I’ve just spent a week in the diocese of Bukavu in Sud-Kivu where the Interahamwe continue to rape and raid. On Wednesday I visited Mwanda, an hour’s drive from Bukavu town. Just days before, rebel troops had attacked a nearby village, taking the community’s food and animals, leaving one man badly injured.
In Mwanda, CAFOD’s partner the Justice and Peace Commission has set up a Listening Room which offers counselling to women who have suffered rape. I listened to the stories of five women - one with a child conceived in rape, and another heavily pregnant, having been released by the Interahamwe only last month.
The stories of these women and the 35 others I have met at Listening Rooms across the Kivus of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are personal accounts of sexual violence. Each is different, and each has been lived through by a girl or woman who will need individual care to come to terms with what has happened. What is uniform, however, is the abject horror of every story.
Many of these women have witnessed family and neighbours beheaded or chopped into pieces; some have seen babies and children raped. The majority have been held captive by the Interahamwe for days, weeks or years - raped daily and fed on scraps left by the soldiers. Almost all speak of cold night after cold night kept naked so as to discourage escape, and one woman told me she was forced at knife-point to eat pieces of a dead hostage.
These women – as young as 15, as old as 60 – have seen and been made to suffer atrocious acts of torture. Their stories are physically painful to hear; but much, much more importantly, they take astonishing courage to tell in the first place.
The situation for raped women in the Kivus is a social crisis. In addition to the 200,000 registered rapes in the Bukavu diocese, hundreds of thousands more go unreported. These women keep their trauma secret in the hope they will avoid exclusion from community and family. Because of this, hundreds of women die at home from their injuries, and thousands more hide children conceived during rape, pretending they are their husbands’.
The trauma suffered by all these women is crippling. And even those who make it to hospital and then the Listening Rooms will take years to heal physically and mentally.
Media in the developed world likes its international crises big and finite. The news agenda - and perhaps we, the audience, - can handle a sharp shock and its expected aftermath. What we’re not so good at is sustaining attention on an issue that lasts for many years, complicated by inaccessible land and unapproachable rebel troops.
The Congo wars ended in 2003 with a fragile peace accord. But for seven more years rape and kidnap have been a staple for the women who live in the border lands. It’s true that it’s a tough subject, to which even indigenous Western attitudes have undergone a sea-change in my lifetime. Remember that until 1991 there was still no crime of rape within marriage in the UK.
But we’re wiser than that now. What is happening in DRC is the ongoing systematic destruction of community bonds, the workforce and individual women and girls. It’s trite to say that these are people like you and me, but that’s exactly what they are.
Last week a man was charged with the brutal murder of three women in Bradford. The story led on Channel 4 News for two days, and was writ large across the print press. I understand news values: I know that Bradford means more to British people than Bukavu. And I in no way belittle the crimes or the loss of life or the need for media coverage.
But in Sud-Kivu, it is estimated that a women is violently raped every 30 minutes.
Feza M’Nyampunda was raped by the Interahamwe in front of her husband at their home near Mwanda. She is 48 years old. When I met her in the morning at the Listening Room, she told me: “Take our stories and tell everyone what is happening here. The world thinks it knows - but it doesn’t know.
“This isn’t a story for the war, this is our lives now. If the world is bored with the story then they have forgotten how to be human.”
Pascale Palmer is CAFOD's advocacy media officer.