Portraits of three women in Congo: Their lives, their rapes, their recovery

By — March 6, 2014

There were so very many stories. Stories of women physically torn apart, leaving stains of urine on chairs from fistula they suffered from violent rape. Stories about sexual enslavement that left teenage girls hysterically crying and unable to finish speaking. Stories of erasure—of women who had been left by their husbands and shunned by their own children because men had raped them.

Over a few weeks in February, I traveled with the Nobel Women’s Initiative through the Democratic Republic of Congo to meet with survivors of sexualized violence and the groups working to help them—as well as with the politicians and UN representatives who are doing varying levels of work to assist and/or hinder the efforts.

During the course of a lunch one day with survivors in Bunia, eastern DRC, I spoke with three particular women about their lives and what changed for them once they were attacked. Next to us sat a 14-year-old girl who held a six-month-old baby born of rape by her own father. At a table nearby sat yet more women with stories equally as abhorrent. Each woman has a lifetime of suffering and recovery and life outside of rape to impart and many of them traveled from far away—up to 48 hours of journeying—to do so.

Most of the survivors of rape I met have no idea where to go for help. They rarely go to the police to report: They usually see zero justice for what was perpetrated against them—so why bother? Either they don’t know the identities of the men who attacked them or the perpetrators are caught and then freed, or even sentenced and serve no time and/or don’t pay damages delineated by a court. There is also the very real issue of community shunning or stigma if word gets out.

Here are the stories of three women whose experiences are deeply personal, yet part of a larger narrative of the brutality against women in Congo. Each story is accompanied with a photograph of a woman in the way she wished to be shown—whether with her face or not.

Eugenie recognizes her rapist

Eugenie is 20 but is shy like a much younger girl—she giggles when you ask whether she wants to get married. Maybe it’s because she’s the youngest of nine children and lives at home in North Kivu, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, with her parents. I try asking her a few basic questions before we talk about what happened to her because I know this is why she has come today to Bunia: to tell her story.

Suddenly, the bashful young woman is explaining what happened to her—as if a bus has kicked up the orange dust of Congo’s Orientale Province, where sit, and we’ve jumped on for anything but the usual route.

In Swahili, Eugenie says through a translator that men in civilian clothes forced their way into her home three years ago and “attacked my family.” Maybe they were bandits, she says she thought at the time, because they stole a bunch of things from the house. Bandits or no, they took more than clothing or a radio from that home that day.

Unlike a number of women I’ve spoken to in Congo, Eugenie does not hesitate to plainly say the words “I was raped,” but adds that at the time that it happened it was “difficult to say that to my mother.”

It took her hours, she says, to realize that she was hurt enough that she needed to tell her mother, who wasn’t home at the time, what had happened. Her father, however, already knew intimately about the attack—he had been tied up in the same room during Eugenie’s rape. She was only 17 at the time.

“I was afraid the act of rape could make me sick or give me diseases,” she says quietly as a way of explaining why she eventually spoke up. She says she wasn’t badly physically injured but she was hurt psychologically. Fortunately, her mother knew about the work of a local organization called SOFEPADI, which has multiple offices across Congo and does psychosocial, legal, and other support work for survivors of sexualized violence.

I ask Eugenie what form justice might take for her.

She touches her forehead and gives a hint of a smile: She’s calling up either a kind of happiness or the absurdity of what actually happened. It turns out she knew her attacker. A group of men were arrested for the raid and, bravely or recklessly, Eugenie says she wanted to see their faces. One—the man who raped her—she recognized. He was maybe 25 or 26 years old at the time and lived in her village. More than that, he was the son of a local chief.

“He had no job,” she says of her attacker, which is a relatively common thread I’ve been hearing about civilian men who rape. Usually they have no work and are alleged to drink or smoke marijuana a lot. “He was doing nothing.”

Police arrested Eugenie’s rapist in December 2011. But after that, she says, she doesn’t know if he escaped from jail or what. Such a lack of follow-up is indicative of the astronomical rates of impunity for rape in Congo. It is exactly this kind of hollow justice that allows men to continue to brutalize women—they know they can get away with it.

