The forgotten emergency: How women are bearing the atrocities of war in Congo

Justin Byworth
congo 300x225 The forgotten emergency: How women are bearing the atrocities of war in Congo

A woman covers her face as she describes her rape in Congo (Getty Images)

Warning: Readers may find the following account of rape upsetting

“They came in the night. They encircled our homes. Anyone who ran was shot dead. They bound up my husband… then they raped me. Three men. I was heavily pregnant.”

So began the brave tale of a resilient woman as she shared how the horror of war in the Congo has blighted her life, as it has done for thousands of women and girls like her.

“I was left for dead. I never saw my husband or our three children again,” she tells me. “I don’t know where they are. They must be dead. Some survivors came back for me. I was unconscious and they carried me through the forest to a safe place. My baby came out but couldn’t survive. My birth canal and my back passage had ruptured and I lost so much blood.”

It was hard even to hear her speak of such abominations of humanity, to hold her determined, steady gaze as she paused from time to time to wipe her eyes. How unimaginably difficult to live through it, to rebuild your life and to tell your story to give hope to others.

I will call her Mjasiri, meaning “brave” in Swahili, as we cannot share her true name in case it puts her at risk. She is now safe but our partners Heal Africa tell us that one of their centres was recently attacked after one of the women became known for speaking out against violence to women.

Mjasiri said after arriving here she’d received medical care, food, shelter and love. “I smelt so bad I couldn’t go anywhere”, she tells me. “I went for one operation but they couldn’t repair my fistula. Then a second. Then a third. I’ve had five operations altogether and although I’m still not fully healed, I can now go out and live a more normal life.”

Her friend Nguvu* at the centre tells us how she was raped in another attack, her mother and brother killed in front of her, leaving her with no family and a hysterectomy meaning that she’ll never have children.

They both had a message – and a truly humbling one: “We rejoice that there are people out there who care about us. God bless the people who have helped us rebuild our lives. There are many others who need this help. Don’t forget us.”  The future for Mjasiri and Nguvu is still uncertain, despite the medical, psychological, educational and practical support that they’ve had here over the last few years. Both tell me it’s not safe to go home and the challenges of making new homes and reintegrating into communities are made even harder by the stigma attached to sexual violence here.

What’s taken place in Goma and eastern Congo over the past 15 or so years can be told through countless stories like Mjasiri’s. Or through statistics with over five million dead. The horror is so uncomfortable to witness, hear, write or read that it can be numbing. The complexity of the causes and the struggle to find solutions to this largest and gravest of the world’s humanitarian emergencies compounds this. Yet, surely if Mjasiri is brave enough to share her story, then the world should be brave enough to listen and do something about this all too often forgotten emergency.

*All names have been changed

Justin Byworth is the Chief Executive of World Vision UK in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo

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  • Bruce Wilson

    Given that World Vision works with governments that have helped create and perpetuate the DR Congo’s horrific human rights situation, by funding and supporting proxy militias operating in the Congo, as well as having launched the 1998-2003 war that caused the millions of civilian deaths Mr. Byworth refers to, I have to ask — is this op-ed really just an effort to expiate a guilty conscience ?

    Unless the underlying structural causes that lead to the horrific rape showcased in the op-ed are exposed, isn’t this just an exercise in pointless hand wringing ? And lastly, what of the great Christian prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power ? Yes, the situation in the DR Congo is indeed “complex”, but the underlying realities are in fact brutally simple.

    If World Vision gathered its moral courage and spoke to the underlying causes, there would be ramifications. So, like most NGOs in the region, it doesn’t speak to the underlying causes – and thus the human rights atrocities continue. Some might even go so far as to say that World Vision is a net beneficiary of the ongoing human rights disaster, which creates traumatized survivors, clients who need assistance and who can be evangelized. I hardly think Jesus would have approved.

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