- GOMA -- A pungent odour wafted
through the room. Hands folded on her lap, Rosette, a 23-year-old with
twists of black hair, waited patiently. The operation was the next day,
she said. Surgery should get rid of the smell.
- Rosette was waiting for doctors to rebuild her vagina.
Two years earlier, a gang of armed men had destroyed it. They stormed her
village in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, killing six men
including her husband. Then they raped the women. For four days Rosette
lay there, battered and unable to move. When help came, her rescuers followed
a swarm of flies buzzing overhead.
- Rosette suffers from vaginal fistula, a medical condition
that has virtually disappeared in the developed world. It persists in some
African countries where there is poor childbirth. But in eastern Congo,
a flood of new victims is appearing, marking the horrors of a barbaric
conflict. Aid workers call it the war against women.
- Normally resulting from childbirth complications, fistula
in the Congo is the product of particularly violent rape. Severe internal
injuries cause immense pain and debilitating incontin-ence. Ostracism often
- Dozens await operations at a clinic in Goma, the eastern
capital. Many have had objects - sticks, fingers, gun barrels - thrust
inside them. Some have been shot in the vagina. One teenager has had her
eyes poked out. For those treating them, the cruelty is incomprehensible.
- Lyn Lusi of Doctors on Call for Service (Docs), a United
States-funded charity running the clinic, said: "It numbs you. How
can human beings do that to each other? They must be possessed."
- As well as the plunder of diamonds, gold and the mineral
coltan, savage sexual violence is one of the defining characteristics of
the five-year Congo war. In the vast eastern forests, gunmen - rebels,
local militia, armed refugees from Rwanda - rape with abandon. Sometimes
the aim is to subjugate a community. Other times, they do it just because
they can. Fred Kahunde, a hospital worker, said: "They want to show
power and strength: that they can do whatever they want to."
- In just six months this year, the Docs clinic in Goma
treated 1,000 women, 83 of whom required fistula operations. An older hospital,
to the south in Bukavu, has healed hundreds more. The attacks in turn fuel
the spread of HIV/Aids - 12 per cent of women, many of whom had not been
sexually active, tested positive.
- Patients wait in two tents donated by Unicef, and eat
World Food Programme rations. Last week, Mwasi, 18, stumbled through the
flapping door. Her eyes had been beaten to a pulp. The gunmen also damaged
her hearing, so doctors shouted questions. She replied in a low whisper,
nervously fingering the zip on her jacket. Tears streamed down one cheek.
Staff were unsure whether it was a medical reaction, or just sadness. She
said: "They killed my parents. Then they beat us to show them where
the food was."
- Mwasi's assailants were with the Interahamwe, the Hutu
militia that fled Rwanda after leading the 1994 genocide, she said. Aid
workers say all armed groups - including the main rebel group, RCD-Goma,
and the Mayi Mayi militia - are guilty. Dr Abuka Longombe, a Congolese
who did many of the operations, said: "They are all as bad as each
other." Dr Longombe, a big, burly man, reached into his drawer and
pulled out a photo. It showed a woman whose lips were cut from her face.
For a moment he was lost for words. "My youngest patient was five,
the eldest was 73. How can you do this to a grandma?" he said. "I
don't have an explanation. But one thing is sure: their goal was to destroy."
- Dr Longombe has seen the worst of the Congo war. Last
year he narrowly escaped death at Nyankunde in northeastern Ituri province,
when Lendu fighters killed more than 1,000 people from the rival Hema tribe.
In the hospital where he was director, the militia hacked at least 40 patients
to death in their beds. "Some had just had surgery, so they were still
in traction. It was impossible to escape," he said. Nyankunde was
among the worst atrocities of the war; some of the dead appeared to have
- Dr Longombe said a war crimes tribunal was needed to
end the culture of impunity. But hopes for justice are thin. Congo's judicial
system is crumbling, and rebel armies rarely discipline their soldiers.
- Brig-Gen Laurent Nkunda, the RCD-Goma commander in North
Kivu province, denied his men had committed mass rape. "Yes there
has been some rape," he said. "But where there is war, there
is abuse. War is not a recommendation."
- A few days later Jan Egeland, the UN under secretary
for humanitarian affairs, visited Goma. He said: "I have told the
leaders the international community will hold people accountable for war
- But for now the outside world is concentrating on cementing
the fragile peace between Joseph Kabila, the President, and his former
rebel enemies. A transitional government is sitting in the capital, Kinshasa.
In the east, fighting has slowed but not stopped, and looting, murder and
- After her operation, Rosette recovered on a narrow bed.
Beside her, about 40 other women waited. Amid the talk of peace, their
- - Names of victims have been changed.
- © 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd