Wars in Africa have become almost synonymous with rape. While men are killed and boys conscripted into militias, violence against women seems to have become some sort of a deadly weapon, and rape ranks high in the list of these violations.
We caught up with women who fled to Kenya after being sexually violated, sometimes several times and by mobs. Some of them, now under the care of the charity Médecins Sans Frontières, said they were violated alongside their daughters. Although many have completed treatment for diseases acquired as a result of the violations, they continue to present with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the mental wounds that have refused to heal.
Most of the women seeking treatment at MSF are, not surprisingly, from DR Congo, which has particularly gained notoriety for the mass rape of women and girls, earning itself the title Rape Capital of the World. But there are also a significant number from Burundi and Rwanda. Congo is reported by the United Nations as having as many as 1.8 million rape victims.
At least 48 women are raped every hour in the DRC, especially in the eastern province of South Kivu, which is still beset by persistent flare-ups of conflict. Of these, 13 per cent are under 14 years of age, three per cent die as a result of rape, and 10 to 12 per cent contract HIV/Aids.
Kidnappings, sexual slavery, gang rapes and forced marriages are common, and all go largely unpunished. Here, survivors share their horrifying stories. All the names have been changed in order to protect their identities
SAZI: It went on for too long I got tired of fighting the men off
The first thing that catches your eye when you first meet Sazi, 19, is her youthful innocence that borders on naiveté. As she settles down for the interview, she drops the vibrantly coloured khanga that she had wrapped around her body to reveal two things; a stub of a right hand that is freshly bandaged, and a bulging belly courtesy of the baby growing inside her, the last which explains the worn-out, exhausted demeanor about her.
Her forearm was amputated a week ago after multiple cuts on her fingers and hand during captivity developed into septicemia. With her left hand she fumbles to retrieve a picture of her once festering hand. It was grossly swollen to the size of a tiny head, and badly ulcerated. A ghastly sight.
Sazi’s is a sad but brave story of wartime sexual slavery in her home country, DR Congo, which has been mired in conflict for more than two decades now. For a period of four months she knew nothing but a life of intense and horrific brutality.
“I am from Uvira, a town in South Kivu Province, eastern Congo. We were asleep one cold night in September 2014 when we were roused by the noise of gunshots outside our house.
“The shooters were militias. They forced their way into our house and got us out; my father, uncle, cousin and I. They had shot people dead right outside our compound, but we were taken as hostages. We counted ourselves lucky.
“However, later that night both my uncle and cousin were killed in front of me near a river and their bodies thrown into the raging waters. The group split up and my father and I were separated. They took me to their camp, and I still don’t know what happened to my father.”
Sazi was locked up in a tiny room, where she was constantly raped by the militia. The rape went on day and night, the men abusing her body and soul. “The militia would do whatever they wanted with me. If they felt like they wanted to have me outside in the open they would drag me out of the room and take me outside. And they would take turns doing it. Continuously. By different men. It got to a point where I trained my consciousness to just zone out every time they started.
“Every time I tried to fight them off they would beat me. Several times they cut my fingers at the joints but would not quite let the finger fall off. Then someone would take me to the hospital to have the wounds treated,” she narrates amid sniffles, and spectacularly manages to fight back tears.
“It was during one of those trips to the hospital that one of the militia who I think just pitied me decided to give me an opportunity to run. I went hitching rides from anybody who was kind enough to help, from Bukavu through Goma to Uganda, from where I came to Kenya.
“I knew my younger brother was here in Nairobi, but I had no idea whether I had other surviving relatives.”
Sazi was lucky to find some Congolese who helped locate her brother. She says the joy of reuniting with a relative was untold.
“When I arrived here I had all my fingers intact but my hand was as good as dead. It was rotten. It was so painful I couldn’t sleep, but someone directed me to a place where I could access medical assistance.
“My problems seem to be far from over, though. My brother has disappeared and left me in the tiny single room I found him living in. I have called him and tried to plead with him to return but he says I am a burden; that he cannot take care of me.”
