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War Rape Trauma Lingers In Congo

The teenager with flowers in her hair crossed her hands to keep them from trembling and described how she was raped by 10 militiamen.

Abducted two years ago when she was 16, Ombeni was kept as a concubine in the forests of eastern Congo. She became pregnant and at nearly nine months gestation, her captors cut her vagina with a machete, leaving the baby dead and abandoning the teenager in the forest.

"I laid there for one week," Ombeni said. "Until insects came out of my body." Ombeni was eventually rescued by a woman who was foraging for food and made her way to a clinic for rape victims.

She is one of thousands of women who are raped each year in Congo, another layer of degradation in a war that never seems to end.

In a briefing before the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday, U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland said rape as a weapon of war was at its worst in eastern Congo and the Darfur region of Sudan.

Egeland said the scale, prevalence and profound impact of sexual violence made it one of the most serious challenges facing those trying to protect civilians caught up in war. Ensuring rapists were punished and restoring local justice systems were key to addressing the problem, he said.

In Congo, for those who manage to survive kidnappings and gang rapes, there is the clinic at Panzi General Hospital. Located on the outskirts of the provincial capital Bukavu, it treats more than 300 rape victims each month.

Ombeni has spent months at the clinic, undergoing three operations to repair her bladder and awaiting a fourth. She says her captors were not trying to "deliver my baby, but to kill me and the baby."

With funding from the European Commission, the clinic provides medical and psychiatric care, as well as counseling to help women re-enter society. Rape victims are often ostracized in Africa, where husbands and families routinely kick out their wives and mothers if they have been raped.

The United States government also provides funding to over a dozen organizations in the region offering counseling, family mediation, medical care and legal representation to victims and their families. Since 2003, the combined programs have helped over 16,000 women.

Most rapes in the area are committed by Rwandan Hutu rebels, who fled into eastern Congo after Rwanda's 1994 genocide, said Panzi's medical director Denis Mukwege.

Generally, militiamen will circle a village and rape all the women, he said. Then they'll choose the young ones and take them as slaves into the forest-covered mountains.

"I had a 60-year-old woman who was raped with bamboo. Can you imagine?" Mukwege asked. "Yesterday she died."

"This is not an issue of sexual desire," he added. "The aim is to destroy."

The number of rape cases is increasing, he said. Since January, 1,700 women have been admitted to the clinic. The clinic expects to treat about 3,600 women by year's end — up from 2,700 last year.

Mukwege said this number is only a fraction of the women who are raped in outlying villages. Most choose to keep silent, fearing reprisals by militia or banishment.

When victims arrive at Panzi clinic, they're put in touch with Cecile Mulolo, a psychologist who counsels the women, who often turn up alone and terrified.

Mulolo, a preacher's wife with a broad smile, visits a recovery ward where a dozen patients have undergone surgery to treat injuries from rapes. The room is dim, and catheters dangle from each bed.

"I praise God that I'm alive, that I made it here," said one girl, who's school books lay wrapped in her bed sheets.

At a halfway house down a dusty road from the clinic, 22 recovering rape victims learn to weave handbags and how to make bread and soap, in the likelihood their families will reject them and they will have to make their own way in the world.

"This way they feel useful, and maybe can recover some respect from their families," said Mulolo. "Even though they were raped, they must know they're still important."

Every woman in the home says she was raped by Hutu rebels, who continue to wreak havoc on Congo as it tries to recover from years of war. Rwanda invaded Congo twice, in 1996 and 1998, under the auspices of driving the rebels out, but never seemed to catch them.

Many argue there will never be peace in eastern Congo until the rebels are gone.

Back in her office, Mulolo chats with Nabintu, a 41-year-old woman who was raped by militiamen two years ago and contracted AIDS. Her husband banished her to a spare bedroom after the rape, but doesn't know about her sickness.

"He'll chase her off if he finds out," said Mulolo. "These are the consequences of rape."

Hearing this, Nabintu buries her face in a scarf and cries. Mulolo reaches across the desk and takes the woman's hands.

"Courage, mama," she says. "Courage."

By Bryan Mealer