June 30 is the 50th anniversary of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s independence from Belgium. The people of Congo had high hopes for their newly liberated country but those hopes have all but disappeared in the wake of a war that continues to bring death, rape and despair to its citizens.
In 2008, I was awarded the White House News Photographers Association Project Grant to document sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The grant was sponsored in part by PNY Technologies Inc. The resulting project was named as a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Photography for “ …courageous work published in The Washington Times that vividly documents how rapes, by the tens of thousands, have become a weapon of war in Congo.”
I feel very honored by the recognition and hope that more people become educated about the atrocities committed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the tacit tolerance and impunity toward those who commit daily acts of abuse and sexual violence.
When Washington Times reporter Betsy Pisik and I visited Congo in 2009, we drove out to the countryside to visit a woman who ran a farm for women who had been raped. The road snaked along Lake Kivu through beautiful countryside; past verdant hills and banana groves growing out of dark volcanic soil. The colors reminded me of Hawaii. The land in Congo is so fertile, it looks like you could plant a plastic bag and something would grow.
On the way we passed several refugee camps where people were barely surviving in bent wood huts covered with banana leaves and if they are lucky a plastic tarp.
Masika’s farm is just a few hundred yards down the road from one of those camps. She had been married to a successful businessman and they lived in a nice house filled with comforts. One night, rebels broke into the house, looted it and then tortured her husband to death. After that, they raped Masika on top of his mutilated body and then raped two of her daughters. Masika was left with a broken body and a long scar carved into the left side of her face and neck during the rapes. She survived numerous surgeries and did not give in to despair, deciding that she would try and help other women suffering like her. With the help of World Vision she rented some land and started a collective farm for rape victims. Masika has since been re-raped by armed men who didn’t like the idea of a woman running anything. You see, in Congo it is more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier.
With her baby Aimidiwe, on her back, rape victim Mongera Sbasinganire, 28, plants corn on Masika’s farm.
The women who live there were all abandoned by their husbands after the rapes. Masika has a ledger with the names of the 2000 plus woman who have come through her farm and is the de-facto mother, sister, nurse and therapist to the women in her care.
The women who live there were all abandoned by their husbands after the rapes.
Unfortunately, circumstances are more dire than ever for the women and children of Congo and they are not safe, even in their own beds. In a study released April 12, 2010, of rape victims in Congo that was commissioned by Oxfam and conducted by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, researchers found that incidents of rape spiked during military activities and 60% of victims were gang raped by armed men; more than half of the assaults taking place in their own homes, and often in front of their husbands and children. The study also showed a spike in rapes carried out by civilians.
Our five week trip to Congo was not possible without the help of several NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations) working in war ravaged Eastern Congo. If any of you would like to help, here are the websites of the NGO’s that helped us tell the story. I hope you take a look at them; they are excellent organizations and are all doing such important work:
The project would not have possible without the help of: