Sunday, December 3, 2006

BUKAVU, Congo — At the Panzi Hospital here in South Kivu province, doctors repair some of the most horrific injuries of war.

The hospital treats women with gynecological and reproductive injuries, the seemingly unhealable wounds inflicted by the gang rapes or invasive tortures of soldiers bent on terrifying the civilian population.

Doctors here treat women with pregnancy complications and obstetric fistulas, in which a woman’s reproductive and urinary organs are so badly injured they cannot heal, creating chronic injury and infections.

Kivu has long been a battleground, with more than a dozen militias sporadically fighting government troops and each other for control of resources and transportation routes.

War has battered eastern Congo for a decade, and the women are paying with their lives and dignity.

The Panzi Hospital has treated some 10,000 victims of sexual violence in the past five years and operated on more than 1,200 women with rape-induced fistulas.

Jan Egeland, the U.N. coordinator for humanitarian-relief operations, said he has seen dozens of sexually assaulted girls recovering at this hospital — all of them younger than 12 years old.

Many women have been kidnapped by military groups, forced to work as soldiers, sexual slaves or in other capacities until they are ransomed or escape. HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are also a problem.

“It is a new technique of war that we are seeing,” Dr. Denis Mukwege told reporters last week. “It is a sickness of our century … a tactic that aims to destroy through the spread of HIV and mutilation.”

He was speaking on Friday, which was World AIDS Day.

Dr. Mukwege is something of a maverick in this part of the world, where women’s health issues are forgotten as a community unravels.

Congolese President Joseph Kabila promised Mr. Egeland during a recent visit that if he won last month’s election — which he did — he would invite the Panzi Hospital’s staff to undertake a national campaign against sexual abuse.

Mr. Egeland told reporters last week that war-related violence and fistulas are now a global problem, although “it is probably more prevalent now in eastern Congo than anywhere else in the world.”

The U.N. Population Fund, known by the acronym UNFPA, seeks $20 million this year to prevent and treat sexual violence against women in refugee camps and conflict zones. That amount is included in the $3.9 billion humanitarian appeal the United Nations issued Thursday for humanitarian relief next year, a smaller amount than last year, but still nearly twice the annual U.N. operating budget.

The 2007 appeal will help 27 million people, nearly all of them in two dozen African countries, as well as the Palestinian territories. More than $1 billion — a quarter of the total appeal — is earmarked for Sudan. The Congo, which needs some $687 million, is second.

The money will go to bring relief to people suffering from the effects of war, natural disaster, drought, hunger and other catastrophes around the world. Governments, independent groups and individuals can contribute to specific sections of the appeal, which is administered by the U.N. office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs.

Mr. Egeland noted on Thursday that all the nations that received less than half the amount they sought are in Africa.

“There is some degree of in-built discrimination in our generosity,” said the famously outspoken aid official. “We are quicker when it is Kosovo, or Lebanon or Iraq, or places close to the rich world,” he said.

“Our main appeal today is that we cannot continue with half-funding, two-thirds funding,” Mr. Egeland told reporters.

“We cannot say anymore to our people in the field: ‘Listen, you have a life-saving program. You’ve got 50 percent of the funding only; you make the choices of who should get food and who should not get food.’ [These are] impossible choices that we are giving our people in the field,” he said.

• Betsy Pisik can be reached by e-mail at bpisik@

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