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Churches support victims of rape in DR Congo

RD del Congo
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By Fredrick Nzwili ()

(World Council of Churches Feature) - There is much hope in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that the guns will soon fall silent. But the trail of human rights abuses the combatants leave behind compels the churches to intervene.

For the civilians it may not matter on which frontline they find themselves, says Dismas Kyanza, the Church of Christ in Congo (ECC) emergency officer for North Kivu, since all armed groups are committing atrocities.

"There are the local armed groups, international armies, national armed groups and foreign armies. The national army which is supposed to protect the civilians is also guilty," Kyanza told an international delegation that visited eastern DRC from 8 to 15 July on behalf of the World Council of Churches (WCC). The trip was part of the Living Letters series of visits through which small ecumenical teams visit churches in countries in conflict to listen, learn and show solidarity.

Those needing help are victims of torture, rape, abductions and displacement or even murder, the church officials in the DRC say. The churches have been helping them move beyond their traumatic situations, in some cases providing material, financial and medical support. They also offer some technical training in tailoring or weaving as means for long term support.

When rape as a "weapon of war" came into the picture, it prompted church protests and immediate responses.

"We saw the first case of a woman who had been raped and her organs mutilated in 1999. We had never seen anything like this before. Other cases started coming in soon after," explains Bishop Jean-Luc Kuye Ndondo, the South Kivu president of the Church of Christ in Congo (ECC).

Within 10 years, there have been over 500,000 such cases, according to Dr Denis Mukwege, the founder of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, which specializes in treating women and girls who have become victims of sexual violence.

The perpetrators of these crimes seek to cause as much physical and emotional harm as possible, explains Mukwege, judging by the injuries he has seen and the reports of how they were inflicted on the victims.

"I think they want to destroy the communities," says Mukwege. "They rape in the presence of family members and the village communities."

"In Shabunda, armed men raped a pastor's wife in front of her husband and church members. They then turned on the pastor and molested him in front of the congregation. That was the end of that congregation," adds the doctor.

Stigmatized victims

Many rape cases remain unreported due to stigma, according to ECC officials. Those who commit the abuses know that the women cannot submit to genital examinations afterwards.

Since 2003, the ECC has assisted 23,000 traumatized women through its Centre for Medical and Psycho-Social Assistance (CAMPS).

"The women arrive at the centre needing psychosocial, medical and material support," explains CAMPS national coordinator Justin Kabanga. "Some have arrived pregnant after rape ordeals. Others have gone to the centre having conceived babies after rape. Many of them have tested positive for HIV."

Kabanga says CAMPS starts by helping the women understand what happened to them, discussing the consequences of their situations and helping them re-establish relationships. It reaches out to spouses, families and communities, urging acceptance of the women and raising awareness that the victims are not responsible for their situation.

"The children of rape are also rejected. We make the community understand they are not responsible and they will not be a danger in future," says Kabanga. "Our main objective is to try to repair the damage done by war."

Although CAMPS has been attempting to ensure those women who speak out get some justice from the authorities, all too often these efforts remain without success.

"We have been sensitizing soldiers against raping women," explains Kyanza. "We also ask women to speak out. Sometimes people dare to speak out, and when they do, the responsible soldiers are arrested to face military justice. Unfortunately women don't usually come out."

"The trip was one of those life unsettling experiences. It was the kind of experience that is a challenge to all who go through it, or hear of it, to do something about the new found information," says Elenora Giddings Ivory, the WCC programme director for Public Witness. She was part of the Living Letters delegation that travelled to eastern DRC.

"It is almost incomprehensible what one of God's children can do to another of God's children, when it comes to the brutalization of women. The word rape does not go far enough to depict the actions in east Congo," Giddings Ivory says.

Monica Njoroge, who represented the Fellowship of Councils and Churches in the Great Lakes Region and Horn of Africa (FECCLAHA) on the delegation, says it is very clear that people in the country want peace.

"Observing the suffering of the thousands of Congolese living in camps, listening to the plight of women and children during conflict, and listening to the struggles of service providers, the work is cut out for the Ecumenical family," she says.

Glancing at the mountainous horizons from Bukavu or Goma, the provincial capitals of South and North Kivu respectively, nothing betrays the hidden trail of pain that runs through these hills.

But some, like Françoise Bisobere from the northeastern province of Ituri, have hope in spite of the sufferings.

"In the Ituri war, I lost two children and a leg. While in hospital, my husband abandoned me. I was helped by the church," she says. "I would like to help those who are hurt. I encourage them to take courage."

Fredrick Nzwili is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. He is a correspondent for Ecumenical News International (ENI).

More stories and photos from the Living Letters visit to the DRC:

DRC rape victims' doctor says church must be conscience of world

Dr Denis Mukwege's daily work is to treat victims of sexual violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where armed groups are using rape as a weapon of war.

At Panzi Hospital in Bukavu town he has successfully treated more than 21,000, sometimes doing more than ten surgeries a day. Many women have struggled to reach here after being gang-raped. Some have arrived at the hospital in very bad shape - naked, bleeding and leaking urine. But the doctor's help has given them a new lease on life.

Meet 54-year-old Dr Denis Mukwege, a gynaecologist, the founder of Panzi Hospital. The son of a Pentecostal pastor has said he studied medicine to heal the sick people his father assisted through prayer. The first patients he met were the sick members of his father's congregation.

On 19 July, a World Council of Churches (WCC) delegation to eastern DRC met Mukwege at the hospital, where, apart from treating women, he also trains nurses, obstetricians and doctors in collaboration with international experts.

"I feel bad when I see children, the same age as mine, who have been raped, and [their bodies] have been destroyed, their rectum and sex organs mutilated. This has been done by men who just want to destroy. This affects me as a person," says Mukwege, a father of five children.

He told the delegation that HIV infections and other illnesses were on the rise, complicating life for poor people who cannot afford health care.

"When you look at it, and you can see there is no end, you have seen it for more than 10 years, when you have talked to those who can stop it, and you hear them talk about other issues, it hurts," he adds.

Mukwege wants the church to speak out strongly on behalf of the victims of violence.

"It is nearly ten years since the world started coming here. They see, they cry. They promise to do something, they go and they forget. That's the world," says Mukwege. "When the world keeps quiet, the church cannot afford to. The church is supposed to be different. If it makes noise, at the end the world would listen."

In 2008, the doctor won three awards, the Swedish Olof Palme Prize, the African of the Year award and the UN Human Rights Prize.

Opinions expressed in WCC Features do not necessarily reflect WCC policy. This material may be reprinted freely, providing credit is given to the author.

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