Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Rape - Weapon of Mass Destuction

Rape, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, like many war-ravaged countries, is strategy, an implement to seize power – control, not only over entire communities and regions but, crucially, in this immense country, over the great mineral wealth. The trauma – physical, psychological – disables. And it is free. The cheapest weapon of mass destruction. It is no secret why and how this happens. Rape emblemises Congo's history – an area brutalised for 500 years by leaders and nations crazed with greed in a rush for natural resources: rubber, oil, diamonds, copper, uranium, cobalt and coltan. The last of these is used liberally in mobile phones, cameras, printers and laptops. First came the Portuguese, in the 1480s, enslaving and destablising as British ships arrived taking captives. In the late 19th century, as demand for rubber spiked, Belgium's King Leopold II claimed the country, ordering further gargantuan enslavements, commanding torture and murder on an unfathomable scale: more than 10 million died. By 1960, when independence was declared, the traumatised nation was ripped asunder, fractured, drained not only of minerals but of human resources: an insufficiently educated nation left to stagger on unaided. The former army officer and police sergeant Joseph-Desire Mobutu exploited the power vacuum, seized control and bled the resources further. When Rwanda invaded in 1996 (the First Congo War), helping other neighbouring countries topple Mobutu – who had been backed by Western governments – little improved. A year later, when the Second Congo War erupted, drawing in nine nations, the turmoil was anarchic, dozens of rival militia groups, rebels and army factions killing and enslaving to gain control of the mines – a dire cacophony of child soldiers and mass starvation, collapsing infrastructure and, all along, rape.

Dr Denis Mukwege tries to help all who arrive at Panzi Hospital, the clinic he set up 15 years ago in the hills above Bukavu, eastern Congo. After training in France to become a gynaecologist, he was hoping to devote his career to treating women in pregnancy and labour. Instead, the results of the Second Congo War arrived – wave after wave of rape victims, girls as young as two, women in their eighties. Entire villages of women come. Dr Mukwege specialises in repairing vaginal fistulas – holes created either between the vagina and rectum, or vagina and bladder – a common occurrence after violent rape. "Women who have been severely violated are completely destroyed – some we simply cannot cure," he says. "And unfortunately, these are often young girls aged 14, 15, 16, 17. They have to wear a colostomy bag for the rest of their lives." Without medical intervention, urine, blood and faeces trickle down, causing burns, infections, ulcerations, abscesses and dehydration. The smell from infections ensures everyone in the village knows what has happened. Many are shunned. Isolation engulfs. Fistulas can also lead to nerve damage called "foot drop" in which the lower limbs become paralysed. Women are left unable to walk.

Dr Mukwege treats 10 women a day in theatre. He has, in total, tended to more than 30,000 survivors. In what psychological state are patients when they arrive? "They are dehumanised," he says. "Most are shamed by what happened to them. Most are excluded from their own community. They feel life has no sense." He cites the plentiful research into the psychological trauma that survivors carry, often forever. By the time women are in Mukwege's care, the trauma has fanned out in all directions. "If a child has seen his mother being raped he will never be the same again," he says. "And if husbands stood by during attacks, unable to help their wife, it completely changes their relationship. This problem destroys families as a whole."

There is another important consequence, which, for Mukwege is a "time bomb": the babies. "They are often not loved when they arrive because they are the result of rape. People sometimes blame the children. Often families say, 'This is a horrible child; he does not belong to us.' We are raising a crisis." He continues  "There is one lady. She was raped and taken into the bush and kept as a slave for three years. She was also, as a result of the rapes, contaminated with Aids. When she came home she found that while she was gone all her family – her husband, father, mother and four children – were killed." The woman eventually returned to her village but with a baby, born from the innumerable rapes she endured. "It was very hard for her…" says Mukwege, his voice unsteady "to keep this child, to know, 'She is the child of the one who raped me, killed all my family and contaminated me with Aids'." He stops again, frowning, wincing. "How can all this happen in the life of someone?" Yet he carries on to say "Today she not only supports her child but also other patients living with Aids. She's really strong. She built her own house. She built her own business. She is a leader in her community."

In 2011, Mukwege compared the international reaction to that of Bosnia in the 1990s. "Since Bosnia was on Europe's doorstep, and Europe was ashamed, it didn't last so long," he said. "When it happens in Africa, people say, 'It's cultural. It's African. It's far away'." A year later, in an address at the UN he spoke of the "deafening silence and the lack of courage of the international community". Some see such silence as deliberate, in order that the coltan keeps coming. "The West has a responsibility because it knows how coltan is produced," says Mukwege. "They can get this without destroying women."

Dr Mukwege is the recipient of the Sakharov Prize For Freedom of Thought, the highest human-rights award bestowed by the European Parliament.
"This prize is not really for me," he says softly. "It belongs to the women who have been fighting for 15 years for their rights, for their dignity, for their freedom. But I am very happy this prize came now because the world does not understand what it means to be raped with extreme violence. We need to highlight what is going on in this region. It is a terrible disease, women destroyed in a way that denies their humanity."

He describes the "four pillars" of his approach. "We treat them medically – surgically; psychologically – the trauma; legally – to teach them their rights and help them go to court, if they want to," he says. "The fourth way is to support them economically so they can be strong and fight for their own rights."

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