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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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Batalimo to Batanga and Beyond: Congolese Return Home from CAR

Over the past month, almost 6,300 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have left the Batalimo camp in the troubled Central African Republic and returned voluntarily to their homes in Equateur province. Their decision to go back is a further sign of the gravity of the situation in Central African Republic, where escalated violence since December has left hundreds of thousands internally displaced and forced almost 350,000 to flee to neighbouring countries. The refugees at Batalimo were among some 20,000 Congolese who had fled to the Central African Republic to escape inter-ethnic conflict back home. The return operation from Batalimo had been postponed several times for security and logistical reasons, but on April 10 the first convoy headed across the Oubangui River. The last arrived in the DRC on May 10. The UN refugee agency organized transportation of the refugees from Batalimo to the Central African Republic riverside town of Zinga, where they boarded boats for the crossing to Batanga or Libenge in Equateur province. In Batanga, the returnees were registered, provided with documentation and given a cash grant to help them reintegrate. They were then transported to their villages, where they will be monitored. Photographer Leonora Baumann followed one group back to the DRC.

Batalimo to Batanga and Beyond: Congolese Return Home from CAR

On the Road: UNHCR Transfers Congolese Refugees to A Home in Uganda

In mid-July 2013, thousands of Congolese refugees began pouring over the border from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) into Bundibugyo district in western Uganda. They were fleeing fighting triggered when a Ugandan rebel group, the Allied Democratic Forces, attacked the town of Kamango in DRC's troubled North Kivu province. Many stayed in the mountainous border area, but others gravitated to the Bubukwanga Transit Centre deeper inside Uganda. Here, they were provided with protection and aid by the government, UNHCR and its partners. But the transit centre, with a capacity to hold 12,500 people, was soon overcrowded and people were encouraged to move to Kyangwali Refugee Settlement located 280 kilometres to the north in Hoima District. Since the first convoy left Bubukwanga for Kyangwali on August 14, more than 11,000 people have relocated to the settlement, where they have access to more comprehensive and long-term services. Photographer Michele Sibiloni recently visited Bubukwanga and followed a convoy of refugees as they made their way to the Kyangwali settlement.

On the Road: UNHCR Transfers Congolese Refugees to A Home in Uganda

UNHCR's 2013 Nansen Refugee Award Winner

Sister Angélique Namaika, a Congolese nun who has shown exceptional courage and unwavering support for survivors of violence in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), has been selected as the 2013 winner of UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award.

The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a brutal Ugandan rebel group, has waged a campaign of violence that has uprooted hundreds of thousands of people in north-eastern DRC's Orientale province over the past decade. Many Congolese women and girls have been kidnapped and terrorized.

Sister Angélique has been a beacon of hope for these victims, known for her very personal, one-on-one approach to help survivors move beyond their trauma. Many of the people under her care have been forcibly displaced and subjected to sexual violence.

The brutality of the LRA is notorious and the testimonials of the women Sister Angélique has helped are horrific. Adding to their trauma is the fact that many of the victims are stigmatized by society because of their experience. It takes a special person to help them heal and rebuild their lives.

This Year's Nansen Refugee Award winner has spent the past decade helping women, mostly through a combination of income-generation activities, skills development courses, literacy training and psycho-social counselling. She has made a positive difference to the lives of thousands of individuals, their families and communities.

UNHCR's 2013 Nansen Refugee Award Winner

Our Sister, Our Mother - 2013 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award Laureate
Play video

Our Sister, Our Mother - 2013 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award Laureate

The 2013 winner of UNHCR`s Nansen Refugee Award is Sister Angelique Namaika, who works in the remote north east region of Democratic Republic of the Congo with survivors of displacement and abuse by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). She has helped over 2000 displaced women and girls who have suffered the most awful kidnapping and abuse, to pick up the pieces of their lives and become re-accepted by their communities.
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