It’s Valentine’s Day. I just read another article about mass rape in the DRC. What strikes me is the overarching need that some of these men claim for sex. The right to it, with or without consent. And for the women, the helplessness, the forced servitude to male desire. The resultant objectification and dehumanisation of women… relegating us to some sub strata of existence, elevating us only when it serves their purpose, if we’re pretty enough, if we’re good enough in the sack, if we deliver sons, if we can somehow manipulate our way into a position of leverage. Sometimes I feel like it’s the same struggle the world over, just with a different face and a different set of consequences. Sometimes I walk the streets of some night-time city and am keenly aware of my vulnerability only being protected by the assumed veneer of socially required behaviour… but I can sense the rage and the desire for violence that lurks beneath. The rage and violence that is akin and intertwined with desperate coupling, the stabbing motion and the grunt. And all that’s left in our hearts to do is the echo of a keening wail. And the tears dried to a salty crust on the bruised skin of our cheeks.
What is a woman’s grief in the face of such rage, lust, power and desperation funnelled through a single, largely unaccountable act?
”The rebel leader asked me two things: ‘Do you want us to be your husbands? Or do you want us to rape you?'”
Congolese mother-of-eight Clementine speaks in a quiet and hesitant voice:
“I chose to be raped.”
She explains: “I told myself, if I tell them that I want to be their wife, they will kill my husband. I didn’t want my children growing up saying the one that made our father die is our mother.”
But that sacrifice was not enough. Her husband left her for another woman.
“After they raped me, my husband hated me. He said I was dirty. I often ask myself: ‘Surely, I gave up my dignity for him, how come he can abandon me this way?'”
Margot Wallstrom, the UN’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict recently said the Democratic Republic of Congo was the “rape capital of the world”.
A host of different armed groups roam parts of eastern DR Congo and all are accused of horrific violence against women.
Clementine says she will not marry again: “He is the husband I chose when I took my vows in the church. If God wills, he will return.”
It seems to be a forlorn hope.
Jocelyn Kelly, a researcher with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s Gender-Based Violence programme, says the men that have survived these attacks on their families are extremely traumatised themselves:
“They say: ‘I can no longer look at my wife.’ And every time they see this woman, they see someone they were not able to protect. They feel like failures and the only way they can deal with it is to reject their wife and start over.”
This is part of the damage that has been caused by people like Emmanuel, a former child soldier who is now 22 years old.
Rebel groups complain that they are left to fend for themselves in the forests
He fought with the CNDP rebel group.
Emmanuel says that they raped to show their anger with the authorities for neglecting them.
“Soldiers or rebels usually rape because we stay in isolated places and we don’t get our pay – even if it can come, it doesn’t come on time.
“After living for a long time in the forest, you don’t see women and so if one woman shows up then all of us, we profit.”
Weapon of war
Sexual violence is used as a weapon of war and with extraordinary brutality: Gang rape is commonplace; and objects such as gun butts are sometimes used.”It doesn’t make sense. They are getting some form of pleasure out of it and it has nothing to do with fighting for a cause.”
At a centre in the main eastern Congolese town of Goma, where rape survivors are brought from various villages for medical attention, 57 women are singing and dancing to the beat of a drum.
Their ululations and agile dancing mask their fear.
Even though the worst has already happened.
Cold and emotionless
In one of the rooms, a heavy foul smell suffocates the air. At first impression, it gives the impression of a toilet that is not clean. It wasn’t.
The smell was coming from the women themselves.
Some of them are suffering from fistula whose manifestation is the uncontrollable passage of urine and in some cases, faeces.
It is estimated that 14 women are raped each day in eastern DR Congo
One 15-year-old is drumming as hard as she can.
Her experiences exemplify this complex war raging against women. She was abducted by 10 rebels from the Interahamwe group accused of carrying out the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda. They kept her for about a year as a sex slave.
”They would rape me in turns. It got to a point where I did not feel pain.”
They fed her when they wished and gave her water from their gumboots to drink. She soon became pregnant. The rebels said she would be set free once she had given birth.
”One day they tied me to a tree and tried to pull the baby out. The blood… it just kept flowing.”
She says she can no longer feel pain and relates all this in a detached manner – cold and emotionless – and then ties a colourful wraparound around her waist and walks away.
A former government soldier who is serving 20 years in Goma Central Prison says he attacked the first woman he came across after sneaking away from his post:
”I asked her to help me. I had this urge to have sex. She didn’t want to have sex with me. But I forced her. I felt that if I didn’t have sex then I would get sick.
“She left without crying but as she was leaving she said she would denounce me. I regret it now because I am in prison.”
He is among the few to have been arrested.
Ms Kelly says that many soldiers view women as men’s helpers.
“There is this attitude that it is a man’s right to have sex and there’s no way that a man cannot have sex.”
Ms Faray despairs: “If they can’t control themselves, then they are at the level of an animal. It is really just an excuse to legitimise the violence and they are living in a situation of impunity. It is an excuse to live a life of lawlessness.”
Dr Lucy Kasereka of the Heal Africa Hospital says justice is hard to come by.
”Even when these suspects are arrested, there is no proper prison or even legal representation. For us Christians, the Ten Commandments are our judge.”
‘They destroyed my life’
Provincial Minister for Justice and Human Rights Francois Rucogoza thinks that if DR Congo can rid itself of all the armed groups, rape will be a thing of the past.
Women have borne the brunt of the violence
But women like Yvone, 37, will never escape the past.
Her husband was made to watch while she was raped, repeatedly. Today, her husband wants nothing to do with her.
Yvone explains: “I am living with my husband in the same house but we are separated. He spends nights on his bed and I spend nights on my bed with the children.
“We cannot do the act of love. When I need him, I tell him, but he says ‘No. Never.’ ‘He tells me to go back to my husbands, the Interahamwe, every time we argue.”
She says she begs her husband to understand her situation. He refuses to.
Only other women understand her.
Clementine speaks for them all when she says:
“I cannot forgive these rapists because they destroyed my life. Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a desire to live on this Earth.”
By Anne Mawathe
BBC News, Goma