- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 10, 2009

GOMA, Congo | Masika Katsuva was once the wife of a successful businessman, an educated woman who raised her four daughters also to be strong and proud.

That idyllic life ended in early 1999, when Rwanda-backed militants broke into the family’s home. First they looted everything they could carry. Then they came back.

The rebels tortured her husband, a sophisticated man who regularly traveled on business to Dubai and Shanghai, killing him before her eyes. Then they raped two of her daughters, forcing Mrs. Katsuva to watch. They raped her as well - on top of the remains of her husband’s body. The rape was so savage that she had to undergo eight surgeries over the course of a year to repair delicate tissue.

But Mrs. Katsuva did not give in to despair. Today, she runs a combination halfway house and vegetable farm just outside Goma. It is a sanctuary that allows violated women to gather strength and self-respect through medical attention, faith, work and the company of others who share these horrific experiences.

Tens of thousands of women and children have been abducted and raped in eastern Congo in the past decade - victims of a crude and cruel effort to destroy rural communities by obliterating the hardest-working members of society. Despite a recent lull in fighting, more victims than ever are seeking care in hospitals, clinics and private shelters.

Mrs. Katsuva, 41, said her facility has taken in more than 6,000 women since 2000 and the numbers grow every year.

“They say the war is officially over,” Mrs. Katsuva said. “Really, it is not.”

With the central government unable to protect its citizens or to care for rape victims, efforts like Mrs. Katsuva’s are filling a desperate void.

Dozens of doctors, lawyers, activists and survivors have launched programs to deal with the scourge of rape and sexual torture. They work in capital cities of North and South Kivu, overlooking the Great Lakes. But they also venture down overgrown dirt tracks, plunging deep into rural communities, to offer rape victims first aid and transportation to hospitals.

These mobile units also counsel men, telling them not to shun their abused wives.

“We have a mobile team that tries to reach husbands and explain,” said Dr. Denis Mukwege, an obstetrician-gynecologist who has pioneered surgical techniques to treat traumatic fistulas of reproductive organs and tissues.

“We tell them not to leave, to stay with their wives, because it is not her fault. To have compassion.”

Even horror stories have heroes, and Dr. Mukwege fits the role. Handsome and soft-spoken, he is the founder of Panzi hospital, in the South Kivu capital, Bukavu. There, he has pioneered surgical techniques to repair traumatic injuries to the birth canal, bladder, vagina and rectum.

Inside the hospital, stuffy, crowded but eerily silent wards house recuperating patients. Outside, scores of women and children bustle around the grounds in the din of an open-air dining room. Most of the women - and sometimes their children - have been raped by soldiers or militiamen.

Panzi does not charge for its services, and some women stay there for months, waiting for or recuperating from surgery.

Dr. Mukwege, who is increasingly well known outside of Bukavu, has toured the United States with the sponsorship of V-Day, a nonprofit group founded by American playwright Eve Ensler to try to stamp out violence against women.

Panzi hospital is the gold standard for treating complicated fistulas, but there are other hospitals that help rape victims.

The Christian charity Heal Africa, also in eastern Congo, offers a full slate of services to women who have been sexually assaulted: surgery to repair rape-torn tissues, psychological and legal counseling, pastoral care, vegetable gardens to maintain, and a workshop that teaches sewing.

One Heal Africa volunteer, Chelsie Frank, an American from Minnesota, has quickly mastered French and Swahili and runs the sewing center in the charity’s Goma compound.

“These women will be able to take care of themselves with sewing and other skills,” said Ms. Frank, a blue-eyed blonde in her early 20s who came to Congo through her church group. She is unrelentingly upbeat, finding something to praise in each headband, bookmark, blouse and swaddling cloth the women produce.

Each sale brings a woman closer to being able to buy a manual sewing machine to take with her when she leaves - a basis for earnings.

Congo specialists and villagers alike say the key to reducing sexual violence is to professionalize the police, army and courts.

Despite strong rape laws and mandatory sentences of up to 20 years, few rapists here are ever punished. The police are poorly trained and desperately undermanned, and judges are known to accept small cash gratuities to throw out a case or side with the defendant. Most of the courts are mired in a backlog of cases.

One extraordinary woman in Bukavu is trying to make a difference.

The first female officer in the Kivus tasked to take on sexual violence cases, police Maj. Honorine Munyole says her unit has gone from a one-woman rape squad to 30 officers. That is better, but barely enough, she said.

“Men will not stop raping women as long as they are almost sure to get away with it,” Maj. Munyole said. “Right now, they know they will not be caught, and until the impunity has disappeared, there is nothing to stop them.”

As she spoke, a girl barely into her teens arrived at the police station, summoned by officers who caught the young man she said had raped her two weeks earlier.

Maj. Munyole greeted the girl with a big hug and soft words. Within minutes, the man whom she accused of the attack was shown into the office where she sat, quietly trembling.

The boy was sullen, silent and seemingly unrepentant. Under new laws, he could draw 15 years in a Congolese prison. Or not. A mere $40 can sometimes erase a name from the docket.

“Catching him was only the first step,” Maj. Munyole said. “A lot has to happen in the courts for him” to be convicted.

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