Sazi, who is just learning to do things with her left hand, begins to crumble into the tragic expression of suppressed sobbing, before the torrent of tears inevitably bursts forth. We have to take a break as a psychotherapist takes charge.
When she is calmer, she continues: “I am pregnant with a beast’s baby. I was raped by faceless people with guns and machetes.”
The conversation on what happens to the baby once it is born has already begun with her counsellor at Médicins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). Even though she doesn’t seem convinced herself, she says: “I have the option of giving up the baby for adoption, but I think I will keep it. Well, that is what I feel right now because, to tell you the truth, I have had very conflicting voices in my head on what to do about it.
“It is a constant internal battle that I have lived with every waking day, in fact when I first came to MSF I asked them to abort it but they refused as the pregnancy was too advanced. So they told me if I wanted, I could give up the baby for adoption, but right now I feel like the right thing to do is to keep the baby.”
MERVILLE: Thank God they did not harm my child
January 17 and March 11, 2015 are two days that will remain forever etched in Merveille’s memory. A political and women’s rights activist from Kinshasa, Congo, the 28-year-old occasionally released reports and organised protests condemning President Joseph Kabila’s government for its failure to prevent sexual violence in the country.
On January 17, she had just presented the findings of a survey on rape by security operatives in the Eastern Province of Congo when, in the evening as she left the meeting and headed to a bus station on the way home, she was intercepted by security officers.
“It was around 6pm. One of the men just grabbed me and ordered me to be quiet as he dragged me into the black jeep that had screeched by. Inside were three other men. I was blindfolded, and all I remember is them saying that they had to rush to some place. Everything else is a blur. I think I was drugged.
“When I came to, it was dark and cold. I realised I was by the roadside somewhere and I was in very great pain. I felt like my private parts had been shredded to bits. I was bleeding, and I didn’t have any of my possessions.”
She was found by a bread vendor who helped her contact her family and get a taxi to hospital. As a result of the rape, she got pregnant but miscarried two months into the pregnancy.
Then, one day she was in the house with her mother and five-year-old daughter when the house-help came in and said some people in uniform looking for her.
“I knew it wasn’t safe for me to just present myself to them because I had been consistently threatened, so I fled with my daughter through the back door,” she says. “I later learnt that they had taken my mum and the maid as hostages and carried all my work stuff; computers, cameras, flash disks and reports.”
She sought sanctuary in Goma, where she met some of her friends and activist colleagues, whom she joined in a street protest for women rights on March 11. It is here, she thinks, where she was spotted by her trailers.
That evening as she was getting ready for bed, someone knocked on the door of her hotel room.
“I thought it was hotel service, but when I opened the door I was shocked to find some hulking men. They were in a uniform that I had never seen before. They cautioned: ‘You should not scream’ and carried me and my five-year-old daughter to a decrepit building, where they interrogated me and said they wanted all the material that I had collected as evidence for bribery allegations I had made in my report against police officers.
“When I said the files had already been collected from my house by other officers, they beat me and told me that, as an activist for women’s rights, I would now know what was in store for me.
“The first man undressed, ripped my dress off and had his way with me. The other three followed. After they were done they said they would kill me,” Merveille stutters, chodking on a sob. After many convulsive gasps, she continues:
“I can’t be sure, but I think they were eight in total. They raped me over and over as my daughter watched and cried. She was terrified. I offered some money for them to stop but they smirked at me. They took turns doing it from around 11pm to 3pm the following day.
“They wanted to rape my daughter but then I begged them and told them to rape me all they wanted instead. By the grace of God they did not touch her. It is an experience I cannot describe. It gives me headaches just thinking about it. I wish I could switch it off.”
The security operatives who confronted her said she was arming the country with the information to destabilise the ruling government, and they had been sent to eliminate her.
“One of the men left to guard me accepted the $150 (Sh15,150) I gave him to ‘buy my life’,” she reveals. The man, however, warned her that she had to disappear from the country and never return so she would be assumed to be dead, lest she put their lives in danger. And that is how she was able to escape. Hiking rides from Goma through Rwanda and Uganda to Kenya.
“I had ulcerations on my private parts. I would see blood whenever I tried to clean myself. But there was no time to go to the hospital. I imagined I was being followed all the time. I had to get to Nairobi fast,” she says.
She got to Nairobi on March 17 but could not get treatment anywhere without money because she did not have refugee status. In Nairobi, she was able to trace fellow Congolese who took her in and referred her to MSF, where she got treatment for gonorrhea and was linked to NGOs working with women in her situation for subsistence. But because their assistance is temporary, since April Merveille has had no money and survives on hand outs from well-wishers.
She and her daughter are still undergoing counselling at the facility. She, however, says she is still unable to sleep, and often experiences flashbacks.
NTAHOMBAYE: All because I married into ‘wrong’ tribe
Because she was Tutsi and her husband Hutu, 40-year-old Ntahombaye was persecuted by her community. Her neighbours had warned her several times against staying in a marriage with a “non-tribe”.
“‘Leave your husband and marry a Tutsi,’ they would tell me. At first it sounded ridiculous, but then I realised how serious they were when they warned me that if I didn’t leave him, they would kill him.”
The couple owned businesses in Jungwe in the province of Bururi, Burundi. They were doing well, and the man was a well-known supporter of the Opposition. The first blow was the killing of their son in September 2011 at a boarding school that he attended not far from home. Then one night in April 2012, as they slept, a wild group broke into their home and dragged her husband from the bed to the compound, beat him up with farm tools and left him for dead.
So severely injured was he they thought he was dead when they left. A friend took him to the national hospital, but a day later, a mob went looking for him in hospital. Luckily, he was tipped off by a doctor friend, who also helped him escape.
Meanwhile, back home his wife and children had already fled and their adversaries set their shops, farms, cars and everything they owned ablaze.
“We walked through farms until we got to Mbizi market and spent the night there. It was the rainy season and a Good Samaritan who pitied us took us to a tiny grass-thatched hut, where we lived for four months,” she recalls.
“One day in August I was going to relieve myself early in the morning when someone grabbed me as I stepped out of the door and told me if I yelled, he would shoot me. He told me to call out my daughters, and he and his colleagues took us to a police station. Two were in uniform and four others were in civilian clothes. They said the people from Lumonge against whom we had transgressed were waiting there to charge us.
“It all happened at the station. For a whole week. The superiors started and then the others followed. Those on night shift violated us during the day and those coming in at night would do it overnight, on the floor, as they derided us. They’d tell my daughters that they were impure and ask: ‘You are neither Hutu nor Tutsi… now, what tribe are you?’” she recalls, tears welling up in her eyes.
Her 19- and 20-year-old daughters with whom she was assaulted sit calmly by her side. They are more held together. All of them intimately know the details of what happened to each one of them because they were made to stand there and watch it all.
The Good Samaritan who had housed them appealed for their release and helped them flee, on foot, to Mugina at the border of Burundi and Tanzania, from where they got news of their father in Nairobi and moved on to Kenya to reunite with him. He had been in Kenya since August 2012.
Having fallen ill due to hunger and cold, Ntahombaye miscarried a baby she had conceived from the ordeal. She had been bleeding for days before they arrived in Nairobi, where she got treatment.
“But just as I was healing, I was attacked in October 2014 at my house in Kayole by some men speaking Kiswahili with a Burundian accent. They raped me, and then returned in November and repeated it.”
She experiences anal bleeding as a result of the sexual violations and is suspected to have rectal prolapse, a condition in which the rectum loses its normal attachments inside the body, allowing it to slip out. Going to the toilet is a nightmare for her.
She was asked to leave the last hospital she was referred to by MSF when it was suspected she had cancer. For now, she lies in bed at home, hoping that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will expedite her application for refugee status so that she can access the treatment she so badly needs.