The cries of the women in a tiny hospital are as harrowing as they are haunting. I will never forget what I felt when I walked into a hospital room filled with the walking wounded in the town of Bukavu in Eastern Congo.
"This a pain worse than death," says 28-year-old Henriette Nyota. She's one of hundreds of women who've sought treatment at Panzi Hospital for a crime that continues to be committed here on an almost daily basis -- multiple rapes by men in uniform with the intention, aid workers say, of destroying their child-bearing capabilities.
The story is as complicated
as the Congo itself. The men in uniform are members of Congo's recently integrated army. Some of the men are from one ethnic group and they're raping and mutilating women from a different ethnic group in ways that can only be described as barbaric and medieval. After all, this is peacetime Congo. The civil war that killed more than three million people ended nearly three years ago. This isn't supposed to be happening today.
"These animals insert knives and other sharp objects into the women after raping them continuously for days at a time," says Dr. Denis Mukwege Mukengere, the lone physician working here. He's just finished a six-hour operation to repair one woman's uterus. She'd walked 300 miles to get here, exhausted, traumatized and overcome with excruciating pain.
"They seem to do this to prevent another generation of warriors from being born," Dr. Mukengere tells us.
He takes us on a tour of his hospital. Outside, in the corridors, new arrivals have just been dropped off by a Good Samaritan. I count a dozen of them, some with infant children, others too old to have children, all victims of unimaginable atrocities. He counsels them in his slow, methodical way and asks his small army of nurses to assist them. He's a kind of Mother Teresa, a person who has come to help the helpless. This hospital has become a haven for Congo's suffering masses, an oasis surrounded by horror and hatred.
We enter one of six wards dedicated to victims of sexual violence. Dr. Mukengere introduces us to 19-year-old Helene Wamunzila. She first came here five years ago after being raped repeatedly. Dr. Mukengere was able to stitch her back together and eventually discharged her. He says she cried the day she left, pleading with him to let her stay here because she said the evildoers were waiting for her back in her village. He didn't listen then and now regrets his decision. She's returned, badly mutilated physically and permanently scarred psychologically.
"I wish I'd let her stay," he says, shaking his head.
Victims of these horrible atrocities lie helplessly in bed, colostomy bags hanging below. Hanging over their heads is the fear that not only might they not be able to have children, but that they may have contracted HIV/AIDS, an almost guaranteed death sentence in this part of the world.
"Four out of 10 end up being HIV positive," Dr. Mukengere tells us. "It's almost as though God is punishing these people in the worst possible way."
Rose Mujikandi, 24, tells us 14 men broke into her parents' house two months ago. She says they killed her father and mother, two brothers and infant sister, but not before they had their way with her.
"It's the last thing my father and mother saw before they were killed. Can you imagine living the rest of my life knowing this is the image they went to heaven with?" she asks, tears streaming down her face. "But I have faith in God. What happened to me happened for a reason," she concludes.
In an open-air recreation area, more women, hundreds of them, talk quietly among themselves. They see Dr. Mukengere and one of them breaks into song. The others follow, but some are too traumatized to think of singing. The song is as haunting as it is defiant. I ask the doctor what it means.
"They're telling the men that they will never be broken, that their spirits will never be broken," he says.
The song ends and I turn to one of the women. She's using a cane to walk because of the damage she's received from days of multiple rapes and mutilation. She gives me her name only as Tintsi and says she's 21 years old. She was brought here by her relatives on a stretcher for a short distance, she says, only 25 miles. She tells me she was gang-raped by 15 men for eight days and eight nights. She just recently began walking again and the cane helps her get around.
"They can destroy my womanhood," she says, "but they can never destroy my spirit."
I ask her where she gets her strength and I almost know what she will say before the words leave her mouth.
"God," she whispers. Then, as if for emphasis, she cries aloud, "Only God can save the women of Congo." The women around her applaud. Some shake their heads in agreement. Others simply stare straight ahead.
I turn to Dr. Mukengere and ask him why everyone here refers to God after being the victims of such atrocities.
"God is the only thing they can hold on to that no one can take away from them. They've lost their dignity. They've lost their womanhood. They have nothing left," he says. "But if you ask me, God forgot about Congo a long time ago."
I wonder if he believes this. If he did, would he be here doing what he's been doing every day for the past three years?
I turn to leave this place and can't help feeling sick to my stomach. Every time I feel things are getting better on this continent that I grew up in, this land I proudly call my home, this place that has so much to offer, I'm confronted with the stark reality that all is not well in the place many people proudly call "Mother Africa."
We need to do more. We need to take care of our mothers, our sisters, our daughters and our grandmothers. Most of all we need to make life better for the generations that are yet to come.
We'll have to start somewhere, and the Congo it seems, is as good a place as any.