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Rape, brutality ignored to aid Congo peace

By Jeff Koinange
CNN

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About 10 sexual abuse victims a day are brought to the hospital, which has only one doctor.

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Democratic Republic of Congo
Sex Crimes

BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of Congo (CNN) -- At a makeshift recreation center at a hospital here in eastern Congo, about 500 women surround one of their own, who's lying on the floor.

She clutches a cane as she struggles to get up. The women begin singing, slowly at first and then the song picks up momentum. Before long the young woman lifts herself, drops the cane and begins to walk around the room as if in a trance, singing and clapping. The other women clap along with her as the singing gets louder and louder.

The young woman's name is Tintsi and she's barely 20 years old. She arrived at the hospital three weeks ago on a stretcher carried by relatives who walked 100 miles to get here. Doctors weren't sure Tintsi would ever walk again.

Tintsi, like everyone else in this room, is a victim of the worst kind of sexual violation imaginable. (Watch rape victims try to rebuild their lives -- 5:38)

"Some of them have knives and other sharp objects inserted in them after they've been raped, while others have pistols shoved into their vaginas and the triggers pulled back," said Dr. Denis Mukwege Mukengere, the lone physician at the hospital. "It's a kind of barbarity that only savages are capable of."

He added that "these perpetrators cannot be human beings."

The alleged perpetrators are men in uniform, part of the Congolese army. These troops are a compilation of various militia groups that had been fighting each other for years until a truce was reached two years ago.

A recent report by the United Nations found that Congo's own soldiers were responsible for the nearly seven dozen complaints of crimes and human rights violations over the past two months. Among the crimes committed were extrajudicial executions, disappearances, rapes and brutal beatings, according to the U.N. report.

'I wish they'd killed me'

Tintsi turns to the other victims standing near her and says in a soft, but defiant voice, "They can take away my womanhood, but they'll never be able to break my spirit."

Some women nod, others shake their heads. Some weep openly.

Also in the room is 28-year-old Henriette Nyota. Her spirit is all but broken. Three years ago, she said, she was gang raped as her husband and four children were forced to watch. The men in uniform then disemboweled her husband and continued raping her and her two oldest daughters, 10 and 8. The assault went on for three days.

"I wish they'd killed me right there with my husband," she said, "What use am I now? Why did those animals leave me to suffer like this?"

Nineteen-year-old Nzigire bears the result of repeated sexual violations -- her year-old daughter, Ester. The teenager acknowledges she often contemplates putting an end to what she calls a death sentence.

"I sometimes feel like killing myself and my daughter," she said. "I look at her and all I see is them. I look at myself and all I see is misery."

'Only revenge can make me forget'

Misery permeates this tiny hospital in this huge country the size of Western Europe. Last year there were more than 4,000 reported rape cases in this province alone, or about 12 a day, officials say.

And it's not just women who are being raped; so are some men with equally devastating consequences.

Fifteen-year-old Olivier was sitting down to dinner with his family when the front door of their house was smashed in. Olivier's father was the first to be killed followed by his mother, right in front of the children.

They then raped Olivier's three sisters, and when he tried to fight them they turned on him. One at a time, more than a dozen in all, he said.

"I will never forget what happened to me," he said. "How does one forget something like this? Only revenge can make me forget what happened to me."

Mukengere takes us from ward to ward, where the beds are filled with sexual abuse patients in various stages of recovery. Colostomy bags hang off their cots and bed pans are everywhere. Once in a while, you hear a woman scream in pain as she's raised by the team of tireless nurses to have something to eat or drink.

Mukengere, who attends to an average of 10 new cases a day, explains bed-by-bed the cruelty that has become the Congo.

"Helene, over there, is 19 years old. She first came here five years ago after having been raped," he said. "We treated her and discharged her, and off she went back to her home village. Five years later, she's back after being attacked and sexually violated over and over again. This is pure madness."

Equally troubling is that aid money designated for victims of sexual abuse here may run out at the end of June despite the relative success of this program, the only one of its kind in the region.

"It's so tragic that the world can afford to sit back and let these atrocities continue like this," said aid worker Marie Walterzon of the Swedish Pentecostal Mission. "Possibly because it involves poor, voiceless Africans," she said.

Sadly though, many of the people responsible for these rapes -- what is being described as the new weapon of war in a time of peace -- have yet to be arrested, tried or convicted. The peace process is too delicate at this stage, officials say.

The peace process is too delicate. And at this hospital in the eastern Congo, the rooms are too full.

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