Mwanvua Silimu has just told a lie and everyone in the room knows it. She stares at her feet, silent. The 14-year-old is back home after months as the prisoner of vagabond soldiers, relating her ordeal. It is the obvious question, and her family members ask it: How many of her 13 kidnappers raped her? In little more than a whisper, Mwanvua replies "one."
Her parents and siblings exchange looks but say nothing. Nobody believes her. Not taking her eyes off the earth floor, after some minutes Mwanvua speaks again, the voice firmer this time. "All of them. They all passed through me." Her mother, Mariamo, winces and looks away. Her father, Radjabo, blinks several times and gazes at his daughter. They had guessed the truth, but hearing it out loud, laid bare here in the family home, is not easy.
The family now fears further revelations. Mwanvua's period is late; she may be pregnant with the child of one of her captors. She may be infected with any number of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. There is no doctor in the village, and no means of testing.
Complaining of muscle pain and headaches, she spends most days in her room. Deemed "damaged goods" by the community, she is unlikely to find a husband -- and even if she does there will be no traditional dowry of five goats, a bag of salt and clothes valued at $100 because she is no longer a virgin. "This is the mentality here: Once you are caught by these people you have no value," says her father.
Two years after the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was declared officially over, a wave of sexual violence continues to sweep through the country. Scenes such as that in the Silimu household are being repeated across the lawless eastern provinces bordering Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. Here the war has ebbed but not disappeared: Fighters from Congo's myriad militias and rebel groups, as well as fighters from Rwanda, are still loose in the forests and cities, pillaging, murdering and raping.
Although the violence is not on the same scale as it once was, it remains a messy, unfinished conflict that is having a huge impact on civilians -- particularly girls and women. At least 40,000 have been raped over the past six years, according to a recent report by Amnesty International.
Congo's recent history is a dark, underreported horror story that started a decade ago when Hutus responsible for murdering 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda's 1994 genocide fled across the border to escape the avenging Tutsi army. Two years later, Zaire (as it then was known), the vast, ramshackle heart of central Africa, imploded from a civil war and invasions by neighboring states, principally Rwanda. Rwanda invaded again in 1998 with the stated aim of hunting Hutus, sparking a six-year war that sucked in six other countries.
All sides used proxy forces: The Congolese army was aided by tribal Mayi-Mayi militias and Hutus. The Tutsi-led Rwandan army sponsored a rebel movement, as did Uganda. They turned eastern Congo into fiefdoms of plunder in which rape was a form of booty as well as a weapon against ethnic groups deemed hostile.
Spending months at a time in remote forests eroded the fighters' discipline and humanity. "These forces very rarely met each other but they all punished the civilian population," says Gwendolyn Lusi, a program manager in eastern Congo for the aid agency Doctors on Call for Service.
Following the loss of more than 3 million lives, peace accords were signed in 2002 and 2003. Foreign forces withdrew and Congo's rival factions formed an interim government in the distant capital, Kinshasa, under President Joseph Kabila. This unwieldy, mutually suspicious coalition of former foes promised to rein in the fighters marauding in the east, but they have failed to integrate their forces into a single, unified army, leaving the east a patchwork of divided loyalties. Reeling from a succession of political crises, the government has paid lip service to restoring order but made little progress in building an effective police force and criminal justice system, leaving the east largely lawless.
The number of assaults against young girls in Goma, capital of North Kivu province in eastern Congo, has risen over the past year, according to Virginie Mumbere, an administrator with DOCS. They are attacked not just by soldiers but also by people they know -- neighbors, relatives, teachers. Whether this means that the incidence of rape has increased, or that more assaults are being reported, or both, nobody can say.
"Insecurity continues to reign and the rapes continue: They are the fruit of disorder," says Dr. Jacques Kalume, who treats 150 inpatients -- 90 percent of them victims of sexual violence -- at Goma's main hospital. He performs 44 surgeries a month on women suffering incontinence as the result of a fistula forming between the anus and the vagina, the result of extreme violence. The smell of feces, which in some cases emerges from the vagina, can be so strong that many victims are shunned by their communities. Repairing the damage involves delicate surgery and months of convalescence. More than one operation is often needed.
In a recovery ward, some of Kalume's patients knit or tend to infants while others gaze at the ceiling. Esperance Nyirandegeya, 30, gasps with pain when emptying her bladder into a tube, but she wants to talk -- about the men who raped her and killed her husband and two children; about how she is afraid to return home because Rwandan rebel fighters are still there; about how so few women have the opportunity for treatment.
