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News : Congo, the Democratic Republic of the

Healing the wounds of sexual violence in Congo

Healing the wounds of sexual violence in Congo – 4 Sep 2009

Sarah has seen sights that no eyes would want to witness. Sights that could disable her mind and shackle her memory to a lifetime of pain, anger and bitterness. Sights that could leave even the strongest faith in humanity blurred and dazed, if not irrevocably shattered.

The incidents of rape, torture and murder that she has seen in the troubled Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) makes her response to the perpetrators all the more remarkable: `I have very strong faith. I have forgotten everything already. I have forgiven them. If I don’t forgive them, I won’t be free.’ It’s a jaw-droppingly forward-looking statement from a 37-year-old woman who was so traumatised after being attacked that she thought people coming to help her were actually going to kill her.

Sarah’s story begins in Maniema Province in eastern DRC where she was living with her husband and three children.

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Buried alive

Fighting there between government and rebel forces did not spare the civilian population and one day it touched Sarah’s life like a hammer on glass. `There were lots of attacks against people by rebel soldiers,’ recalls Sarah. `They even dug holes and buried people alive. `They told people to have sex with their own partners in the presence of everyone, even to have sex with their own brothers and sisters. If we didn’t do that they would kill us. Many women witnessed that.’

Sarah was raped but survived although after the attack there was no treatment available for her physical injuries, let alone the emotional ones.
Tearfund has been working through local church partners in DRC for 20 years.

Surgery

One of those partners is Heal Africa which runs medical services centred on a hospital in Goma, in neighbouring North Kivu province, and it was its workers that found Sarah.

The prevalence of conflict-related rape in eastern DRC means Heal Africa counsellors travel long distances into danger areas to help women like Sarah. She recalls, `At first we were very scared and refused to go with them because we didn’t know where we were going and feared maybe these people were going to kill us. When we heard it was a hospital, we agreed to go.’ Based now in Goma, Sarah is receiving treatment for her physical injuries and is awaiting surgery.

She’s also getting help from Heal Africa staff for her deep emotional suffering, which has been compounded by being rejected by her husband who has kept two of their children. `When we have counselling we are told that we are human beings and we feel better in our hearts and encouraged.’

Her family’s rejection means Sarah will be vulnerable economically when she eventually leaves hospital and starts rebuilding her life. Here too Heal Africa is helping with its Healing Arts Programme. This teaches women, who have been attacked and rejected, new skills that can enable them to earn an independent living, such as how to make clothes, bags and crafts.

When a Tearfund team visited recently, Heal Africa’s hospital had 164 women like Sarah who have been sexually attacked, with operating rooms and surgeons dedicated to their treatment. In addition it runs a mediation service to help reunite women with families that have rejected them because they have been raped. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has praised the work of Tearfund partner Heal Africa in helping women who have suffered sexual attacks in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mrs Clinton made her comments during a visit to conflict-affected North Kivu province in August.

There she met with hospital workers and patients, including women recovering from the physical and psychological effects of rape.
`Heal Africa is doing amazing work,’ said the Secretary of State, who is on a seven country tour of Africa.

But the scale of the problem is immense, with the UN Children’s Fund estimating that 200,000 women and girls have been assaulted over the past 12 years in DRC, as rape has been used as a weapon of war. With the recent arrest of a key rebel leader improving the prospects of peace, Tearfund has launched an emergency appeal for those affected by conflict in DRC to further support the work of partners like Heal Africa and that of our own disaster response teams.

Recovery work

Since last August, some 250,000 people have been forced to flee their homes due to fighting between Congolese and rebel forces, with North Kivu being particularly badly affected. Another 150,000 have been displaced since last December in north east Province Orientale where Ugandan LRA rebels have entered DRC.

Tearfund’s emergency appeal aims to help these people and also to assist in longer term recovery work, such as that in South Kivu. Here Tearfund teams have supplied new homes, rebuilt schools, provided sanitation and given agricultural support so people can earn a living again. Since 2002, more than 50,000 people have been helped to resettle into their conflict-affected communities and to rebuild their lives.

It would be easy to consider a country that in recent years has seen more than 5 million people die and another 2 million become homeless due to war and humanitarian crisis as a lost cause. But Sarah, who has seen so much of its suffering, has an attitude that offers hope and challenges indifference. `We want to live in peace and unity. If we live in unity, there will be many people willing to help us.’

• Names have been changed to protect identities.
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Fresh conflict in eastern Congo – 12 Apr 2009

Staff working with a Tearfund partner, Heal Africa in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s unstable eastern region are reporting a growing humanitarian crisis and evidence of torture. They runs a hospital in the regional capital Goma, is one of the few humanitarian organisations still operating there as intense fighting between rebel and government forces has moved closer to the city. They have been treating civilian casualties, including victims of torture and banditry.
 

An entire family were hospitalised after being attacked, with four children left seriously injured and their mother showing evidence of being tortured.The family reported their attackers had put a grenade under the bed of a sleeping six-year-old. Surgeons have been battling to save the boy’s life and that of his seriously injured older brother.Lyn added, `We pray they will survive. Such cruelty is incomprehensible. It has nothing to do with war, it is banditry and terrorism.’

Their assault has prompted 250,000 people to flee their homes, taking the total of displaced people in North Kivu to more than a million, leading Tearfund and other aid agencies to warn of an unfolding humanitarian disaster.

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