Conflict & Justice

Part I: Healing the victims

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Credit: Jeb Sharp

Housing for patients at Panzi hospital.

The landscape here is so beautiful it's hard to believe the suffering it contains. The city of Bukavu sits at the southern tip of Lake Kivu. The lake is surrounded by mountains and often bathed in a soft blue light which gives everything a dreamlike quality.

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But a few minutes from the lakeside it's a different story - the chaotic muddy streets of a hardscrabble town battered by years of war. My destination, Panzi Hospital, is on the outskirts. 

Dr. Denis Mukwege directs the hospital. He's a big, warm man. He grew up here, left to study medicine in France, and returned to practice gynecology. He never imagined the brutality of what he would be dealing with.

"It's horrible. It's horrible to see what's happening to the women here. Most of these women are completely destroyed by it," he says.

About 10 women a day are admitted to Panzi Hospital. Most are victims of rape, often brutal gang rape. Rape that is often followed by mutilating attacks on women's genitals. About a third of the women who reach Panzi have injuries so severe they require surgery - often to patch up holes called fistulas that leave them incontinent. 

Dr. Mukwege says the atrocities he has been witnessing for eight years now are not the result of - for lack of a better term - "ordinary" rape.

Dr. Denis Mukwege
Credit: Jeb Sharp

Dr. Denis Mukwege

"When you talk about rape in New York or Paris everyone can always say yes we have rape here too. But it's not the same thing when a woman is raped by four or five people at the same time, when a woman is raped in front of her husband and children, when a woman is not just raped, but then after the rape her genitals are attacked with a gun, a stick, a torch or a bayonet. That's not what you see in New York. That's not what you see in Paris," he says.

The most brutal rapes are blamed on the Hutu militias who fled Rwanda after the 1994 genocide. 

But human rights groups say virtually all the armed groups here - and there are many - have employed the tactic. 

Dr. Mukwege says there's no chance of stopping the sexual violence until the fighting ends. The doctor's efforts to get the word out have put Panzi Hospital on the map. 

Last year the playwright and activist Eve Ensler profiled Dr. Mukwege for Glamour magazine, praising him as an inspirational advocate for the women of Congo. 

Dr. Mukwege says these attacks against women put the whole society at risk.

"Women are humanity, women are life, women are procreation. A society with a few men and lots of women is a society with a future, but a society where all the women have been destroyed is a society that's going to disappear," he says.

Dr. Mukwege sees himself as a father figure to his patients, someone they can trust and feel safe with. He says they desperately need that. 

On this morning a ten-year-old girl tags along behind him clutching a doll. She calls him Papa. When she sees my camera she begs me to take a picture. I do, but the doctor says "you mustn't use it. It could destroy her life." What he means is that the world outside the hospital gates can't know she's a rape victim if she's to have any hope of a normal life here in Congo. As we sit together I realize the child is incontinent: there's urine running down her leg.

Dr. Mukwege has work to do so he hands me off to a translator Rita Baraka. She gives me a tour.

We walk through the ward and out the other side of the building. There's a big covered shelter out there where hundreds of women are gathered.

"This is the place to eat, the place sometimes to play and sometimes here they are making some activities for example sewing activities help them to forget maybe while waiting they can forget their trouble," Baraka says.

The women are waiting for surgery, waiting for food, waiting for housing, waiting for help. Some of them look numb; they sit and stare into space. There are dozens of children here too. 

Translator Rita Baraka.
Credit: Jeb Sharp

Translator Rita Baraka.

Baraka introduces me to some of them. It doesn't feel right to interview young girls about rape. But the hospital staff want me to understand what's been happening here. 

I speak with a tiny ten year old in blue jeans named Marie.

"I've been raped by Hutu soldiers who came in my house. First they killed my parents and then they raped me. There were three," she says.

When you listen to the stories here you get a sense of how little security people have, how suddenly and randomly an attack can rip through their lives. Another patient, also called Marie, is 23. One day in October she left her two young children at home and caught a ride to market. The car was ambushed by armed men. She and six other women were taken into the bush.

"So they took off all our dresses and we remained naked.They killed one woman among us. One man raped me. And another one make sex with me, put his sex in my, my mouth," Marie says.

Marie managed to escape after three days. Eventually she made her way to Panzi Hospital.

"When I arrived here at the hospital, they told me that I don't have AIDS. They told me that I don't have syphilis. But they told me that I'm pregnant. That's why I'm wondering what will I do with this pregnancy, what will I do, what will happen to me," she says.

Marie has no idea what's happened to her two young boys. Their father had already abandoned her before the attack and she was living with relatives. But she fears they'll throw her out if she returns. Many rape victims end up fleeing their homes or being chased away. 

Dr. Mukwege says they come to the city which is dangerous.

"When they leave the village they leave their crops, their animals, their fields - all their economic activity collapses. And when they arrive here in town they have no way of making a living. Many of them are illiterate. So they either accept a passive death or they start to prostitute themselves. Either one means death. Those who turn to prostitution get AIDS and die. Those who don't die of hunger," he says.

Here at Panzi Hospital, the staff do what they can to help women avoid that fate. And while they alone can't transform the culture of violence and impunity that reigns in eastern Congo, they can try to help the victims heal. One way they do that is through dance and music. A social worker leads the women in a church song in Swahili. In Jesus there is peace the women sing. Whoever has Jesus has peace. 

Baraka says the singing is therapeutic.

"It helps them to remove fear and anxiety and concern for their trouble. This helps them," Baraka says.

For the moment the music does seem to help. Baraka and Dr. Mukwege often describe these women as destroyed. Yet here they are, singing, swaying, ululating as if to say we're not. We're here. We're alive. It's a sign of hope in a place where so much more is needed.

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