16 Days of Activism: a multiple rape victim faces uncertain future

Mathilde fled to Rwanda in May to escape fighting in eastern Congo, where she had been raped. Abandoned by her husband, she feels isolated.

Mathilde sits in her tent in Kigeme refugee camp with her three children.  © UNHCR/F.Noy

KIGEME, Rwanda, December 10 (UNHCR) - Amid all the statistics of massive population displacement in eastern Congo, the suffering of individuals - especially women like multiple rape victim Mathilde - tends to get glossed over. The current 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence (November 25-December 10) focuses our minds at UNHCR on the human rights abuses against forcibly displaced women in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Mathilde, whose real name cannot be given for protection reasons, is now living with her three children in the Kigeme refugee camp in Rwanda's Southern province. She was abandoned by her husband after they fled to Rwanda in May to escape the fighting in DRC's North Kivu province between government troops and the rebel M23 movement and not long after she was raped by militiamen.

It was not the first time the 24-year-old woman had been sexually violated in her home province, where rape has become a daily occurrence in some areas as well as a weapon of war. These attacks had affected her health and she was also unable to have normal sexual relations - Mathilde thinks this is why her husband left. Rape is also regarded as a stigma in the region.

Mathilde feels isolated in the camp, where she is surrounded by people from a different ethnic group. She cannot speak the local language, Kinyarwanda, and she relies totally on UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations for general help, food, vital medical treatment and psychiatric counselling.

But at least she is now safer in Rwanda at a time when UNHCR continues to receive appalling reports - linked to the latest fighting - of sexual violence across the border, including the rape of 72 women in the South Kivu town of Minova. Mathilde recently talked to UNHCR's Senior Donor Relations Officer Céline Schmitt about her ordeal.

Mathilde's Story:

I fled from Bihambwe [in North Kivu] in May 2012. My mother was killed in 1993 because of her ethnicity. I was just a child and my father, who was from another ethnic group to my mother, sent me to stay with his friend in Goma [the capital of North Kivu province] and study.

When I was in 6th Grade, I returned to visit my father during the summer holiday. I was with two friends one day and we were walking in the fields when we saw armed men from one of the rebel groups. They captured some of the girls and began raping them. I tried to flee but they shot me in the legs, arms and stomach and I fell down. Two men came and raped me as I lay wounded.

I was treated at the hospital in Masisi town and eventually returned to Goma. I looked for a husband and ended up marrying a man who was an orphan. I did not tell him that I had been raped. My first child is four years old and the others are almost two and one.

My brothers were not happy that I married a man from a different ethnic group and said they would kill him. We fled to Kaniro [in North Kivu's Masisi territory] and felt safe there. But then one of my brothers showed up with friends in the Mai Mai militia. They tied my husband to a chair, gagged him and raped me in front of him and my children. They told my husband to return to Rwanda.

I was taken by the militiamen and they raped me every day for a week. Then I managed to escape and made my way to Bihambo, where I found my husband and asked him to pardon me for having been raped. He did.

Just after the fighting with the M23 started [in Masisi in April], we fled to Rwanda. I explained my problem to UNHCR staff in Nkamira transit camp. I was ashamed and I felt ill.

We were transported to Kigeme and I had terrible pains in my stomach. The doctors said I had an infection. It was very painful. I received drugs but I could not have sexual relations and my husband left. It's my first time in Rwanda and I cannot speak Kinyarwanda - I can't cope, I can't work in the fields.

But I cannot go back to Congo with the kids. If I return they will be killed...

My children don't eat the cornflour that we receive. My oldest daughter, Patricia [aged two], has problems. She has a big belly, there's a problem with her eye... I don't have enough clothes for my children.

There are some psychologists in the camp who help me. UNHCR gave us a tent, sleeping mats, blankets and cooking pans, but it is not enough. I know that there is not much future for me, but it's different for my children. They are small.

When I wake up in the morning, I clean the house, I dress the young ones, I prepare the food and I wash the clothes. And the day finishes like that. I can't sleep because of my problems. I don't know if my husband will return. If he comes back, I will welcome him because he is my husband. My brother called him on his mobile phone after we got here and threatened to kill him. Perhaps that's why he fled.