From a neighboring bed, Cecile Furaha, 24, speaks of fresh attacks on women in her village. Asked about her rapists, her voice turns brittle. "I hate them. I was destroyed."
The great unknown is HIV/AIDS. With many soldiers and refugees coming from Uganda and Rwanda, high-prevalence countries, it is assumed that many Congolese have been infected. But in towns such as Kasongo, in Maniema province, there is little opportunity for testing or treating. The colonial-era hospital, its grounds littered with syringes and needles, can afford only 140 tests per month, most of which are used to screen blood donors and surgical patients.
A tenth of patients test positive for HIV but are not told of their status. Staff fear for their lives in breaking such bad news, says the hospital's director, Dr. Felly Ekofo. And there are some male patients who, after they discover they have the virus, continue to be promiscuous or to rape. Why? Ekofo shrugs, as if the answer were obvious. "Because they don't want to die alone."
But there are some small glimmers of hope that the peace, however fragile and spasmodic, is eroding the war's terrible legacy. Anecdotal evidence (in the absence of reliable statistics there is no other kind) suggests that the number of sex attacks, while still high, is dwindling in some places. Improved security is allowing medical care to reach previously cutoff areas, sometimes for the first time in six years.
Rural areas, such as the forests of Maniema province, have become safer, said Zahera Zainabo, vice president of the nongovernmental organization the Voice of the Oppressed Women of Maniema. From recording a rape a day last year, the organization now receives reports of just one every three months.
This is still too many, she says. "Women are still considered like a toy, like something of no value." Dehumanized by war, a soldier's moral reference points are skewed, says Zainabo. Asked why they had raped a woman, one group of soldiers told her that their wives were far away and so they had no choice but to find a temporary, local replacement.
But she sees signs of progress: "This week a soldier was publicly punished for raping a woman prisoner. That's new." In the absence of a functioning police service and civil judicial system, the military is left to discipline itself. Having singularly failed to do so before, the sight of even just one soldier being arrested and taken away for indefinite detention on his commander's orders counts as a breakthrough.
The arrest came after the radio station in Kasongo town reported the assault in its news bulletins -- a daring departure. "It was a big risk for us," says the station director, Modeste Shabani. "Soldiers came to us, angry, asking why we did that. We used not to speak about sexual violence."
Even Mwanvua Silimu's sad, brutal tale suggests the culture of impunity is eroding. It starts typically enough: In June 2003 she was abducted by a group of 13 Hutu rebels who used her and other female captives as slaves -- porters, cooks, cleaners -- and took turns beating and raping them.
But a year later, the improved security climate emboldened Mwanvua's sister, Salama, 34, with courage bordering on recklessness, to track them down and demand Mwanvua's release. Her father, Radjabo, followed her to make the same demand. Apparently fed up with years in the wilderness, and in an apparent attempt to curry favor with U.N. peacekeepers who could arrange their return to Rwanda, the kidnappers complied and in October handed over a bruised, battered but joyful Mwanvua. "I was so happy I wept," she says.
Interviews with other victims recently attacked in Kasongo and Goma yield a pattern of rapists getting away scot-free, untouched by a puny police force that was either absent or reluctant to confront a soldier. Elaka Kalume, 21, was attacked in June by five soldiers on her way home from the market. "My husband was angry that I took that route alone. He was right; I blame myself."
Vumilia Simuke, 24, was raped by a soldier on the orders of a village chief who wanted to punish her husband for endangering public health by not keeping the family toilet clean. "My husband didn't respect the law," she shrugs, matter-of-factly. Asha Mbaruko, 17, was assaulted in fields by two soldiers who beat her and stole the family's goat. When her father reported the rape, military commanders threatened to kill him because they wanted to keep the goat. The rape complaint was brushed off as an irrelevance.
Buried in these accounts, however, there are signs that Congolese men are now slower to stigmatize daughters and wives who have been raped, and quicker to pursue justice against their rapists. Elaka was "forgiven" by her husband rather than banished. The people in Vumilia's village were so enraged by the chief's hard-line approach to sanitation that they fired him. Asha's father had the courage to report the attack, and she has since found a husband.
Harbingers, perhaps, of more tolerance for victims and less for perpetrators. It may not seem much, but after eight years of darkness it is, at last, a glimmer.