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reconstruction and the hope of survivors

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Behind the high walls of the Panzi Foundation, a haven of peace in the tumult of Bukavu, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, she is barely noticed. A frail silhouette, childish face, leaning against the wall of the canteen, where young women have just finished having lunch. The air is a little heavy on this March day, it is the rainy season in South Kivu. We would give her 14 years, she is 22. But she has already lived a century.

→ MAINTENANCE. Denis Mukwege: “The courage of women shows us the way”

Furaha Ambika is one of the sixty “residents” living at Maison Dorcas, an institution of the Panzi Foundation, created in 2008 to help victims of sexual violence. Its founder, Doctor Denis Mukwege, is known throughout the world for having saved thousands of women raped in this region decimated by armed conflicts of unprecedented violence. But “the man who repairs women”, Nobel Peace Prize 2018, quickly understood: medical care, however crucial it may be, is not enough. Here, we try to heal the heads after having treated the bodies; to guide these beings with dislocated souls on the way to a delicate psychic reconstruction.

Furaha Ambika tells. She was 13 when an armed group broke into her village, south of Bukavu. A sixth-grade student, she learned, like the other girls in her community, to grow cassava and extract oil from palm seeds. That day, “She didn’t understand what was happening to her”, slips Alice Lusambo, therapist at Maison Dorcas. Neither the rape nor the germ of life which burst into her child’s womb. Her genitals are then in ruins, she spends three months in Panzi hospital, a pregnancy nestled in the hollow of the trauma. Then it’s deadlock, because the rape she suffered, as often in the Democratic Republic of Congo, cast shame on her. Her mother doesn’t want to see her anymore. Once her physical wounds have healed, she is no longer welcome in her village.

Sex slave at 17

In his book The Strength of Women (1)Denis Mukwege says ” the regret “ and ” shame “ once tested by seeing women leave after surgery, because beds had to be freed up for others. This was before the Foundation. “We had only accomplished a fraction of what was needed”he writes about Wamuzila, a sexual slave during the first Congo war in 1997. At the age of 17, she had fled her executioners, gave birth alone in the forest to a child who died in utero, before dying. to be taken care of at Panzi Hospital.

Operated on four times, finding there a place of tranquility and attention, she had liquefied when she had to return home. Wamuzila “had a nervous breakdownwrites Dr. Mukwege, threw herself on the ground, her body heavy (…), she was screaming that she was sick, that she couldn’t leave”. He then had no solution for the young woman, who died of AIDS a few years later.

Furaha escaped this tragic fate. She didn’t have to leave. For eight years, she has been raising her little Lisa, born of rape, at Maison Dorcas, where she has gradually forged an inner framework. That day, a hand on the little one’s shoulder, she observed with respect “Papa Mukwege” walking in her white blouse and placid gait through the impeccable aisles of the building. Like the others, she offers the doctor a little nod and sometimes sings for him – great “Papa Mukwege! », “Papa Mukwege! » then resonate beyond the walls of Panzi, even in the colorful streets of Bukavu.

“When she arrived, she was hiding under the beds, she was terrified”

Alice Lusambo, therapist

Initially, however, the young mother was unable to sing with others. “When she arrived, she was hiding under the beds, she was terrified”, remembers Alice, the therapist, who took many months to reassure her. Like many victims unable to verbalize their experiences, she could not access narrative therapies. “But through the singing, the dancing, the group around her, she started to come out of her bubble of terrorshe continues. This was done step by step, thanks to the programs set up here. Today, she is no longer the same, she has raised her head. »

In fact, watching Furaha tell his story in Swahili in a flow of clear words, eyes planted in yours, we measure the progress made. She was hiding? Today, she wants her family name written in black on white, refusing to give in to the fear of the executioners. She had lost the will to live? She is training as a nurse to, in turn, help others. “Today, I can do anything! »she launches in an air of joyful defiance.

Rape in the DR-Congo: reconstruction and the hope of survivors

The arts as a tool for resilience

Not all of them, however, manage to go that far. Some wounds never close completely, testifies one of the doctors, Désiré Alumeti. “They killed me”, women often say. Attacked in their very integrity, they feel dead inside.

“Here, rape is not only a barbaric attack, it is a weapon of warexplains this pediatric surgeon. By destroying women, you destroy communities. They are raped in front of their husbands, so that they will reject them in shame, and in front of their own children. Families are breaking up. Customary chiefs are also violated so that they lose all authority. » The map of mass rapes is often superimposed on that of the mines of cobalt, coltan, gold or tungsten, of which the country abounds.

“Here, rape is not only a barbaric attack, it is a weapon of war. »

Désiré Alumeti, pediatric surgeon

At the Panzi Foundation, the approach is “holistic”, based on four pillars – medical, psychological, socio-economic and legal; and every step of care is essential. Individual therapies, group therapies, but also the use of the arts as a tool for resilience.

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“We don’t have the scientific evidence for this, but we see that singing and dancing helps enormouslytestifies Denis Mukwege. Humiliated women, who go into hiding, cannot sleep, go back to eating, sleeping, rediscover a joy of living. » At the end of March, the creation of a chair on “medical humanities” was formalized at Panzi to deepen the subject and improve protocols, with the support of France.

The global network of “survivors”

The other major aspect is that of the reintegration of women and what the Anglo-Saxons call their empowerment – which consists in giving a real capacity to act. This involves learning a trade, so that they can earn enough to live on when they leave the Foundation. Thanks to the support of various donors, the organization is developing training in sewing and jewelry making, while encouraging solidarity mutuals (Muso), which allow women to pool savings. This also involves legal support, to punish the crimes committed – which remains a challenge at this stage, recognizes Denis Mukwege. In recent years, the Nobel Peace Prize winner has never ceased to denounce, in vain, the impunity of the executioners and the vicious circle in which this deep injustice always plunged his country.

→ INVESTIGATION. In the DRC, Doctor Denis Mukwege’s fight for justice

Finally, this involves advocacy. Beyond NGOs and experts, women are seizing it, in particular through the Sema network, a global network for victims and survivors of sexual violence in wartime, created in 2017. The idea? May their vulnerability and their experience be a strength, from which they can draw unique expertise in the fight against sexual crimes. In DR-Congo, 5,000 women are already members, despite pressure and fear. And we can bet that Furaha, and perhaps later his daughter Lisa, will one day join his ranks.

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