The Long Road Home for Congolese Rape Victims
September 2009

by Jean Chung

Women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo suffer from the worst sexual violence in the world. The United Nations figures show that there were at least 36 cases of rape a day, 1,100 a month, and 13,247 a year in 2007 alone. Some say there are more than 200,000 to 500,000 victims living in the country. Many of them suffer from the traumatic physical injury called fistula and stay inside hospitals for many years. [Fistulas in the Congo are most often caused by brutal gang rapes that leave victims with no control over urination or defecation and, therefore, spurned by all.]

© Jean Chung for Pierre & Alexandra Boulat Association
Niyonzima Joyeuse, 48, center, along with Furaha Olive, 17, left, rides in a jeep to her village in Rubaya, Masisi Territory, the Democratic Republic of Congo. She was returning home five months after her rape. Joyeuse and Olive stayed at a transit center in Goma along with 20 other victims of sexual violence before returning to their villages.
When I went to the eastern part of the DR Congo for the first time in 2008, I met hundreds of women who were staying in different hospitals. Some had just come from villages; others had already received a couple of fistula repair surgeries. A few of them rode a jeep back to their villages. Some were waiting for more women to fill up the seats in a chartered helicopter. At that time I was so shocked by the brutality of the sexual violence and only focused on the life inside the hospitals.

Violated by armed men and civilians, some women I interviewed spoke about how their lives had been ruined. However, most talked about life after the hospitals. They talked about the future with hope even if it may be unrealistic. For example, they talked about selling small items such as salt and vegetables. The future, however, seems daunting: since many of the rape victims' husbands had left them, they had to start life all over again without any help; also on return to their villages the women face the stigma of being a victim. Reintegration into their villages is a matter of survival and this crucial moment has not received in-depth reportage by the media.

© Jean Chung for Pierre & Alexandra Boulat Association
Joyeuse, 48, center, reunites with her husband on her return from the Hope in Action's transit center in Goma. Her husband, a farmer and an evangelist, said he had waited for his wife for five months while she was cared for at Goma's Keshero Hospital after her rape by a gunman.
I decided to go back to the Congo early this year to follow some of the women back to their villages. I went to a transit center where treated victims stay until the vehicles are available. When the counselors told the women that they were going back home, they cheered and smiled. I could not imagine how it must have felt. What if villagers reject them? What if they encountered prejudice? A lot of questions crossed my mind.

One group of women I followed had mixed receptions. I had gone with three women – Niyonzima Joyeuse, Musabymana Nyirarukundo and Furaha Olive – to the village of Rubaya, about 50 km [31 miles] north of Goma. When we arrived in the town almost a hundred people gathered around the jeep provided by the same NGO that had treated the women. Among the crowd at the back of the jeep was Joyeuse's husband. She got off and they embraced as the crowd cheered. It was a "joyous" return for her. Her husband was a farmer and an evangelist who had waited five months for her return.

© Jean Chung for Pierre & Alexandra Boulat Association
Musabymana Nyirarukundo, 34, and her daughter, Pendeza Miriam, 8, were raped on two separate days back in February 2009. They were healed, and ready for the trip back to their village. Since the village was so far away, they stopped in Rubaya in Masisi Territory at her uncle's house first. She also has a son.
However, Nyirarukundo's return was not as welcoming as Joyeuse's. Her husband had left her and their two children two months previously after she and one daughter were raped. Her village was still far away from Rubaya and still insecure. Nyirarukundo temporarily stayed in her uncle's house but she had no resources. The little money she had from the hospital was not enough for her to survive for very long. She volunteered that she would take her husband back if he returned, "How can a woman live without a husband?" she said.

© Jean Chung for Pierre & Alexandra Boulat Association
Musabymana Nyirarukundo, 34, and her daughter, Pendeza Miriam, 8, arrived at their uncle's house in Rubabaya. However, Nyirarukundo was worried about her future: she had no job and her husband had left after the rape and married another woman.According to NGO workers who help victims of sexual violence, the economic dilemma is the biggest problem for the re-integration of the victims.
The last person to leave the jeep was 17-year-old Olive with her baby girl, a product of last year's rape. Together they returned the next morning to her home housing parents and two sisters. As she neared the house her sisters ran to Furaha and happily hugged her. The sisters and neighbors hugged and kissed each other to celebrate her return.

While not all returns are as rosy as those of Joyeuse and Olive, it did look as if education and counseling work by NGOs and other concerned individuals was slowly making an impact on women's lives in the Congo. Counselors in villages talk to the family members to help the rape victims' reintegration. Most of these women have neither the financial resources nor physical energy to completely return to their previous lives but their hopeful resolve will give the victims strength for the future.

© Jean Chung for Pierre & Alexandra Boulat Association

[Pierre & Alexandra Boulat Association and Canon Europe made this project possible.]

Jean Chung, a native South Korean, is an award-winning photographer who had gained international acclaim for her photographic documentations, especially in Afghanistan and Africa. She is a winner of the prestigious CARE Humanitaire Reportage in 2007 and Pierre & Alexandra Boulat Award in 2008, Perpignan, France. She is also the first-prize winner of Days Japan Photojournalism Award and WHO's Stop Tuberculosis Partnership Award in 2008. Since starting as a full-time freelance photojournalist in 2004, her assignments have ranged from general news to feature stories that deal with social issues and human conditions in various parts of the world. She hopes to bring awareness to the public with these issues and continues to be the voice for the "voiceless" and oppressed women of the world. She is also the author of her autobiographical essay, "A Photographer in Kabul," and reportage on the DR Congo's sexual violence, "Tears in the Congo," which we document this month.

For many more arresting images see:

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