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Julie had just blown out the kerosene lamp and was lying in bed next to her husband when suddenly the stillness of the night was pierced by enraged shouts and the sound of a door being kicked open. Eight armed men burst into her house in a small village in Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province, wielding machetes and automatic rifles.
"They ran over to my husband first," Julie recalled a few months later as she sat in a rural health clinic run by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) where rape survivors receive counseling and medical care. "They cut open his stomach with a machete and he fell over in agony, bleeding. Then two of the men raped me. When I tried to resist, they cut my arms with the blade. When they finally left, they took our goat and our chicken."
Later that night, two other women in the same village were raped in a similarly brutal fashion. Before disappearing into the surrounding forest, the men forced Julie's 11-year-old son to go with them to carry what they had stolen. They released him two days later.
"Fortunately, my husband received medical care in time and recovered," Julie says, her eyes staring fixedly at the ground. "I recovered from my physical injuries too. But psychologically I will never get well. Sometimes I don't want to eat and I cry a lot. My husband helps me and tells me how lucky we are in spite of everything."
In the Congo, a country ravaged by war, where rape is used as a weapon and where almost anyone who carries a gun can act with impunity, Julie's experience is far from unusual. An ongoing military operation by the Congolese army and United Nations peacekeepers against the rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), whose leadership had overseen the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, only adds to the fear and insecurity. The full scope of the sexual violence in eastern Congo is unknown but it is safe to assume that the number of reported cases is only a fraction of the number of rapes that actually occur.
Sarah Mosely is the coordinator of IRC programmes that help survivors of sexual violence in this part of Congo. She says that up to 80 percent of the rapes committed here are allegedly carried out by members of armed militias or the regular armed forces. Sexual violence is not just a by-product of the conflict; it is a widespread combat strategy systematically used to terrorize and humiliate. In areas such as Walikale, Masisi and Kalehe in the Kivus, women are being targeted by all armed groups in retaliation for their communities' alleged support for opposing forces.
"Women and girls bear the brunt of the fighting here," Mosely says. "Women and girls in Congo cannot find safety from violence anywhere: in their homes, while farming, on the road to school or the market, collecting firewood, or in camps for displaced people."
Since 2002, the IRC has provided counselling, medical and legal services to thousands of women and girls who have been violently abused. Some have been held captive and raped for months on end. Mutilation and torture are also common tactics during sexual assaults; Mosely and her colleagues regularly hear horrific stories of gang rape and torture, including having guns, wooden sticks or glue inserted into their bodies. IRC staff and its local partner organisations assist on average 300 survivors each month in North and South Kivu.
"Despite all the problems, the IRC helps women quickly get to hospitals and clinics for treatment," Mosely says. "If a woman can access health services within three days of being raped, she can receive drugs to prevent unwanted pregnancy, treat sexually-transmitted infections and reduce the likelihood of an HIV infection."
The rampant sexual violence in eastern Congo leaves other scars as well. Frequently, the attackers also pillage the community, looting farms and stealing livestock. Then there is the social stigma associated with rape. Often women are shunned by their husbands and communities and left fending for themselves. The IRC is working to soften these devastating financial and social blows by organising vocational training courses for the women and then finding them employment or business opportunities. The IRC also seeks to counter spousal rejection and stigma by organising community meetings where sexual violence is discussed, as well as working with local women's groups and community leaders to make sure survivors are supported.
"Fortunately, my husband was very understanding," Julie says. "He is an intellectual; he used to be a teacher. He also understands because he was there himself when it happened. The two other women who were raped in my village that night have been rejected by their husbands and are having problems looking after their children alone."
As the conflict in eastern Congo rages on, Julie and the other women in her village fear for the next attack.
"The situation has not improved," Julie says. "Women are afraid that they could be raped any night here. Most of the time we don't go to sleep at all."
Names have been changed.