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Revisiting DR Congo's victims of violence

Five months after M23 rebels seized the town of Goma, catch up with some of the civilians wounded in the conflict.

Last Modified: 29 Mar 2013 09:43
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Elie is grateful that losing his arm won't stop him from kicking a football around [Azad Essa/AlJazeera]

As Congolese rebel group M23 marched into the provincial capital of Goma last November, the city went limp with uncertainty.

The ease with which Goma was taken sent shockwaves across the world, and shivers through central and east Africa.
Once more, the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo had been thrust into an unseemly tug-of-war between the state and rebel militia. 

While analysts weighed the possible repercussions of the M23 occupation on the stability of the Congolese government, Goma residents struggled to go about their lives on the fringe of conflict. 

And as mortars landed in the marketplace and stray bullets ripped through thinly walled mud-hut homes, the number of wounded piled up. 

Doctors say the city was in complete lockdown in the days following the arrival of M23. On the outskirts of the city, where some of the fiercest fighting took place, the wounded had to make their own way to clinics and hospitals. 

On arrival, medical facilities were under-resourced to deal with the demand, burdened by water shortages and electricity cuts. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said their volunteers were unable to venture into the city to help for two days. 

Across Goma and the surrounding towns of Sake, Minova and Kirotche, 483 people were admitted to hospitals - many with gunshot wounds - within 10 days of the city's occupation. In the days leading up to the withdrawal, hospitals were running close to capacity. One-hundred and ninety-three beds were used for patients with shrapnel or gunshot wounds. 

At the HEAL Africa hospital, a Christian mission facility in Goma, 150 people had been admitted. At least 14 involved cases of sexual violence.

"In my years as a doctor, there is nothing that compares to this incident ... So many casualties, so many civilians. This was different."

- Dr Kighoma Simplice, surgeon


The United Nations says in the neighbouring town of Minova, south of Goma, 126 people were raped by fleeing Congolese soldiers.
At the Heal Africa hospital, five pregnant women were admitted with gunshot wounds between the thorax and abdomen. Two of the five lost their unborn children. 

One gunshot victim was seven-months pregnant, and underwent an emergency caesarian section to deliver her baby. The child died after a power outage shut down the incubator.

Ten days after occupying the city, M23 withdrew from Goma on December 1 with little explanation, leaving behind a trail of destruction.

The Congolese Red Cross counted at least 90 bodies in and around Goma and the Rutshuru territory, to the city's north. Scores more were left with both minor and serious injuries.

After the rebels left, the Congolese government - together with the army - returned to take control of the city.

Bosco Ntganda, a leader of M23, is now at The Hague to face charges of crimes against humanity. But there is little sense of accountability for the suffering left behind. No one has claimed responsibility, or offered compensation to those caught in middle of the conflict.

Al Jazeera has been tracking the recovery of a handful of survivors. Here are their stories:
 
Elie Kakule, 11

Elie went to fetch food from his mother, a porter, at the Virunga central market market, just as M23 and the Congolese army battled it out on the outskirts of Goma on November 19.

A mortar exploded close to the market and the boy was hit by shrapnel. Elie was rushed to the HEAL Africa hospital, where doctors said he was suffering a hemorrhage. 

"He had lost a lot of blood, but because he was brought here within half an hour of the incident, we were able to save him," Dr Kighoma Simplice, a surgeon at Heal Africa hospital, told Al Jazeera. "This boy is a survivor."

Elie lost his left arm. After a few weeks in hospital, he was sent home.

The hospital is currently searching for a prosthetic arm for the boy, but medics say he will only be ready for it after he receives therapy to strenghten his shoulder over the next six to 12 months. But prosthetics for children are especially difficult to find in the region, and finding one is a priority, Simplice said.

Elie is scheduled to return to school in August 2013.

Germain Muhindo, 18

Germain fled to Goma with his friend, 19-year-old Muhindo Arcene, after armed forces began recruiting young men to become soldiers in their home village of Nyamirima in North Kivu.

Upon reaching Goma, the boys started selling fried potatoes to make money and lived with four other boys at an uncle's house in the town. Amid the chaos of M23’s arrival in Goma on November 19, Germain was shot in the neck.

"I went to every clinic and hospital looking for Germain," Muhindo told Al Jazeera. "For 10 days, no one knew where he was." When Muhindo finally found his friend at Heal Africa's ICU 10 days later, Germain had lost his vocal cords. The bullet had destroyed his throat and larynx.

Muhindo spent 10 days searching for his friend
[Azad Essa/Al Jazeera]

Doctors say Germain had to write his name down so they could try to track down his family. They broadcast his name on the radio in hope a family member would step forward to help.

In the first two weeks, Germain was forced to stay at the hospital, because his wound needed cleaning every two hours and fears he would choke on his saliva.

After surgery, Germaine's health stabilised, but without an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist in the region, doctors lacked the skills and resources to repair his vocal cords, or to install a voice box to help him to speak again.

Though Germain's health is stable, doctors said in March he was still required to visit the hospital every two to three weeks to clean his canula and remove obstacles to help his breathing.

Emmanual Bahati, 15

Emmanual came to Goma in July 2012 to escape escalating tension in Rutshuru. After living at Kanyaruchina camp, he and thousands of other internally displaced civilians fled to Mugunga after the camp was razed to the ground in November.

In Mugunga, on the outskirts of Goma, Emmanual was shot in the neck. The bullet shattered his spinal cord.  

After surgery in late November, Emmanual's condition stabilised, but he was paralysed from the waist down and will never walk again.

"Once you cut the spinal cord, even if you go to America or India, nobody is able to repair it," Dr Simplice explained.

Emmanual's problems are compounded by his surroundings. Wheelchairs are difficult to use because of the poor state of Goma's roads and sidewalks.

In February, Emmanual contracted malaria and doctors say he suffers from "pressure sores" from having to sit in one position for great lengths of time. 

Heal Africa's doctors searched for a tricycle to help Emmanual exercise his muscles and gain basic mobility and self-sufficiency, and refused to discharge him without one.

After being shot and confined to a hospital bed for almost four months, an Irish orgnisation named CDN had a specialised tricycle made in a Goma workshop and donated it to Emmanual on March 15. 

Fanny Kituka, 12

Fanny went to fetch water from a pump on the outskirts of Goma, close to the border with Rwanda, when a stray bullet hit her in the chest.

The bullet entered her thorax, smashed through her diaphragm, and went on to hit her liver and bowel. For weeks, Fanny had to be supplied oxygen as doctors tried to repair her damaged organs.

Though doctors at Heal Africa have successfully repaired her lower abdomen, they had to move Fanny to a hospital in the Rwandan capital Kigali to find a chest surgeon. The wound's location, close to large arteries and her heart, was complicating her treatment.

In March, doctors reported her operation had been a success. "I met with her father a few days ago. He said his daughter's condition has improved," Dr Simplice said. 

Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @azadessa 

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Al Jazeera
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