed with the Congolese army in Goma, North Kivu, breaking the tenuous ceasefire. At least 100,000 people have been displaced over the past five weeks.

Last week London-based Amnesty International issued the latest warning, saying thousands of women are being raped and child soldiers brutalized amid renewed fighting in Goma.

Sexual Violence Widespread

In some eastern regions of Congo as many as 70 percent of girls and women of all ages have been raped or sexually mutilated, according to the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, a research center at Harvard University.

Over 2,200 new rape cases were recorded in North Kivu, a July report of the Congo Advocacy Coalition–a network of 64 international and local aid agencies and rights groups–indicated. The South Kivu Provincial Synergy on Sexual Violence, a coalition of representatives from government, the United Nations and civil society, recorded 4,500 sexual violence cases in the first six months of this year.

So Mywazo’s story is one of suffering multiplied by the tens of thousands.

On the day of her arrival to the militia’s camp where she was held hostage, the spray of gunfire scarred the flesh around her thighs. Another bullet struck where the jaw meets the ear. Now she struggles to chew and to hear. Countless women, she says, were gunned or knifed down in front of her eyes only to be replaced with fresh concubines kidnapped in South Kivu’s Walungu territory.

Her first child, Paluku, 5, survived the ordeal with her.

She says she shielded him behind her back when she was struck from the front. Her second child, 6-month-old Chito, breastfeeds sleepily as her mother explains she was born out of Mywazo’s bondage to a man she remembers as "Bizimwa."

 The SOS SIDA house and team

"I love my child, my toto," said Mywazo. "But I don’t know if my family will accept her or not. I am afraid to return to my husband because he won’t accept me."

In the Congo, husbands often reject their wives when they find out that they have been raped. Families frequently follow suit, leaving survivors with no one to assist them.

"They don’t realize that what happened to women in the forests was involuntary," said Noella Migabo Khiriga, field officer at S.O.S AIDS, one of about seven local nongovernmental groups working with rape survivors and HIV-AIDS patients.

Helping in the Conflict Zone

S.O.S AIDS offers housing to men and women who can’t afford it but who need to live in Bukavu–a town on the edge of Lake Kivu–in order to receive anti-retroviral treatment.

To fill the family void that often surrounds women and children mired in the stigma of rape or AIDS, the organization joins a growing network of local and international groups doing what they can. The most internationally recognizable among them is Bukavu’s Panzi Hospital, which provides advanced surgical repairs for women suffering from fistulas, debilitating ruptures of the urinary-genital tract that leave them incontinent.

Like S.O.S AIDS, many focus on reaching rural survivors of sexual violence and bringing them to urban health centers for medical and psychological care.

Every week, for instance, Khiriga travels to six villages beyond Bukavu. Interventions within 72 hours of a rape, the small window of opportunity to successfully administer an HIV-AIDS prevention treatment, she said, are rare. Assisted by local partners trained to recognize the symptoms of rape, she scouts the territories of Walungu and Kabare. To Bukavu, she brings only the worst cases.

Between January and April 2008, S.O.S. SIDA screened 175 victims of sexual violence, most of them between 40 and 60 years old. Of these, two were referred to professional psychiatric care. Twenty managed to escape sexual slavery in the forests but came back pregnant or HIV-positive. Emerance, 20, came back both.

Now eight months pregnant, Emerance, whose last name is withheld to protect her privacy, wears a cornflower blue cardigan and a maternity dress. This is her second rape pregnancy. In 2005, Interhamwe raped her in Kanyola. Last December, a fellow villager, someone she names–Wemba Batanga–raped her on the road as she ran away from an Interhamwe attack on her village.

"Right now," she told Women’s eNews. "I’m afraid of everybody: Interhamwe, army and civilians."

Counseling an Abundance of Victims

Cecile Kamwanya Mulolo is one of two psychologists working with rape victims at Panzi Hospital.

On a Saturday this past August eight women wrapped in colorful fabrics–all sexual violence survivors–waited in a row to be counseled. Inside, the stench of fistula–an acrid odor that stuns noses and turns stomachs–filled Mulolo’s office.

Beyond the hospital corridors, hundreds of women sat in a waiting hall staring sullenly at a small-screen television, while others grouped outside, chatting and weaving baskets, trying to keep their minds occupied while their bodies healed.

On average, Mulolo counsels 10 women a day.

She calculates that up to 20 percent of new rape cases–by which she means those committed in 2008–were carried out by civilians or policemen in urban rather than rural areas. Despite the growing availability of damning medical records, few cases, she said, receive a proper trial.

"Home rapes, village rapes, neighborhood rapes," she said. "Rapists are not punished severely so more and more people are starting to take pleasure in it."

Her hospital specializes in repairing the vaginas of women whose bodies were severely traumatized during acts of sexual violence. That could mean mass rape, penetration with blunt or sharp objects, or the burning of a woman’s vagina.

The hospital primarily treats women from the Congo, but it also receives referrals from Rwanda and Burundi.

During May and June, Mulolo said, the hospital received and treated 20 Pygmy women from Congo’s equatorial forests, a first for Panzi and a marker of the hospital’s growing reach.

Dominique Soguel is Women’s eNews Arabic editor.