“In my village, rape is very common,” she says. “It’s going on all the time—by soldiers and bandits and men who don’t have a job.”

I ask Eugenie how she’s been doing in the years of her recovery since her attack:

“Sometimes when I’m alone I think about being raped, and it’s really painful,” she says. “But then I remember that SOFEPADI taught me to push it away.”

The organization, to which her mother brought her after the rape, has allowed her to feel comfortable denouncing what happened to her. For most women and girls in eastern Congo, she says, it’s extremely difficult to speak publicly.

Eugenie goes on to say that while she no longer sees the chief or his son around the village, she did find out that her attacker raped another woman the very same week as he did her. Even so, she says, she’s okay with him potentially being free in the world.

“I’ve forgiven him,” she says. “For now.”

Jeanne lives daily with the memory of rape

Jeanne, 33, is feeding her three-month-old baby sips of Fanta. Very quietly, with her child in her arms, she tells me her story.

“I was raped by 10 men,” she says.

The attack happened in 2010 in her village outside Bunia, where we are sitting now. Militia members raped her at home and while she knows what group they were with, I am withholding the group’s name for safety reasons. In any case, she doesn’t know where the men are now; there were no arrests. But the violence accompanies her every day of her life.

“I’m wounded,” she says. “I’m in pain. I’m still suffering. It is very difficult to forget.”

In the background—and slowly wailing into the foreground—her child is crying.

Her pain is both psychological (her second husband, whom she was with at the time of the attack, left her because of the rape) and physical (the attack did damage to her vagina).

Jeanne is currently living in a house that belongs to the family of her first husband, who died from illness—“He suffered,” is all she’ll say about him. And while she has a roof over her head, the reality she faces daily is that his family can kick her out at any moment.

She says she is making a tiny amount of money by baking, but really has nothing at all.

“I have no possibilities,” she says.

I ask whether this is hard to talk about with a stranger, and her answer is similar to what many women say when they share such painful stories:

“It’s good,” she says, smiling. “It’s good. I hope to find a solution and get help.” Financial help, she means. I tell her I will share her story and that perhaps the world will care enough to donate to the organization that has helped her—or care enough to do something to stop the never-ending cycle of trauma being perpetrated on women in Congo.

Elali deals with anger

Elali was born in 1973. I’ve found it’s not uncommon here for women not to know their exact birthdates or to be able to calculate their age, but they often know the year of their birth. She has come to Bunia from North Kivu to tell her story.

“I am a victim,” she says.

She was raped one day in October 2013 when she was headed to work in the fields near her house where she was living alone—her husband had disappeared seven years earlier. She explains exhaustedly that she has since had to rebuild her house twice because it keeps collapsing.

In the fields that day, Elali met two men she calls bandits. Beyond that, she chooses not to disclose the details of her attack. Yet like Jeanne, Elali can’t forget for very long what was perpetrated against her—her attack was so extraordinarily recent.

“When I remember what happened, it makes me angry,” she says. “Every time it comes back to me, I remember how I was raped and my husband had left me alone to struggle with caring for my children.”

She has six children, aged 7 to 18 years old. And while SOFEPADI helped her purchase her house, she barely makes a living baking and selling chikwangue, a kind of bread made from cassava, on the streets.

SOFEPADI also “prevented me from getting pregnant and tested me for STDs,” she says.

Unlike the other women I’ve spoken to today, Elali cries before we finish her story. Detailing her memories is visibly painful. I ask if she wants to stop at this point, but before we do she has one more thing she wants to say—that she has dreams of living a life free of the trauma of her rape, liberated from her poverty, able to feed and clothe her kids.

“I hope that it will end one day,” she says as tears quietly stream down her cheeks. “But I don’t know when it will.”

To donate to SOFEPADI, which has assisted these survivors of sexualized violence and many more in the Democratic Republic of Congo, either click here or send a donation through the Nobel Women’s Initiative, which has agreed to pass on donations directly to the organization. For more about the stigmatization of women raped in Congo, click here.