"I started to tremble": Seeking care for sexual violence in Kasai, DRC

A victim of sexual violence in Democratic Republic of Congo.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO 2018 © Ghislain Massotte/MSF
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Warning: This article includes graphic content.

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams have treated 2,600 victims of sexual violence between May 2017 and September 2018 in Kananga Provincial Reference Hospital in Kasai Central province, Democratic Republic of Congo. Eighty percent of these patients said that their attackers were armed men, an alarming aspect of the increased violence in the Kasai region over the last year and a half.

MSF provides free medical and mental health care in Kananga hospital. Victims of rape require medical care within 72 hours of the attack so that they can be protected against HIV and receive emergency contraception, however the majority of patients in Kananga arrive after that window has closed. Nevertheless, they can still benefit from treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, vaccinations, and both group and one-on-one mental health counseling offered by MSF.

The vast majority of the victims treated by MSF were women. Thirty-two 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.

Some of the patients at Kananga hospital shared their stories, describing horrific acts of violence—and the difficulties of healing after the attacks. Names have been changed to protect their identities.

Mamie

“I was at home when armed men came and killed my husband. He was decapitated in front of me, and then they stole everything.

One of them raped me inside the house, next to my husband’s body, in the presence of my children. It was last year, during the violence.  I had five children, four girls and one boy. They raped and killed three of my girls. 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 took a piece of cloth to cover my chest, and I started walking with my two children through the bush to Tshikapa. I didn’t know where we were going, I just started walking. …

[Later] I decided to return to Kananga, where I used to live, together with some other women. While on the road … we were confronted by armed men. Again, they raped us. 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…. When I arrived here, I was very weak. They gave me medicine, and I had diarrhea.  I also learned that I had HIV. Since then, I’ve been very worried, really really worried, because I fear I don’t have long to live…. 

I don’t know how I can provide for my children, and that also worries me a lot.”

Pitchou

“I said to the psychologist, ‘When I am telling you all these stories, I feel like it’s a movie, a dream or something like that.’  I don’t know….

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.

We were arrested, they tortured us and started to treat us as slaves. We had to go and collect water for them. We also had to do things more horrible than that. They even started to force us to rape our mothers. When I say “mother”, it’s a Congolese expression.  Even though they weren’t our real mothers, they were our mothers [in the community].  If you didn’t do it, they would kill you. We didn’t have any choice. So we had to, we had to do all this.  I don’t remember well, but I think I had to do it to six or seven women.

I couldn’t sleep for one month. When I sleep, I remember everything that happened….

When I went to the hospital [in Kananga], 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 either. I had to take some tests, and I spoke a lot with the psychologist. Since I’ve started to take the medicine, I feel a bit better. 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 talking to myself, as if in a dream.”

Bibiche

“My story happened on a Tuesday last year. I remember it as if it was yesterday: a group of men came into the house, and they destroyed everything—our things, and us. They raped my little sister and my sister-in-law, and then they came to rape me.

At the time, we didn’t speak out about it, or ask for help. It was only recently, one Sunday when I was at church, that I heard about care being provided for rape survivors. That’s why I came here [to Kananga]. When I came, the doctors all greeted me with a warm smile and I felt really welcome. They gave me vaccinations, like for tetanus, and they did some tests.

After the tests, they found I had syphilis. [My husband] told me ‘It isn’t your fault, let’s go get you better.’  He also had to get care for this and is on follow-up treatment.

And since I’ve started treatment, I’m okay. Because back in those days, I trembled a lot, and even after some time, if there was a sudden movement, I started to tremble again. That’s why I say that since I’ve started treatment, I now feel at ease. I’m good, I eat well. I walk without any trouble. I am really at ease.

Recently, my sister-in-law also came to seek care, having seen the changes it was making in me.