What it’s like to cover ‘unbearable’ stories of rape in Congo

By — February 7, 2012

It's been less than a year since photojournalist Lynsey Addario returned from Libya, where soldiers loyal to Muammar Gaddafi sexually abused her during six days in captivity. I interviewed Addario just after she returned, and her honesty and stated intention of “shaming the Libyans” for what had been done to her evinced a remarkable personal strength. When I asked her recently to write about what it was like to cover one of the most horrific conflicts ongoing in the world right now—in the ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo—Addario didn’t hesitate to say openly of how painful this work has been for her. The following are her words. –Lauren Wolfe

I first traveled to the DRC in 2006 with New York Times correspondent Lydia Polgreen. Eastern Congo at the time was rife with fighting between government and rebel soldiers, and as with most conflicts, civilians were paying the price. Hundreds of thousands of civilians had been displaced from their villages in the east and were living in overcrowded camps across the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu. Attacks from both government and rebel soldiers left millions dead, and a countless number of Congolese women sexually assaulted in gross, inhuman ways.

Lwange, 51, with her daughter, Florida, who had been raped the week before this photo was taken in 2008. The child had screamed at the time, then bled. With her vagina and her young psyche damaged, Florida would no longer speak.

Lwange, 51, with her daughter, Florida, who had been raped the week before this photo was taken in 2008. The child had screamed at the time, then bled. With her vagina and her young psyche damaged, Florida would no longer speak. (Lynsey Addario/VII)

Rape as a weapon of war was rampant in Congo. Soldiers raped women to mark their territory, to destroy family bonds (women were often ostracized from their families once they were raped), and to show their power and intimidate civilians. They gang-raped women—they used their weapons to tear them apart, causing internal tears resulting in fistula—and they forced the families of the victims to watch gang rapes in progress. The stories were unbearable, and the more testimonies I heard during interviews, the more angry and sad I became. As a photojournalist, I felt there was very little I could do for the women in the DRC but record their stories, and hope there would be some way to change the pattern in the future through awareness.

I returned to the DRC in 2007 to continue documenting the conflict, and in 2008, I was given a grant by the Columbia College of Chicago: Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media to document gender-based violence and rape as a weapon of war for a traveling exhibition called “Congo Women.” The funds raised by the exhibition would go toward helping women in the DRC get surgery to repair fistula injuries.

I spent two weeks in early 2008 traversing North and South Kivu, interviewing women victims of sexual assault, photographing them, and recording their stories. Their stories were heartbreaking—some longer and more detailed, others brief and stunted by trauma.

I was surprised by how many women agreed to speak openly about their traumatic experiences with the mere hope that it might help others avoid rape and seek treatment for physical injuries in the future. Some women spoke about how they had become infected with HIV after they were assaulted; others spoke about how their husbands left them when they learned their wife had been raped; some women spoke about how they were abducted and kept as sex slaves for up to several years—and made to bear children of their rapists—before eventually being let go. I didn’t meet a single women in all my interviews who felt resentment toward their child born out of rape and violence: It amazed me that all the women had the maturity and heart to love their children regardless of the circumstances out of which they were born.

By the time I finished my two weeks photographing portraits and recording testimonies, I was completely devastated and depressed. I was openly weeping during interviews, and felt like I couldn’t process all the hatred and violence toward women I was bearing witness to. I felt inadequate and helpless as a journalist: Rape as a weapon of war started long before I came along in the DRC, and would sadly continue for long after. But all the women and girls I met were a testament to the strength of women to persevere in the face of evil, and continue to be an inspiration to me today.

(Click here to read Women Under Siege's analysis of how sexualized violence is used as a weapon of war in Congo.)

Lynsey Addario is an American photojournalist based in London, where she photographs for The New York Times, National Geographic, and Time Magazine. Her recent bodies of work include “Veiled Rebellion,” a photo essay exploring the lives of women in Afghanistan for National Geographic, maternal mortality in Sierra Leone for Time Magazine, and “Talibanistan,” and “Battle Company Is Out There,” documenting both sides of the war in Afghanistan and the Taliban in Pakistan for The New York Times Magazine. Addario has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the MacArthur Fellowship, or “Genius Grant,” in 2009.