BY Ryan McDougall | March 20 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print

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Light in the Darkness: The heroes changing lives in the DRC

In the second of his special reports from DR Congo for SCIAF’s Wee Box Appeal Ryan Mcdougall talks to people on the front line helping survivors of rape overcome trauma

Many Congolese women who have survived the trauma of rape face stigma, disease and abandonment. The often grotesque violence of the rape leaves them in need of surgery and medication, while any child born of rape is shunned, considered a non-person for whom attending school, or finding work, let alone being added to the electorate is almost unheard of.

Fortunately, the Scottish Catholic international Aid Fund (SCIAF) is, with your help, trying to change that. In our last special report we told how the charity, through local partners, has helped women become financially independent following the most harrowing cases of abuse imaginable. Now, we can reveal how the charity is funding life-saving surgery for women and how Scottish donations are giving children born of rape their fundamental human right to an identity.

In the North Eastern Bukavu region, where rape and sexual violence is particularly widespread, SCIAF supports the Bureau Diocésain des œuvres Médicales (BDOM)—Bukavu Archdiocese’s Diocesan Office of Medical Works.

Katana Hospital

Katana Hospital is run through BDOM, and specialises in supporting women who have suffered serious internal injuries due to rape. Many have fistulas—vaginal wounds which, in serious cases, can open to the anus. Severe cases are seen by doctors at the hospital, which is around a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Bukavu, and is situated in a peaceful, forested area.

The pain and infections that result from such wounds only add to the mental and spiritual scarring that rape survivors have to cope with. In communities, women with such wounds are often ostracised by their friends and families, in many cases because of the odour of infection.

Fortunately, through SCIAF’s support, the doctors at BDOM’s Katana Hospital are performing essential surgery to repair these open wounds. SCIAF pays for specialist training and has funded the purchase of the specialist surgical equipment that is needed too.

Dr Michael Chanekire is one of 30 surgeons at the hospital who received training back in 2010. The doctor sees his work as more of a vocation than a job. “When I work with these women, I think they could be my mother, my sister, my wife. It hurts to see them hurt in these ways,” he said. “Here we see a lot of fistula problems caused by the trauma of rape and sexual violence. There are times when we have no electricity and we have to use lights on our mobile phones to perform surgery.”

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‘Come through hell’

Dr Michael, surrounded by his colleagues, shares some of the most severe cases he has dealt with in his time as a medic—including showing an image of a man whose face was hacked off by someone armed with a machete. He has also seen women wounded by being raped with weapons and objects, including guns, knives and bayonets.

He said: “Sometimes, it feels like we doctors have come through hell dealing with the things we have to do. It is rewarding, too, though. My mother sees me wearing my white coat and she feels so proud of me. She knows I am doing my best to help women and that makes her very happy.Without the support we have from SCIAF I don’t think there would be any other way this could stop.”

Dr Serge Munyahu Cikuru, principal of Katana Hospital, in the south-east of the DRC, revealed many of the women suffer from HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, adding that they are able to supply them with vital antiretrovirals. He spoke of one case that haunts him—a woman who still lives at the hospital, who was gang raped while she was

heavily pregnant. “She is still here receiving psychological support,” he said. “Her baby has poor motor skills, but fortunately there is psychological support for her.”

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Jessica’s story

The woman, called Jessica (not her real name), is 38. She vividly remembers the smallest details of the night she was raped. “It was on June 12, 2019, at 9pm when they got into our house,” she recalled. “We had just finished eating and four rebels jumped on my husband, blindfolded him and tied his hands and feet. I hid under my bed—I was nine months’ pregnant. They saw me enter my bedroom and told me if I didn’t get out they would kill my husband.

“They took me by force into the living room and one by one they raped me from behind.”

Jessica sat with a thousand-yard-stare, breastfeeding her baby boy. The stare is an indicator of post-traumatic stress disorder and the term was coined for soldiers who had suffered trauma during the Vietnam War.

Jessica seemed utterly drained of emotion, dissociated and strangely calm, clearly having shut out reality as a means of coping and surviving.

