Kinshasa/London, 2 November 2018 - International medical humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) treated 2,600 victims of sexual violence in the town of Kananga in Kasai Central province, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), between May 2017 and September 2018. Eighty per cent reported having been raped by armed men.
MSF teams provide psychological care in group sessions and one-on-one for the most traumatised patients. Between March and September this year, 835 people were given individual consultations. Half of them reported that at least one member of their family had been killed and/or that their homes and belongings had been pillaged or destroyed. One in ten spoke of having directly witnessed a murder or other act of violence.
“These figures are an indication of the high level of violence that has persisted throughout the past year,” said Karel Janssens, MSF head of mission in DRC. “The shocking testimonies from survivors that we have heard on a daily basis describe how people’s lives and communities have been torn apart, making it very difficult for them to rebuild and move forward.”
Of the 2,600 people treated by MSF since May 2017, 32 were men, some of whom reported having been forced under armed threat to rape members of their own community. Another 162 were children under the age of 15, including 22 under the age of five.
“Protection for victims, whether children or adults, and socio-economic assistance remain key challenges, given the limited availability of appropriate services,” said Fransisca Baptista de Silva, MSF project coordinator in Kananga.
The above figures most likely reveal just part of the problem. MSF teams began providing care to victims of violence in May 2017, more than one year after the beginning of the crisis in Kasai, focusing on surgical activities for trauma patients. In September 2017, in response to the evident needs, MSF adapted its activities to focus more particularly on treating victims of sexual violence. Promotion of MSF services at a local level has seen patient numbers increase, and MSF now provides care to more than 200 patients each month on average.
Concerningly, three in four of the victims treated by MSF only present for care a month or more after their attack. Most explain that they were unaware of the availability of free care or lacked the means to travel to centres offering such services. Prompt care for victims of sexual violence - within 72 hours of rape - is a medical necessity, especially to ensure effective protection against sexually transmitted infections such as HIV.
Testimonies from MSF's patients
Content warning - please be advised that the following testimonies contain graphic descriptions of extreme sexual violence.
All names have been changed to protect anonymity. More photos and testimonies are available on request. All photos taken August 2018, credit Ghislain Massotte/MSF.
“I was at home when armed men came and killed my husband. They decapitated him and stole all our possessions.
I was raped in my home, next to my husband’s body, in the presence of my children. It was last year, during the violence. I had five children. They killed three of them, leaving me with just two. They raped my three oldest girls before killing them. I was left with the two youngest: a 12-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl.
They stole all our belongings, they took everything. Then they forced us out, without giving me time to get dressed. I was naked from the waist up. I just grabbed something to cover my chest as we were chased out of our home.
I started walking with my two children through the bush to Tshikapa. I didn’t know where we were going, I just started walking. After we got to Tshikapa, my children got sick. We were taken in by an organisation that helped us and gave us a little money.
I decided to return to Kananga, where I used to live, together with some other women. We took the road hoping to catch a ride with trucks that pass on their way to the city. While on the road, before we got to Kananga, we were confronted by armed men. Again, they raped us. There were three of them.
After that we hid so as not to be raped again. But I started to feel unwell.
When we arrived in Kananga, I heard about doctors from Médecins Sans Frontières who were looking after women but I didn’t know where. I asked around but people in the community didn’t want to help me. They all asked for money in return. It was at the church that I got the information I needed.
Before getting to the hospital I was very worried. I was so weak and had a lot of pain in my lower abdomen. While in the bush and on the road I had nothing with me to eat, and what I found was sometimes not enough – like a ball of fufu [cassava] for me and my two children. I had no money and the clothes I was wearing were torn apart.
When I got here at the hospital, I was given medication and examined by a doctor. That’s how I found out I had HIV. This worries me a lot, because I fear I don’t have long to live.
When I came here to get help, I left my children at the church, where people sometimes come and give us something to eat. I don’t know how I can provide for my children, and that also worries me a lot.
