Congo's Resilient Rape Survivors

In eastern Congo, more than 15,000 women were raped in 2009. Assaults included a four-day mass rape by rebel groups of more than 300 women.

Robin Hammond/Panos

Robin Hammond/Panos

"Ubakaji" is the Congolese word for rape. It is borrowed from the language of neighboring Tanzania; Congolese culture itself did not openly speak of rape until very recently.

An estimated 500,000 women and girls have been victims of sexual violence since the Second Congo War began in 1996. In this photo essay by Robin Hammond, we'll meet some of them, including rape survivors as young as 9-years-old, teenagers impregnated by their rapists, and a woman whose eyes were gouged out by her attackers.

Photographs by Robin Hammond

Robin Hammond/Panos

Fourteen-year old Asma Abdu (right) was in the forest looking for wood when she was attacked by two soldiers.

"When I wanted to cry, one put a gun in my mouth while the other raped me," she said. "When the first had finished, the other took his turn. I thought they were going to kill me. After that I went home and told my mother. As she was also a victim of sexual violence, she knew what to do."

Robin Hammond/Panos

Twenty-two-year old Basemae Maombi's eyes were cut out when she recognized one of the men raping her.

Robin Hammond/Panos

Two weeks before this photo was taken, 9-year-old Ntagisanimana was raped. Her mother was at church at the time. The man pushed her legs apart with such force that it damaged her hip. She is now in the hospital having her hip and injuries to her genitals treated.

Robin Hammond/Panos

This photo depicts survivors of sexual violence at a Caritas drop-in aid center in Goma, North Kivu province, Congo. Photo taken May 2010.

Robin Hammond/Panos

The Alpha Ujuvi charity supports vulnerable children, in particular orphans, who've suffered sexual violence, abandoned children, and children with HIV/AIDS. Half of the 50 children at the home have been raped, many by armed men.

Robin Hammond / Panos

Children exercise outside Alpha Ujuvi's Talitakum House, where 25 of 50 residents—both boys and girls—have been raped.

Robin Hammond / Panos

Two Alpha Ujuvi residents.

Robin Hammond / Panos

Sister Deodata, the Ursuline nun who heads Alpha Ujuvi.

"Everybody knows that the principle cause of sexual violence is the war," she says. "Many families were displaced and forced into poverty. Children were abused when they were looking for work in order to buy food."

"We’ve had many children who’ve been made sexual slaves. Children can be infected with disease, including HIV. Some suffer internal injuries. They have severe mental trauma and their behavior changes. They start to neglect themselves; they stop washing and take drugs, especially glue and alcohol, to forget. They feel disgusted with themselves."

Robin Hammond/Panos

A group portrait of the Alpha Ujuvi residents.

Robin Hammond / Panos

Sixteen-year old Rikizi and the baby born as a result of her rape. They live in a North Kivu camp for internally displaced people.

Robin Hammond/Panos

This internally displaced persons camp sprung up around a United Nations peacekeeping outpost in the North Kivu town of Rutshuru. Thousands fled their villages, carrying a few belongings on their backs, in the hope of avoiding armed attacks as rebels and the army battled for control of North Kivu.

Photo taken November 2008.

Robin Hammond / Panos

Maombi, 26 years old, lives in an IDP camp with her husband and four children. At the time of the attack against their village, she, her husband, and their youngest child were in their tent. Six men wearing military uniforms and speaking the Rwandan language Kinyarwanda tore into the tent with knives. Her husband ran away, but Maombi couldn’t get away fast enough with the child.

Inside, one attacker held a gun to her 4-year-old’s head, one pointed a gun at her, and the third raped her. They each took their turn, and said that she and her child would die if she cried. The child saw the entire sex attack.

Sometime during the attack Maombi lost consciousness. When the third of the men finished the rape, they set the tent on fire with Maombi and her child inside. Maombi survived, but with severe burns. The young child died.

“When my mind comes back, it is two weeks later," she says. "It was the time they informed me the baby died in the fire. It felt like a death I couldn’t imagine.”

Robin Hammond/Panos

Eighteen-year-old Gina Riziki, pregnant as a result of being raped.

Robin Hammond / Panos

Twenty-one-year-old Sarama and her 10-month-old baby Jedite—born as a result of her rape—in a Goma hospital.

A hospital bed designed for the treatment of rape and sexual violence-related injuries. At a hospital in Goma. Photo taken February 2008.

Robin Hammond / Panos

Congo's president, Joseph Kabila, is urging the U.N. to withdraw its 20,000-troop peacekeeping force. Though the U.N.'s mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, MONUC, is regarded with suspicion for its alleged complicity with certain armed militias, many fear the incidence of sexual violence will increase if the U.N. pulls out.