She recalled: “One pushed my legs up to my neck, and others would say, ‘no, I don’t like this position’ and made me move. One of them told me, ‘we would kill you if you weren’t pregnant, but what we have just done to you will kill you.’”

The rebels then looted the family house as Jessica’s five terrified children were thrown into a room while their mother was violated.

“When they finished they beat me and my husband, but not my children,” she said, relieved her young ones had at least escaped serious physical injury.

The rape made her think she was going into labour, forcing her to flee. She arrived at Katana Hospital the next day where she was induced and received fistula surgery.

Grateful to SCIAF

Her baby suffered brain damage, and has difficulty breathing. Jessica blames herself, believing the child’s disability was the result of the rape.

She said: “The baby has been born with this illness because it was born from shock. And with my husband things have changed.”

Despite her dire circumstances, she is grateful to SCIAF and the doctors for performing the surgery on her, and for providing her with psychological support.

Back in Bukavu, there is a small but dedicated team of lawyers backed by SCIAF who are giving women legal support in a bid to bring the men who raped them to justice.

The Association D’appui Juridique aux Victims des Violences [Legal Support Association for Victims of Violence], better known simply as AJV, is Bukavu’s driving force behind justice for victims of sexual assault.

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Justice

Justine Kyungu, 33, is one of the lawyers working for AJV, and has fought tooth and nail to bring rapists to justice since graduating from Bukavu University in 2013.

“As a Catholic I have to make it right and make sure these people are punished,” she said.

For Justine, law is a family trade, as her relatives for generations have brought justice to a previously lawless land.

It comes at a price, however, as she feels there is a price on her head for seeing to it that criminals are jailed.

“I feel in danger in my job because sometimes we receive messages saying we will be killed [for our work],” she explained.

“Although we receive these messages, we don’t have security so we have to be vigilant. My work is not easy because you come across many awful things. As a Catholic, I see rape as a sin. I have to pray every day that the country will punish rapists.”

She has witnessed rape cases where the culprits are minors, and lamented the fact that under such circumstances, the parents are convicted. The police force is also unhelpful due to a lack of organisation and witnesses willing to talk, making their work even harder.

She added: “With SCIAF’s financial help we do what we can to help, but we need bigger offices.”

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Violet’s story

One girl supported by AJV is 18-year-old Violet, who was raped by a boy around her age, and made pregnant.

AJV lawyers had him prosecuted and imprisoned for a year and three months. She was with her father, Matthew, 48, who anxiously sat with his face in his hands as she retold her story.

She said: “I met a boy who told me to go with him and took me into his house. He raped me, I got pregnant but wanted to keep the baby. He told me to get an abortion but I did not accept. He knew where I lived and came to my house and brought abortion pills.”

He grabbed her tried to force her to take the pills, though she was able to resist his attempt.

Until this point, she had kept the rape and her pregnancy a secret, fearing what her parents would say. By this point, they had become curious and she had no choice but to tell them.

While families often cast aside female relatives who have been raped, her father instead wanted to support her and took the matter to police.

Changing lives

In turn, AJV fought her corner, and as a result the rapist is now in prison. As her child was born of rape and the ‘father’ refused to accept him, he was essentially a non-person.

In the DRC, children born under such circumstances are not allowed to attend school, vote, and in the world of work when they grow up, finding employment is practically impossible to secure.

AJV came to the rescue for her son, however, and helped have Violet’s father legally registered as the child’s adoptive father—giving the youngster a future he otherwise wouldn’t have had. Violet wants to send him to school when he is older.

Her father, Matthew, who had sat uneasy and tongue-tied up until then, broke his silence.

“Being a Christian, I had to forgive her rapist. Even after he came with the drugs to cause an abortion,” he said.

Hope

Matthew also wants Violet to return to school to complete her own studies, and values her and his grandchild more than anything.

He wants them to have the childhood he never had, having lived as an internally displaced refugee in his youth. As a young man, rebels attacked his village and tried to recruit him into their ranks. He fled to Bukavu, where he met his wife and raised Violet.

“I am raising the child like I am the father and my consideration for my daughter did not change after what happened to her,” he said. “I love them and I will take care of them.”

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