One morning at the end of March 2017, they came into people’s houses in Kananga, stealing and killing. They came into my home that day and when they saw there was nothing to take, they threatened to kill me. There were four of them. They decided to rape me instead.
I was alone with my four-year-old son. My husband wasn’t there. He was working near the border with Angola. I was often at home alone for months at a time, waiting for him to return. When these men came and raped me, my son hid in a corner.
I was 45, with six children. I had another two but they died. When the men arrived, five of my children were with their grandfather in another part of town. I was at home with the youngest.
After the attack, the men left. I don’t know where to. I stayed where I was. I couldn’t eat or drink. I felt like my heard had been broken, split in two. When I prepared food for my children (I still couldn’t eat anything) and I heard something fall, I flinched and my broken heart beat very fast. Sometime later, I found out that my husband had been killed on his way home, because of the conflict.
Later, I heard about MSF and learned that they could help me. But before getting to the hospital, something else happened. I went to a nearby village with some other women to buy food that we could then sell in Kananga. We were stopped on our way there, by men asking for money. We had none, so they raped us. This time it wasn’t just one man. Some of the women managed to escape, but not me. They caught me and dragged me into the bush, where they attacked me. I remember there was someone screaming nearby, while I was being raped. Afterwards I started getting a lot of pain in my lower abdomen. I couldn’t walk properly, I couldn’t eat, and I just wanted to sleep.
It was at church that I heard about MSF. Members of the MSF team came to talk about sexual violence and the care they could provide to victims. So I went to see them and they helped me.
“I said to the psychologist, when I tell this story I see a film playing in front of my eyes, in my head. A film—or a dream? I don’t know. If I go to sleep, I can sleep without end, more than 20 hours at a time.
It happened in August, when I returned to my village. Some armed men came to attack us. It was in 2017 I think. I don’t remember well, it’s all still very confused for me. They crossed the river to my village, and killed lots of people. I fled along with some other young people . But on the way we were caught by another group of armed men that we ran into. They took us with them, back to the village, where they tortured us and treated us like slaves. We had to go and collect water for them. We also had to do things more horrible than that: they forced us to rape several of the mothers of our village.
When I say “mother”, it’s a Congolese expression. None of them was my mother but they were the mothers of our village nonetheless. All the young men of the village were forced to do this. If someone didn’t do it, they were killed. I don’t remember well, but I think I had to do it to six or seven women.
When the armed men had gone, local authorities came from Tshikapa to find us, as if we too were criminals. I fled with some of the other young men but we split into different directions and I began to walk on my own. At the time I wasn’t working because I had had a kidney operation 10 months earlier and I was still recovering. After two days I began to feel really unwell, just like after the operation.
I arrived here three months after all that happened. I didn’t know if there was any care available for someone like me. But I heard about MSF at the church where I go to pray, when a doctor working at the hospital came to talk about the free care being offered there.
When I went to the hospital the doctors and the lady psychologist took me into their care. My kidneys were really hurting me but things weren’t going well in my head at all, either. I had to undertake some tests and I spoke a lot with the psychologist. Since then I’ve been taking medicine and I’ve noticed some changes: I have less pain, even if I’m not fully well yet. I feel that I’m on the way to something better, but I’m not completely sure yet. Sometimes I find myself taking to myself, as if in a dream.”
Médecins Sans Frontières has been working in DRC since 1977 and is currently providing medical care to victims of conflict and violence, displaced persons, and people affected by epidemics or pandemics such as cholera, measles and HIV/AIDS. For several decades, MSF has also been on the frontline of the response to Ebola outbreaks in DRC. MSF has been working in the region of Grand Kasai (Kasai and Central Kasai provinces) since 2017, providing free, emergency care to victims of the ongoing violence. In 2017, MSF teams provided over 6,300 consultations to victims of sexual violence in 17 locations across the country.