When you first hear of the violent atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, you can’t imagine that anything of beauty could ever exist there. A bleak thought perhaps, but one that Christine Schuler Deschryver must face every day.
As a women’s rights activist in the Congo, she has been up close and personal to women who have endured some of the worst documented cases of sexual violence over the last 10 years.
The five-year conflict in the Congo was formally “over” in 2003, with 5.4 million dead at last count, according to the International Rescue Committee. But even today, violence still rips through the heart of the eastern regions and threatens to spill over into a fresh full-scale war. The world’s largest peacekeeping mission—a United Nations force of 17,000 soldiers and police—still struggles to protect the population. The country, formerly known as Zaire, has its first elected president in more than 40 years and should be rich from its gold, diamonds and minerals. But millions of people still suffer from a lethal combination of corruption, disease and hunger caused by conflict and displacement.
Women, young girls and even babies remain targets for vicious sexual attacks, genital mutilation, torture and humiliation. Women often disappear from their homes, captured by groups of rebel soldiers and forced into a lifestyle of sexual slavery, never to be returned to their loved ones. In a land where gender discrimination is the norm, it’s common for women to be left for dead in the forest like animals.
Deschryver was born in the city of Bukavu, Congo to a Congolese mother and Belgian father and raised with an appreciation for both cultures. She sees herself as a “citizen of the world,” having spent her childhood in both the Congo and in Belgium at a Catholic boarding school. She speaks French and at least four African languages fluently. She began fighting against injustice at an early age, after experiencing prejudice and discrimination as the child of an interracial couple.
In 1994, Deschryver was a school teacher for a Belgian school in the Congo when refugees first began arriving from their neighboring country of Rwanda. Little did she or the people of the Congo know that their arrival would spark a rapid deterioration to the already fragile peace-keeping efforts within their own region. A group of rebel forces within the Congo itself were already at loggerheads with the government, but the refugees from Rwanda were followed by a band of Hutu rebel soldiers, who were led by rebel leader Laurent Nkunda and were known to have taken part in the genocide over the border in Rwanda. The Congo’s internal wealth made it a target for Nkunda and his men, who clearly saw the instability of the Congo as an opportunity to take control of the resource-laden country and immediately began an offensive. Within months, the country fell into a state of chaos, with not one but two rebel forces fighting to overthrow the Congolese government.
Casualties of War
Caught between the crossfire, the women and children were the first to suffer and the emergence of barbaric and senseless acts of violence quickly became the trademark of the war. Deschryver’s life was changed dramatically when the war invaded the home of her best friend. “One of the first cases of rape in 1998 was my best friend, colored like me,” she explains, still having to keep her friend’s details confidential, for fear of reprisals. “She was gang-raped by the soldiers and killed.” Then in 2000, an 18-month-old baby girl with broken legs was brought into her office. “She’d also been gang-raped and died in my arms, right there in my office. … I knew something really terrible was happening here and we had to try and alert the world.”
Around the same time, Dr. Denis Mukwege, a Christian surgeon who fled the fighting in Lemera, a town in South Kivu, settled with his family in Bukavu. His arrival would be significant in the road to recovery for countless numbers of the Congo’s women. Years before, when he was young, Dr. Mukwege had accompanied his father—a pastor—on home visits, where he had first contact with “patients.” His father would pray for the women and they were always grateful, but Dr. Mukwege left their homes feeling frustrated. He wanted to do more than just pray for them. Though he knew spiritual healing was an important part of the process, he wanted to learn how to take away their physical pain, too.
Years later, the newly qualified doctor had been working successfully at a Christian hospital in Lemera when the war broke out and the hospital was completely destroyed. He decided to settle in Bukavu and couldn’t believe what he found on his arrival. Women fled from their villages, sometimes traveling through the jungle or dirt roads, for days and weeks on end. Many were badly injured, having survived brutal sexual attacks, mutilations, suffering from genital lesions and bleeding severely. They arrived needing immediate medical attention, but had nowhere to go.
Some of those who fled while pregnant simply came to die after laboring for hours unsuccessfully. In addition to the severe psychological impact, many survivors were left with genital lesions, traumatic fistula and other physical wounds, as well as unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. Local response to support such survivors is hindered by a lack of resources. Additionally, there was near total impunity for these crimes as perpetrators almost always walked free.
Dr. Mukwege heard about some land that had been donated by UNICEF to build a new medical treatment center, but was sitting undeveloped. He and other like-minded individuals decided to take action and the idea was born to try and set up an operating room at the new center where the women could be assisted. The center would primarily be a maternity ward for women and their infants who needed urgent care. Deschryver and Dr. Mukwege had been friends and acquaintances for some time, so when Panzi Hospital was established, one of her first steps of action was to find out what she could do to help and assist him.
Today, on average, Panzi Hospital receives 10 new cases each day and 30 percent of the women undergo major reconstructive surgery. But with a lack of trained hospital staff, power cuts due to the war and interference from the Congo’s corrupt government, the daily functioning of the hospital is always at risk. To make matters worse, this past September, Panzi Hospital was attacked by a gang of bandits. Hospital staff had to literally fight off attackers with sticks. Ambulances and important transport vehicles were vandalized. Windows of the hospital were smashed. Many people were injured, including patients and staff.
Although she isn’t an employee, Deschryver has become one of Panzi Hospital’s most-trusted long-term volunteers and activists, using her personal time when she isn’t at work to bring awareness to their cause by giving clandestine interviews to foreign press and speaking up on behalf of the women. “I became a sort of advocate for them, going there on weekends or any time I can,” she says. “My role is that of a friend and listener. I talk with the women, but mostly I listen to them—their horror stories. We sit and cry together, even though [listening] is difficult as it affects me so much.”
