Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Kivu, Bukavu. 03/02/2017. Panzi Hospital in Bukavu has become one of the benchmark centres for women who have suffered sexual abuse. The hospital offers a complete treatment programme, ranging from emergency surgery to support with a view to social and economic reintegration into the community the women belong to.

Mwavita, born in a time of war

Mwavita Born in a time of war is one of the finalist works of the Marco Luchetta International Journalism Award. The Award aims to consider journalism that reveals the amount of suffering in the world of those who have been subject to violence.


If you listen carefully, you can still hear the echo of a cry, that for more than a century has covered the forest of Congo: “The horror, the horror”. Beyond the cries of monkeys and the constant roar of the rain, if you listen closely it penetrates so deep, it sends chills and dizziness through you, because the “heart of darkness”, the Democratic Republic of Congo crushes optimism, leaves no room for any hope and annihilates any remnant of utopia that is left; whoever chooses to come down here, must look into the eyes of evil and say, it must consider personal confidence in the aftermath,  which often soothes the suffering itself.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is a cursed land; here, the lives of the living and the dead are constant friends, where everything is acquitted by the communism of evil, of the national suffering, of a pain so ordinary, that like a fog of madness and violence, it prevents any human view contingent on a blind and pitiless cruelty.

Since the days when the Liberated State of Congo was a personal possession of King Leopold II, this region always gave the world what the market asked for: it started with slaves and was then followed by rubber, copper, gold, ivory, wood, diamond, titanium, uranium, methane and, finally coltan. In return the Congo received the worst human crisis in history. It is in fact there that the gravest tragedy of these times occurred, after the Second World War, with over 6 million dead, silent genocide, ethical conflicts and with armed groups that even today still haunt the country, mostly those in the Eastern regions. There, where the soil dazzles, and the guerrillas continue undisturbed by their control, is the horror, that has affected every aspect of society: men who live all day and night in the mines searching for a new vein of ore, children armed with AK-47s that they keep under surveillance and women who become the battleground of anonymous sexual violence, brutal as the bayonettes, that command mothers and daughters to an earthly death without rebate or excuse of innocence.

In a hut made of earth and mud on the main road of Rutshuru a woman is returning to her home with a tank of water. She is sixty years old, but on first sight, it is hard to distinguish her age: her walk is hunched, her face is a portrait of fierce poverty, and her story is an ode to a sacred patience to live. Her name is Jeanna Gasimba and, sat inside her home, she has the courage to describe her experience: “I originate from Rutshuru, where in 2012 there was a war. There were the M23 rebels and you could see the military everywhere. One day I went to pick vegetables and men abused me. I didn’t tell anyone but decided to go to Mweso, where I had relatives, and so I ran away with my children.” Jeanna, who today works for the cooperation in support of vulnerable women created by the Italian NGO Avsi, takes a deep breath and continues: “The war also arrived there and caused terrible things: villages up in flames and people killed by being hit by shovels; my son was killed by a group of armed men and my daughter, a few months ago now, was raped.” The mother turned her head and looked towards a dark corner of the house.
Bora Uzima is 18 years old, she is sat on the floor biting the hem of her dress whenever she has a piercing pain in her stomach. And as her mother explained: “She had to abandon her studies because after the rape she was left pregnant and, besides being near the end of her pregnancy, she also had problems with the vagina that was caused by the rape. I am desperate; we don’t have money and my daughter and I share the same horror: that of being raped. It’s atrocious.”

Sexual violence is a turmoil that is ravaging the country. Like a virus, rape crept into the Democratic Republic of Congo during the second Congolese war. It was at the end of the 90’s that they began to register the first cases of women who were abused and tortured. A barbarism introduced into the region of the Great Lakes like a weapon of war, that then happened more and more: violence committed by rebels and bandits is common, but it has come from armed military and loyalist troops, according to the figures of the United Nations, who registered over 15 million cases of abused women in 2015 alone, this amounts to a rape happening every half hour.

The smell of disinfectant and urine pervades the operating theatre of the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu. A woman lies down on a bed, while the doctor John Peter Mulindwa, along with his team, is attempting to reconstruct the vagina. Meanwhile, another medic who has finished a surgical operation takes off a mask, gloves and shirt: like a statue, walking in the corridors like a marabout, because in Kivu Dr Denis Mukwege is more than a doctor, he is the the representative of the fight against sexual violence. A candidate of the Nobel prize in 2014 and winner of the Sakharov prize in the same year, the surgeon moves around escorted by policemen since an attempted to kill him had already once as he was entering his office, he says: “Who tried to kill me? I don’t know, what is certain is that once you denounce the crimes, the criminals don’t appreciate it, but they have to face it. I began to dedicate my life to the women who are victims of violence and I saw the first cases of this abuse during the war. We were unprepared and the women who came to hospital were in devastating conditions, with their internal organs torn apart”. Dr Mukwege, had to take care not only of rape cases, but also torture, like the use of sharp objects on the genitalia, or amputation of the breasts and of the clitorus, he goes on to say: “Rape is a social plague, it destroys women and society, because the victims are not treated as such, but instead they are vilified, criticised for being prostitutes and this is driven by both their husbands, and the community. Not to mention those who contract HIV, which is an illness that causes further social exclusion.” Later when asked what had to be done to end this situation, the Nobel Prize candidate said: “First of all, punish all the offenders. Because impunity causes them to continue to carry out these atrocities. And then there needs to be a firm political push, national and international, in order to stop the raw materials of Congo, and consequently, also the war as being in their possession.

Yet, to this day, the smell of death does not seem to want to leave the Congo. The forests are drenched as they carry the clouds and the ground is red from blood, as if it was watered by these grounds of torture, now crystallised in Congolese eternity. To understand this, you simply need to follow those tracks of mud that cut through the walls of the African jungle and arrive in the small village of Kavumu, just a few kilometers from Bakavu. Here, from 2013 to 2016 a nightmare, difficult to even just to imagine, occurred in absolute silence. During this period, 44 children, from the age of 2 to 11, were taken in the night, out to the forest and then repeatedly raped by armed men, the abused, were presumably persuaded by one who having had intercourse with a virgin and having shed her blood had guaranteed invincibility and wealth. The guilty, 74 million of them, who were trialed by the judge Frederic Batumike, are now in prison awaiting trial for rape and the criminals against humanity, but, in the meantime, a mark of horror that does not allow for refuge was imprinted: and nothing will remove it.

Beatrice is 11 years old, she is a child with two deep, dark eyes, that hold such pain and seem to shout in absolute anger in the silence of the house of her grandmother where she lives. When, under the constant rain, it drives towards the fields, indicating to everyone: she is alone, bearer of the violence of man’s atrocious folly, with a pain that to others she is blamed and shamed for, across the streets of the village of Kavumu. She walks without ever turning around, behind her is lost innocence, ahead of her is no future, but purely a mind full of tragedy, from which there is no escape. Tears and rain become one, while a gaze follows Beatrice’s outline, that gets lost in the haze of a world that establishes in anyone’s step an innate sense of guilt and a primordial fear for the ubiquitous pain of others.