Bunia, DRC – Twenty-eight year old Carine* lives in Bunia, the capital of Ituri province in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
“I used to have nightmares, flashbacks and serious headaches all the time because of the rape,” she tells of the deep trauma she has been working to overcome with the help of Sofepadi, an NGO working with victims of sexual violence in the country.
Ethnic conflict and economic crises in this resource-rich region have claimed thousands of lives. A number of warlords from the DRC have been or are being tried by the International Criminal Court at The Hague.
Despite peacekeeping efforts, peace continues to be an elusive prospect, and fighters still kill, rape and loot throughout the countryside regularly.
Five years ago, Carine was one of their victims. Along with her husband and infant child, she was abducted while returning to Bunia from a visit to another village.
The fighters first took her husband away, leaving her alone with the baby. When they later returned, they offered her some food. “They were forcing me to eat, but I wouldn’t,” Carine remembers.
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“They insisted, so I gave some sauce to the baby, and then I started eating the meat. They started laughing and said: ‘Do you know that this is your husband’s flesh you’re eating?'” Carine recalls with horror. “I was paralysed with fear and disgust,” she says.
Over a one-month period, the five fighters repeatedly raped Carine. By chance, one day when her guards were distracted, she was able to run away. When she came out of the bush, she found that she was pregnant.
According to local health workers and aid organisations, victims of rape often despise the baby born of the violence inflicted upon them by the various sides in the local conflicts.
Abortion is illegal in DRC, and many desperate victims of rape are forced to carry their pregnancies to term or seek out illicit abortions performed in dangerous and sometimes lethal conditions.
Women who are raped also face discrimination and being ostracised by family and community. They are often rejected by their husbands and families, who blame them for the assault.
Born of rape
Health workers say that having a child born from rape often adds an emotional burden for the mothers – a daily reminder of what happened to them. Often mothers find it difficult to bond with these babies or show affection. In extreme cases, they try to harm the child.
“The trauma from the rape – anxiety, nightmares, phobia, depression, suicidal thoughts – gets worse when the victim is pregnant … the child is a constant trauma in their life,” says Georgette Ngabo, a psychologist for Doctors Without Borders.
“I remember assisting a woman: When she gave birth, she stayed for a whole month without breastfeeding, and it was a real struggle for me to make her accept the baby,” she recalls.
Yet, not all mothers have this reaction towards their children born of rape. Carine says she never had negative feelings for her baby, who is now four-years-old. “I survived because of God’s grace, so I decided to name her just that,” Carine says.
“The baby is innocent and has nothing to do with all the things that happened to me,” Carine explains. “The only thing I could do was to take care of it. All of my kids have the same value to me.”
Many mothers often give positive names to their babies. “Names like Grace, Lajoie [joy], Bonheur [happiness], Ledon [gift] … [are common]. Because the child is innocent, the mothers give a positive name that, according to them, may have a positive impact on their lives,” says Adele Tiniya, a psychologist working with Sofepadi.
‘The images of rape come back’
Carine is still working to overcome the trauma she suffered and the difficulties that she faced after her abduction.
“I wasn’t able to eat meat or fish for around two years, and I wouldn’t go to the market for fear to see meat stalls,” Carine tells. “I mixed psychological counselling from Sofepadi and prayers to God to get better. Now there is really a big change, and the headaches have stopped.”
Carine is slowly gaining self-confidence thanks to the psychological assistance and support group sessions organised by Sofepadi several times a year. Recently, Carine found the courage to recount her experience at such a meeting for victims of sexual violence.
After some setbacks, she has started working again.
“I chose to sell doughnuts because this is what I was doing before all of this happened,” she says.
She took a financial grant from Sofepadi to open her business, but one of her children fell and ill and died shortly after, and she was forced to use the money for his burial. “Unfortunately, I had to spend the money I was given to bury one of the three children I had with my [first] husband. I had to pay for everything – the coffin and all the rest – because no one else contributed.”
To help her start over, Sofepadi gave her another financial aid package and this time, she was able to successfully launch her business where she still sells doughnuts today.
Rebuilding a family
Full social re-integration remains tricky for Carine.
“It’s not easy to live at your parents’ with your kids. Each time there was a problem or a disagreement at home, my mother kept reminding me of what happened, kept blaming me. My headaches would return each time,” she remembers. “The atmosphere was hostile; it made me feel more and more uncomfortable. I didn’t picture myself living with a man again for quite some time, but I changed my mind and decided to go find one.”
Carine decided to marry a man she barely knew due to her desperation to leave her parents’ home.
“I really had nowhere to go, no haven to stay in and take care of my kids. I don’t love this man – I just needed a safe place so that my kids can have their primary needs provided for.”
To her misfortune, her new husband does not care for the three children born before the marriage, and only pays attention to the child he fathered with Carine.
“The images of the rape come back when I see my first two kids complaining, asking for sweets that I can’t afford to buy for them. I sell doughnuts for a living, but my husband waits until I have no money left to give me something. And, I can’t always ask him for money,” Carine explains.
“If I hadn’t been kidnapped and raped, and my first husband killed, I wouldn’t be in such a situation.”
Carine hasn’t told her new husband that one of her children was a consequence of rape: She was too afraid of how he would react.
“Before telling him the truth, I needed to live with this man a bit more to know what kind of man he is. But I discovered he is a violent man, sometimes he hits me when he has a problem with me,” she says.
“His bad temper tells me that he wouldn’t accept being with a woman who was raped and had a child as a result.”
Sofepadi keeps an eye on Carine’s situation.
“Most of the time, children from a previous marriage are not well taken care of by the new husband. We often go to Carine’s to ask how it is going, and we see that it’s very difficult for the husband to take care of the kids she had before,” says Adele Tiniya.
“We are working to see how she could leave him because the man can be really violent. Once she came here with her face badly swollen.”
* Name changed to protect identity