By Céline Schmitt in Kigeme, Rwanda

  • Furaha is bedridden in her home, a tent in the camp of Kigeme. Today, she does not feel well and it is raining outside. ”My head is aching and I have fever,” she says. The medicine prescribed for her is too expensive. She lives with her two children and has suffered a lot.
    Furaha is bedridden in her home, a tent in the camp of Kigeme. Today, she does not feel well and it is raining outside. ”My head is aching and I have fever,” she says. The medicine prescribed for her is too expensive. She lives with her two children and has suffered a lot.  © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • Yvonne, aged 18, blows on live embers before cooking a meal in her shelter in Rwanda's Kigeme camp. She is a refugee but she has been attending classes to prepare her for the Rwandan curriculum. She's experienced a lot of unpleasant things, including the trauma of flight, but she remains hopeful about the future.
    Yvonne, aged 18, blows on live embers before cooking a meal in her shelter in Rwanda's Kigeme camp. She is a refugee but she has been attending classes to prepare her for the Rwandan curriculum. She's experienced a lot of unpleasant things, including the trauma of flight, but she remains hopeful about the future.  © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • Agnes sits among her seven children in the Mugunga III site for internally displaced people in Democratic Republic of the Congo's North Kivu province. She was shot in the hip when fleeing her home five years ago and this affects her movement. Her husband was killed while out trying to get food. Agnes begs for extra cash in nearby Goma.
    Agnes sits among her seven children in the Mugunga III site for internally displaced people in Democratic Republic of the Congo's North Kivu province. She was shot in the hip when fleeing her home five years ago and this affects her movement. Her husband was killed while out trying to get food. Agnes begs for extra cash in nearby Goma. © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • Sani is certainly old, but possibly not as much as the 116 years she claims. A lot has happened to Democratic Republic of Congo during her long lifetime, much of it traumatic. She stays in Mugunga III with her granddaughter. One of her daughters stops by each day with food.
    Sani is certainly old, but possibly not as much as the 116 years she claims. A lot has happened to Democratic Republic of Congo during her long lifetime, much of it traumatic. She stays in Mugunga III with her granddaughter. One of her daughters stops by each day with food.  © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • Zelda, aged 59, is a woman of immense resilience. She has been living with disability but still makes her way around Mugunga III in a wheelchair. She lives in the camp with her nieces and longs to go home to Rutshuru territory in North Kivu.
    Zelda, aged 59, is a woman of immense resilience. She has been living with disability but still makes her way around Mugunga III in a wheelchair. She lives in the camp with her nieces and longs to go home to Rutshuru territory in North Kivu.  © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • The exhausted Izabayo holds her daughter in the reception tent in the Nyakabande Transit Centre. The 25-year-old new arrival was given a sleeping mat, blankets, soap, cup, plates and a range of other assistance. She was waiting to be given room in a tent with her two children.
    The exhausted Izabayo holds her daughter in the reception tent in the Nyakabande Transit Centre. The 25-year-old new arrival was given a sleeping mat, blankets, soap, cup, plates and a range of other assistance. She was waiting to be given room in a tent with her two children. © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • Sixty-five-year-old Madarina and one of her granddaughters in the Kisoro district office of the Potters Village non-governmental organization. The old woman's daughter had just died giving birth to a baby boy, who will be looked after by Potters Village while UNHCR seeks a solution. Nobody knows where the boy's father is. Emmanuel at least still has two young sisters and Madarina, but the old lady is unable to look after the boy at this time.
    Sixty-five-year-old Madarina and one of her granddaughters in the Kisoro district office of the Potters Village non-governmental organization. The old woman's daughter had just died giving birth to a baby boy, who will be looked after by Potters Village while UNHCR seeks a solution. Nobody knows where the boy's father is. Emmanuel at least still has two young sisters and Madarina, but the old lady is unable to look after the boy at this time. © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • Fura cannot remember when she was not an internally displaced person. The mother of six poses outside her current home in Mugunga III, Democratic Republic of the Congo. She belongs to a group of women who make briquettes for fuel to cook in the camp, which avoids the need to go outside and risk being raped in their search for firewood.
    Fura cannot remember when she was not an internally displaced person. The mother of six poses outside her current home in Mugunga III, Democratic Republic of the Congo. She belongs to a group of women who make briquettes for fuel to cook in the camp, which avoids the need to go outside and risk being raped in their search for firewood.  © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • Muhombo, a 55-year-old widow, sits in her tent. In March this year, she fled for the second time in less than a year to find safety in Mugunga III. Last year, her husband, son and daughter-in-law were killed in an armed attack on her village and she was badly injured. She said life was difficult as an IDP looking after four grandchildren. “I wish that peace returns so that I can go home,”she said.
    Muhombo, a 55-year-old widow, sits in her tent. In March this year, she fled for the second time in less than a year to find safety in Mugunga III. Last year, her husband, son and daughter-in-law were killed in an armed attack on her village and she was badly injured. She said life was difficult as an IDP looking after four grandchildren. “I wish that peace returns so that I can go home,”she said.  © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • A young Congolese refugee mother sews school uniforms under an income-generating programme in Rwanda's Kiziba camp. These activities are important to help women become self-sufficient. In Kiziba, about 70 refugees take part in handicrafts, gardening, textile colouring, tailoring, cooking and hairdressing projects.
    A young Congolese refugee mother sews school uniforms under an income-generating programme in Rwanda's Kiziba camp. These activities are important to help women become self-sufficient. In Kiziba, about 70 refugees take part in handicrafts, gardening, textile colouring, tailoring, cooking and hairdressing projects.  © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • Edith, a vulnerable IDP in Mugunga III camp. She has health problems and lives with her three children. She is also a member of the women's group that makes briquettes for cooking fires but can only attend their sessions once every other day. Still, it helps her pay for her children to go to school sporadically.
    Edith, a vulnerable IDP in Mugunga III camp. She has health problems and lives with her three children. She is also a member of the women's group that makes briquettes for cooking fires but can only attend their sessions once every other day. Still, it helps her pay for her children to go to school sporadically. © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • A young woman, Louise, waits for customers in a cooperative restaurant in Kiziba camp.  The facility was opened with the help of UNHCR partner, AVSI, to help people become self-sufficient. Seven refugees run the business and AVSI also gave them cooking equipment and furniture.
    A young woman, Louise, waits for customers in a cooperative restaurant in Kiziba camp. The facility was opened with the help of UNHCR partner, AVSI, to help people become self-sufficient. Seven refugees run the business and AVSI also gave them cooking equipment and furniture.  © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • This woman cooks in the kitchen of the cooperative restaurant. She comes from Kanyabayonga in North Kivu and fled in 1996, when she was five years old. She came with her father and siblings, but her mother was killed during the war. “I don't want to go back there," she says.
    This woman cooks in the kitchen of the cooperative restaurant. She comes from Kanyabayonga in North Kivu and fled in 1996, when she was five years old. She came with her father and siblings, but her mother was killed during the war. “I don't want to go back there," she says.  © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • These young women are part of a dance troupe set up in Kiziba camp to fight the scourge of sexual violence. Such activities keep them occupied and help them learn new skills.
    These young women are part of a dance troupe set up in Kiziba camp to fight the scourge of sexual violence. Such activities keep them occupied and help them learn new skills.  © UNHCR/F.Noy