For a country whose war is officially declared “over,” the stories of the abuse and violence that women and children face every day in the Congo continue to flood in. “Another 10-month-old baby named Isabelle died again in my arms last May,” Deschryver says. “And one raped mother explained to me how soldiers forced her to eat her own children. They [a group of survivors] were taken into the forest by the rebels and given meat to eat without knowing the meat the rebels were cooking for them was human flesh! Their own children! Another 84-year-old woman was crying as she told me she’d been raped. She kept asking me to look at her, [and] wondered what they were looking for in such an old body. I’m often revolted, very depressed, by what I hear and I know I need counseling myself. I rely on medication to sleep and wake up with strong cups of coffee.”
Dr. Mukwege has trained a team of nurses, obstetricians and surgeons in the complicated area of genital reconstruction and the female staff perform up to 18 operations a day. The most common procedure is fistula repair, which are often torn as a result of violent rape. This damage often leads to incontinence, infection and inability to walk due to the severity of the pain. The women feel forgotten, silenced by the war and often have no other family to turn to. As a result of their rapes, many of the women contracted STDs, including HIV, as well as unwanted pregnancies. For many, their families are too ashamed or afraid to take them back in. It’s not unheard of for the same woman to be attacked repeatedly. Some women came to Panzi for help after their initial attacks, healed and returned home, only to return again after a second or third assault. This kind of strain has torn apart family units across the Congo. Thus the survivors at Panzi have formed an informal community, sharing what little they have with each other and supporting one another emotionally. They are also finding spiritual restoration in this unconventional setting.
A typical day at Panzi begins with a morning service led by Dr. Mukwege himself. He often delivers a message of hope to the women, and then they all spend some time in song and prayer. Ninety-five percent of the Congo’s women are Christians, but after losing so much to war, they are broken within. On arrival, many women have already given up on life and doubt there is a God, but over time, with the care, love and affection they receive from Dr. Mukwege, his staff and activists like Deschryver, they gain the hope that one day things will get better. “I’ve learned so much from these women,” Deschryver says. “How to forgive, how to love and the real value of sharing things like a basic cup of water. In Africa we have nothing and give everything ,and in Europe and the U.S. where they have everything, [it’s like] … they don’t care and give nothing.”
It’s a view shared by many women in Congo, who ask how a government can place more value on protecting the lives of their gorillas and elephants above the lives of their women. A “femocide” (the complete and deliberate annihilation of the female species) is happening in the Congo. Gang rape has almost become a national sport, where the people know the houses in which the perpetrators live, but due to a lawlessness that abounds in the country, none of them are arrested or prosecuted.
This lack of awareness and government support often leaves the women and activists like Deschryver feeling exasperated and at a loss. Deschryver tells about one of the times she cried out in desperation to God. “Being so often in Panzi and facing so much daily horror deeply affected my faith. In 2000, when that little baby died in my arms, I took her into the cathedral and like a fool I really cried and railed at God, begging him to let us all die instead of all these sufferings. Just asking Him, ‘Why?’”
There was no great flash of revelation in answer to her lamentations, but Deschryver did feel a renewed sense of purpose toward her work. She puts it like this: “Since that day, I started believing with a new passion in what I was doing. I felt it had a purpose, but interestingly, I also lost my ability to actually pray. Then in April 2006, I met an 8-year-old victim. Her little body was destroyed forever from her attack, but she would come and hold my hands together and pray with me. She’d seen me crying so many times, and so she asked me to forgive these murderers like they [the women] all had. She understood the rebels probably didn’t know what they were doing. So she helped lead me back to faith. Now, since that day, whenever I am feeling totally down, I stop and pray. Many of these children at Panzi are just little angels.”
Deschryver says there are so many tales that have moved her deeply, she could sit and write a book just on the accounts of torture she has heard alone. But despite the ashes of war, she says “The best place for me to be is at the hospital. There is so much suffering and the persistent smell of death all around me, but above all that there is a certain positive energy coming from these women that gives us the strength to continue.”
In November 2008, U.N. peacekeeping troops and local aid organizations informed the west that fighting in the Congo had once again escalated. Nkunda spread his forces along the hilly, mineral-producing border region of Rwanda, sending over 200,000 refugees fleeing for their lives. Terrified and hungry, they arrived in and around Goma, resigned and full of despair. Sleeping out in the open, some even wrapped themselves in banana leaves at night to find some protection from the cold. Thousands more are feared to be roaming North Kivu’s bush-covered hills, desperately seeking safe shelter, food and water. Wives, mothers and sisters reported they were forced to leave their men behind in homes and villages, and had no way of knowing what would become of them.
The U.N. and foreign aid groups are still scrambling to cope with an emergency described as “catastrophic” by relief workers. They are rushing to distribute supplies and provide medical care for the displaced, but fighting has disrupted aid operations. Reports of rape, sexual assault and forced labor doubled in a two-week period. Meanwhile, Nkunda threatens to fight any additional peacekeeping troops sent into the region unless Congolese President Joseph Kabila agrees to negotiate directly with him.
For the women and children in the Congo, life remains a thing of uncertainty and the painful story continues. There is still no formal end to the violence and bloodshed. The country hangs in tentative balance between peace and chaos.
After the Rwandan genocide, the international community promised “never again.” Then came the Sudanese war and we said “no more.” Another war is raging in the Congo. Fifteen years after the initial conflict began, the international community has a chance to make its voice heard by speaking up for the Congo’s most valuable resource—their women and children.