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One Congolese woman's 'silent scream' is heard

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  • Congolese rape victim: "I belonged to everyone"
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By John Blake
CNN
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(CNN) -- Honorata Kizende was hiding in a house when the soldiers came. They kicked the front door down and found her huddling with her five children and another woman.

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Honorata Kizende can smile again after surviving a four-year ordeal that almost destroyed her life

The men asked the women if they were hiding their husbands. We have none, both replied. Then one of the soldiers said something that chilled Kizende, because she knew what was about to happen.

"Today you will have husbands ..."

The men slapped, stripped and raped Kizende. Then they treated her pregnant daughter and friend the same way. The horrific episode could have easily been dismissed as just another brutal act of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But her story is now being heard thanks to two women -- an Iraqi-American activist and a small-town California accountant who now calls Kizende her sister.

Thousands of women will gather around the globe Saturday to celebrate the collective power of women during International Women's Day. The event also marks the third anniversary of the day Kizende walked before an audience of dignitaries in Congo and demanded justice for women like herself.

Kizende, 55, is a spokeswoman for Women for Women International, a 16-year-old group that helps rebuild the lives of women victimized by violent conflict in countries such as Kosovo, Iraq and Colombia.

The group was founded by Zainab Salbi, a 38-year-old Iraqi-American who knows something about brutality. She grew up under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, where people who spoke out were often murdered.

Those who speak out in Congo are treated another way -- they're ignored, Salbi said. An estimated 5.4 million people have died in Congo since 1998. George Rupp, president of the International Rescue Committee, once said the loss of life is equal to the entire population of Colorado dying within a decade.

Yet Salbi said no one is paying attention to another group of victims in the Congo war. Her organization said there are hundreds of thousands of women who have been subjected to gang rape and sexual slavery.

"My image of the Congolese women is that of a scream," Salbi said. "But there is no sound coming from the scream because the world is not hearing it."

That's because the victims are women, she said.

"We are numb," she said. "If I said hundreds and thousands of men were being raped in the Congo, the world would be outraged."

Kizende, whose story was translated for a Women for Women publication, said she was first attacked in 2001. She was the director of a technical institute for girls when she was abducted by soldiers. The soldiers not only raped her but also forced her to carry water and ammunition.

"I did not belong to one person; I was for the use of everyone and anyone who needed me," she was quoted as saying.

Salbi said rape is often used by men to send a message to the men they are fighting: "I am stronger than you. I am taking away your woman, your honor and your manhood."

"I interviewed a man who said that whenever he entered another man's house and that man did not have a gun and he had a gun, he never questioned whether he had the right to rape the man's wife or not," Salbi said.

That kind of callousness wasn't just confined to soldiers. It spread to the community. Kizende could not return to her normal life once she escaped the soldiers who attacked her because she became an outcast. Congolese rape victims are often rejected by their husbands and their community. Kizende said her husband left her for another wife after the 2001 attack.

Kizende even tried staying in a friend's house, but he kicked her out.

"He said that I brought bad luck everywhere I go," she said. "When you look at my life and what I have been through, how could you think otherwise?"

In 2004, two months after soldiers assaulted her and her daughter, Kizende joined Women for Women. The group gave her job training, connected her with other women with similar stories and introduced her to an American sponsor.

The sponsor, Virginia Gately, said she received a letter of introduction from Kizende that said: "Excuse me if this topic does not please you, but I need to share this with somebody."

Gately, an accountant who lives in Buellton, California, a small town of horse ranches and wineries near Santa Barbara, said she didn't know what to say to Kizende. She had heard about the plight of Congolese women on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

"I live this idyllic life," Gately said. "I felt like anything I wrote would be insensitive."

What Kizende needed, though, wasn't words. She wanted someone to hear her story. As Kizende continued to share her story with Gately, the California woman noticed something. Kizende seemed liberated. So did six other women Gately began to write to in countries as diverse as Nigeria and Afghanistan who were also victimized by war.

"What I get back from these women is that they have a voice," Gately said. "They are not as afraid anymore."

Gately said that she's heard that some of the women even sleep with their sponsor's letters under their pillows. She calls Kizende her sister and said she can't envision breaking contact with her.

"How can I possibly stop?" she said. "I expect to do this forever."

Kizende has since traveled around Congo sharing her story with the governor of her province and U.N. staff.

Men often equate valor with soldiers in battle, Salbi said, but she sees another form of courage in Kizende.

"We do not talk about the courage it takes to say to the world that I have been raped and to stand in front of the men in her community and tell them that her pain has a mouth and today it is speaking to you," Salbi said.

Kizende, however, said finding others who listened was more liberating than telling her story.

"It is one thing to have been through what I have been through, but to have no one acknowledge it enhances the pain threefold," she said.

"To suffer in silence is the greatest suffering." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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