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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 January 2004, 17:15 GMT
Congo rape victims seek solace
By Jackie Martens
BBC, Democratic Republic of Congo

Rape victim Vumiliar Lukindo, or Vumi
Victim Vumi is now shunned by her community because of her plight

The war in Congo, estimated to have killed three million people and involving armies from seven different countries, is coming to an end.

But, as United Nations troops move into areas previously ravaged by war, the true horror of what was wrought on the population is now emerging.

It was after a torturous two-hour drive along a windy dirt road, high up in the mountains, that we found Vumiliar Lukindo - or just Vumi.

As we walked forward to meet the tiny 16-year-old, she doubled over, clutching her stomach and trying to cover her feet with the faded cloth she had wrapped around her body.

She averted her eyes. Urine covered her feet.

Healing hope

Vumi suffers from incontinence, and cannot sit down because of the pain, the result of a horrific rape incident last October.

The victims have suffered, but they want their stories told
The victims have suffered, but they want their stories told
"The attack happened at night, and we were forced to flee into the bush," she said, in a voice barely more than a whisper.

"Four men took me. They all raped me. At that time I was nine months pregnant."

"They gang-raped me and pushed sticks up my vagina - that's when my baby died - they said it was better than killing me."

The men then stole her few belongings and her community, unable to live with the smell, shunned her.

Now she hopes only to be healed.

Community rejection

In a country ravaged by war, where rape is used as a weapon and having a gun means you can act with impunity, Vumi is not alone.

We have many stories like this that make us shed our tears, I used to cry, but have now become more desensitised... this happens all over this area, sometimes to children as young as nine
Care worker Jeanne Banyere
Spending only a few hours in Kitchanga, a small, sleepy village supplemented by many refugees of this conflict, we met many other women with equally horrific stories to tell, but who wanted such stories told.

Kahindo Ndasimwa, dressed in little more than rags, told of how militia attacked her village one night two years ago, forcing her to flee into the bush.

The 40-year-old was then repeatedly raped by four men - their legacy a continual stream of urine down her legs.

Bahati Ndasimwa, a 24-year-old with a round friendly face - but eyes that told of torture - said she was raped by too many men to count.

Her community then also rejected her.

Violent rape

Furaha Mapendo was staked to the ground with her legs splayed by 10 men, who then had their way with her.

With her eyes staring fixedly at the ground, the 24-year-old told of how the men pushed sticks and various objects into her for an entire night, six years ago.

These women all suffer from vaginal fistula, a medical condition found in countries with poor health infrastructure, which is usually a result of poor childbirth care.

In this part of the world, it is caused by violent rape.

The walls between the vagina, bladder and anus are torn, resulting in severe pain and debilitating incontinence.

"We have many stories like this that make us shed our tears," said Jeanne Banyere, or Mama Jeanne to all who know this remarkable woman.

"I used to cry, but have now become more desensitised. This happens all over this area, sometimes to children as young as nine."

Medical aid

Mama Jeanne - who also looks after 62 orphans - is one of a handful of dedicated people from the Women's Protestant Federation that network these remote parts of the Congo, providing counselling and hope to these women.

Rape victims
The victims have suffered, but they want their stories told
They are often the only chance these women, ostracised by their communities, have of getting to Docs (Doctors on Call for Service) and getting the vital operation they need to rebuild their vaginas.

Docs runs a medical centre in the centre of Goma, a large town with little infrastructure situated close to the Rwanda border.

It provides training through experience for local doctors while helping the community.

Faced with an increasing number of women in desperate need of this operation, but lacking resources, facilities and space, Docs has erected two big white tents in their compound.

The tents are full of women waiting for their turn on the operating table.

'Bad things'

It is here that we found Dr Longombe Ahuka, a 48-year-old father of three.

Dr Ahuka is no stranger to the war; he says he saw "so many bad things"
Dr Ahuka is the general surgeon at Docs tasked with undertaking this delicate operation.

Together with two other doctors he has trained, this team has performed reconstructive surgery on more than 90 women, allowing them to return to their communities.

Dr Ahuka is no stranger to this war.

He was forced to flee from the hospital he was working in when it was attacked by armed militants.

Hundreds were killed and the hospital looted.

"I saw so many bad things, it is an honour for me to also be able to repair [them]," he said.

'Savagery beyond imagination'

The surgeon recounted one case of a woman who had the barrel of a gun inserted into her vagina.

The soldier then opened fire.

"The savagery we have here is beyond imagination," he said.

"They use all kinds of objects they can lay their hands on," he added, making a plea for the "world to be told about it, to be told of this reality".

The women waiting face a double blow.

Associated with rape is the risk of being infected with HIV.

Of all the cases Dr Ahuka dealt with between May and October last year, 24% were HIV positive.

Women's dignity

Safari Masika was waiting for her second operation when we met her.

Doctors operating in Docs clinic
Up to four operations are needed for complete reconstruction
Depending on the severity of the injury, up to four operations are needed for complete reconstruction.

Wrapped only in a green bed sheet, the diminutive woman told of a brutal attack, one which had left her with a miscarriage and isolated from her community.

Looking me straight in the eyes, this proud 42-year-old mother of eight told of how, after this operation, she would once again be "able to stand with other people and praise God".

The men who perpetrated this violence will probably never be brought to justice.

But for the brave women we met, at least this operation gives them the opportunity to once again live their lives with dignity.

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