Congo’s ‘Mamas’ and Their Campaign Against Wartime Rape

Amid the rebel violence in eastern Congo, a group of women have organized to report on a pandemic of sexual violence and to help the victims

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PHIL MOORE / AFP / Getty Images

An internally displaced Congolese woman stands with an umbrella in the Mugunga IDP camp, 8 km from Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Nov. 23, 2012

Jeanette Bindu’s network in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has just informed her of a mass rape in Minova — more than 100 women within just four days. Thousands of government troops have fled the provincial capital of Goma in the face of an advance by the M23 rebels, and on Nov. 22 the government soldiers arrived on the small town of Minova, 54 km to the west. The rapes started immediately. Bindu, who runs a network of 36 women monitoring rape across the region, wants to know more. So taking a TIME reporter with her, she jumps in her car, navigates the 54 km of barely paved roads and checkpoints manned by drunken militiamen to reach Minova. “Every time, it’s the women that these conflicts affect the most,” she says.

U.N. Special Representative Margot Wallstrom has called Congo the “rape capital of the world,” and a 2011 study in the American Journal of Public Health estimated 48 women are raped every hour in the country. Many argue that rape is systemic in Congo, fueled by a brutal logic in which — amid a bewildering array of conflicts fought between a mosaic of militias, rebels and the national army — intimidation and cruelty is seen as one way to win. The number of rapes rockets when the shooting starts, as it did again this month. But it also means the international aid groups pull out. Which leaves 35-year-old Bindu’s grassroots network as the only ones left to monitor sexual violence and care for its victims.

(MORE: Congo’s Eastern Rebels Seize Goma: Will Rwanda Then Take Over?)

The women in Bindu’s network calls themselves “Mamas” and distinguish themselves with their children’s names. Bindu is Mama Joel. Mama Fahida, 62, is her informer in Minova, ferreting out information by pretending to be a preacher. When we arrive in Minova, Mama Fahida greets Bindu warmly and tells her she has identified 15 women who have been raped but will not come for treatment for fear of recrimination or rejection. Mama Fahida runs her own network of informers and covers miles every day on foot. “She climbs mountains,” says Bindu in admiration. Mama Fahida explains: “My job is to look for those who have been violated. I conduct surveys and investigate by following up where there has been looting. Then I verify.” Bindu pays Mama Fahida in food, and a little money when she can spare it. Supported by Hope in Action and Norwegian aid, most of their money is used for taking problematic cases to hospitals where, in the absence of a public health service, they pay for treatment and rehabilitation.

(PHOTOS: Congo’s Crisis: Rebels Launch Offensive in Country’s East)

At Kalere clinic in Minova, where Mama Fahida takes victims, Nestor Bulumbe, 60, welcomes us with steaming plates of boiled potatoes and beans. The clinic he runs with his wife perches on a hillside overlooking an inlet of Lake Kivu. Bulumbe keeps a blue ledger book that lists details of victims. Since the soldiers arrived in Minova six days ago, his tiny clinic has registered 26 patients for sexual violence — more than he has registered in the past two months. “There are more than 10 [government] battalions here, and they are raping the women,” Bulumbe says. Town elders registered 60 cases of rape in the four days that followed the government troops’ arrival, but Bulumbe estimates 70 more rape victims have not come forward. Most emerge only when there are medical complications, he says. “The soldiers are even killing people. And as long as they stay here, they will continue to rape.” Bulumbe’s wife Elise Mihako has just attended the funeral of an 80-year-old woman who died after allegedly being raped by three soldiers. More than 10 armed groups have passed through Minova in the 17 years the couple have lived there. But this latest incursion, says Mihako, is the worst.

Mulindo (not her real name) describes what happened the night of Nov. 22 when the soldiers arrived. Lying on a bed under a blanket in a small ward at the clinic, a drip pumping antibiotics into her arm, she says, the soldiers started shooting outside her house. When she and her mother and father refused to open the door, she says, the soldiers shot off the lock. Seven soldiers entered and bound her father at the wrists. Then, she says, as her father wept, two men took turns raping her while three more raped her mother. Age 20, it was Mulindo’s first experience with soldiers and sex. “When I cried, they shot their guns in the air, so I stopped crying,” she says. She worries how the attack will affect her life. “I’m not sure I’ll find anyone to marry me because everyone knows,” she says.

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It was 10 years ago in Masisi, a neighboring province, that Bindu first met a rape victim and found her calling in life. Through her church, she was called to help an 8-year-old girl the day after she was reportedly raped by a militiaman on her way home from school. The child subsequently contracted HIV/AIDS from the attack. The experience of counseling the girl and her mother, and seeking treatment for her, led Bindu to establish a specialist rape unit at the Christian Relief Network, an aid group, before setting up her network of Mamas.

Back then, says Bindu, rape was less accepted by Congo’s armed groups. When a militia commander heard about an assault, he immediately executed the offending soldier. That wouldn’t happen today, says Bindu. “Recently in Bihambwe, some bandits raped a 4-year-old girl. [The locals] reported it to the police and the bandits were taken to court, but they paid money so were freed. Those bandits went to the family of the girl the next day and raped her mother too.” In 2008, one rebel commander even jailed Bindu and her husband for four days for daring to document rape — a war crime that has landed other Congolese rebel commanders in the dock at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Bindu continued her work undeterred. In 10 years, she says, her network of Mamas has documented and helped more than 6,000 raped women.

Many rape victims are displaced people living in emergency shelters in Goma. “Because they live under plastic sheeting, there are 500 of them all in one place, they are easy to catch,” Bindu says. U.N. peacekeepers patrol the main streets from the safety of their vehicles but maintain no presence in the camps, fields or homes where these violations are happening. At a hospital run by the aid group Heal Africa in Goma, surgeon Simplice Kighoma Vuhaka says he has treated over 100 civilians in the recent spate of fighting, including several victims of rape. “It is as sure as the sun shining in the sky that women are raped every day,” says Vuhaka. He suggests people are even starting to see rape as a commodity, with men curious to try it. He predicts worse is to come. Perhaps the soldiers think that because their units will move on, they won’t face repercussions for the crime — and will rape more when they retreat. And the prospect of the soldiers heading out is great because M23 is now pulling out of Goma, allowing the government troops to move back in.

Bindu says her goal is ultimately for the women to return to their lives. Getting them there is hard work, however. While the physical scars heal, the mental ones remain. “First, they must understand that for as long as they live, they must not lose hope,” she says. “Then, we train them.” The women learn to sew, weave baskets, bake bread and make soap. Making them feel valuable is Bindu’s way of raising their self-esteem, she says. But she admits her work is only treating the symptom and not a solution. “It will end only when the war ends,” she says. “Peace is the only solution.”

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