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The Congolese rape victims a UNHCR officer will never forget

Telling the Human Story, 3 September 2009

© MONUC/Marie Frechon
A mother carries her children in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Forcibly displaced women face grave threats and abuse in the volatile region.

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, September 3 (UNHCR) There's a war going on in the heart of Africa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where more than 5 million people have died in the past decade. The numbers keep rising: it's the deadliest conflict since World War II, drawing attention when important delegations visit, then disappearing again from front pages.

After almost two years, I will soon be leaving this challenging, interesting mission. But I will not forget the sad and determined eyes of the Congolese rape victims I met in the eastern DRC. Women are among the most common targets of this hidden war and rape is the weapon used to destroy them, their families and whole communities.

Our field and protection staff work many hours per day helping victims of sexual violence through counselling and awareness-raising projects in a very difficult and dangerous environment. There were more than 60 incidents of violence against humanitarian staff in the first half of 2009 with more occurring in recent weeks.

A lot of attention has been focused on the victims recently with the visit to Africa by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. This will help transmit to the world their pain, both psychological and physical, but the first step should be the DRC government enforcing the existing law.

A routine media question is about the number of rapes; a high number makes a dramatic story. According to UN figures, the number of women violated in the first six months of this year in the eastern DRC is 3,500. It is just an estimate as most of the fighting and rapes take place in remote areas.

But rape is not about numbers each case needs attention. In Europe a single case would be reported in the news, here thousands of women suffer in silence.

In my conversations with victims, I hear the details. Some were raped like animals, one after another; others were forced to be slaves of armed groups and raped every day for months. The women are of all ages, from eight years to the very old.

When they are finally released or escape, they have nothing and are often rejected by their families. I wondered why they told me the details, but I could feel it help in the healing even if I could not imagine the ways in which they were hurt. I saw the call for help in their eyes and knew I had to use UNHCR to make their voices heard.

There may be little justice in Congo, but there are organizations trying to help rape survivors recover. Women for Women International, a UNHCR partner, teaches reading and writing, or how to make soap or cook to earn money. For many women, it is the first time they have been in a classroom their chance for a new life. The activities may seem modest, but it is helping these women to rebuild self-confidence.

It's hard to imagine this violence amid the breathtaking natural beauty and abundance of the Kivus region of DRC. But, unfortunately, terrified people are as common a feature as the lush green valleys, glistening coffee plantations and jagged blue volcanoes.

By Francesca Fontanini in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo




DR Congo Crisis: Urgent Appeal

Intense fighting has forced more than 64,000 Congolese to flee the country in recent months.

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Human Misery in Katanga Province's Triangle of Death

People in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Katanga province have long referred to the region between the towns of Manono, Mitwaba and Pweto as the "triangle of death." Despite the presence of UN peace-keepers and government military successes in other parts of the country, the situation in the resources-rich Katanga has been getting worse over the past two years. Conflict between a secessionist militia group and the government and between the Luba (Bantu) and Twa (Pygmy) ethnic groups has left thousands dead and forcibly displaced more than 400,000 people since 2012, including over 70,000 in the last three months. UNHCR has expressed its "deep concern" about the "catastrophic" humanitarian situation in northern Katanga. The violence includes widescale looting and burning of entire villages and human rights' violations such as murder, mass rape and other sexual violence, and the forced military recruitment of children.

The limited presence of humanitarian and development organizations is a serious problem, leading to insufficient assistance to displaced people who struggle to have access to basic services. There are 28 sites hosting the displaced in northern Katanga and many more displaced people live in host communities. While UNHCR has built some 1,500 emergency shelters since January, more is needed, including access to health care, potable water, food and education. The following striking photographs by Brian Sokol for UNHCR show some of the despair and suffering.

Human Misery in Katanga Province's Triangle of Death

Statelessness Around the World

At least 10 million people in the world today are stateless. They are told that they don't belong anywhere. They are denied a nationality. And without one, they are denied their basic rights. From the moment they are born they are deprived of not only citizenship but, in many cases, even documentation of their birth. Many struggle throughout their lives with limited or no access to education, health care, employment, freedom of movement or sense of security. Many are unable to marry, while some people choose not to have children just to avoid passing on the stigma of statelessness. Even at the end of their lives, many stateless people are denied the dignity of a death certificate and proper burial.

The human impact of statelessness is tremendous. Generations and entire communities can be affected. But, with political will, statelessness is relatively easy to resolve. Thanks to government action, more than 4 million stateless people acquired a nationality between 2003 and 2013 or had their nationality confirmed. Between 2004 and 2014, twelve countries took steps to remove gender discrimination from their nationality laws - action that is vital to ensuring children are not left stateless if their fathers are stateless or unable to confer their nationality. Between 2011 and 2014, there were 42 accessions to the two statelessness conventions - indication of a growing consensus on the need to tackle statelessness. UNHCR's 10-year Campaign to End Statelessness seeks to give impetus to this. The campaign calls on states to take 10 actions that would bring a definitive end to this problem and the suffering it causes.

These images are available for use only to illustrate articles related to UNHCR statelessness campaign. They are not available for archiving, resale, redistribution, syndication or third party licensing, but only for one-time print/online usage. All images must be properly credited UNHCR/photographer's name

Statelessness Around the World

Edwige Deals With Loss by Keeping Busy and Aiding Others in Mole Camp

Edwige Kpomako is a woman in a hurry; but her energy also helps the refugee from Central African Republic (CAR) to cope with the tragedy that forced her to flee to northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) last year. Before violence returned to her country in 2012, the 25-year-old was studying for a Masters in American literature in Bangui, and looking forward to the future. "I started my thesis on the works of Arthur Miller, but because of the situation in CAR . . . ," she said, her voice trailing off. Instead, she had to rush to the DRC with a younger brother, but her fiancée and 10-year old son were killed in the inter-communal violence in CAR.

After crossing the Oubangui River to the DRC, Edwige was transferred to Mole, a camp housing more than 13,000 refugees. In a bid to move on with her life and keep busy, she started to help others, assume a leadership role and take part in communal activities, including the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. She heads the women's committee, is engaged in efforts to combat sexual violence, and acts as a liaison officer at the health centre. She also teaches and runs a small business selling face creams. "I discovered that I'm not weak," said Edwige, who remains optimistic. She is sure that her country will come out of its nightmare and rebuild, and that she will one day become a human rights lawyer helping refugees.

American photojournalist Brian Sokol took these photos.

Edwige Deals With Loss by Keeping Busy and Aiding Others in Mole Camp

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