MSF International President raises alarm over mass rape and violence against civilians in the Ituri region of DR Congo

PBS-News Hour: "The idea of someone taking a machete to a six year old child is a disturbing concept" - Rowan Gillies on the indiscriminate violence in the DRC.

© Albert Viñas
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The DRC has plummeted into absolute poverty and many Congolese do not receive the most basic needs and are confronted with indiscriminate violence. In Katanga province, the precarious conditions and lack of access to healthcare structures has been aggravated by the return of internally displaced people to their places of origin in very poor condition and without any assistance.

 

"What shocks me is that 77% of rape victims who presented themselves to MSF in the last six months, were raped by two or more assailants," , Dr. Rowan Gillies told a news conference in Geneva.

"Over a period of 20 months, we treated more than 2,500 women in our hospital in Bunia. I find these figures horrific and disgraceful. And they are only the tip of the iceberg.

"This insidious form of violence is also an indication of how difficult life is for civilians in this region as a result of the ongoing fighting. We have seen constant violence against civilians since we started working in the Bon Marché hospital in May 2003.

But with the current overt deterioration, we are concerned that civilians are caught up in the fighting or hiding in the bush without any protection or assistance. Our ability to access the area is incredibly limited as we suspended activities outside of Bunia after the assassination of nine MONUC soldiers on 25th of March. We are only starting to go back now, assessing the security situation day by day. The situation doesn't seem to get better, it's getting worse."

According to Dr. Abiy Tamrat, Head of the Emergency Desk for MSF's Ituri program, civilians are bearing the brunt of this conflict.

"MSF only sees a very small portion of the people needing assistance," said Tamrat. "On February 22, more than 150 people, fleeing the area of Kakwa and trying to cross the mountain range to reach the relatively safe camp of Tché, were ambushed. 'Most of them were killed', is what the few survivors who reached our hospital told us. This was before the suspension of our activities. Today, we have no access to civilians who might be wounded in the current fighting."

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MSF works in reference hospitals as well as health centres and health posts. The objective is to provide quality medical assistance, improve the nutritional status of the population and respond to emergencies. Activities include vaccinations, external consultations, supplementary and therapeutic nutritional programmes, surgery, laboratory activities, training of health care staff, emergency preparedness activities and supply of medicines and medical as well as logistical material.

 

"We are also very concerned for the fate of the displaced. (Recently) we managed to cautiously reach the settlement of Kakwa, where people are in a dire state. A rapid assessment carried out during one of our visits mid-February showed 25% global malnutrition and 8% severe malnutrition.

"It could increase now aid is interrupted.

"The sanitation in the camp is so bad that we fear for cholera which is endemic in the region. Although is hasn't happened, 30% of the consultations involve diarrhoeal diseases," said Tamrat.

Before temporarily suspending activities, MSF was delivering medical aid, water and sanitation to four camps; Kakwa, Tché, Tchomia and Gira. Each are between two to three hours drive from Bunia, where approximately 40,000 displaced have settled.

Dr. Rowan Gillies insisted that "the respect for civilian life and minimizing the suffering of civilians had to be one of the prime concerns of all combatant parties, including MONUC."

"A situation of generalised rape accompanied by extreme cruelty", is how Françoise Duroch, MSF, described the situation in the region of Bunia, where she helped set up an MSF program to help victims of sexual violence.

MSF's findings are alarming:

  • 2,567 patients were treated for rape or sexual violence in MSF's hospital in Bunia from June 2003 to January 2005.
  • Over the last 6 months, analysis of the data show that all ages were affected, from 4 months to 80 years old.
  • 77% of the victims had been collectively raped by several men
  • 30% by more than five men
  • 80% of the victims was raped under the threat of a weapon
  • and in 12% of the cases women had to undergo other forms of torture and degrading acts.

    Although sexual violence is generalised, four phenomenons can be distinguished: systematic rapes by armed men, for instance abusing all women of a particular village; "routine" rape by military and civilians; the abduction of young girls who are used as sex and domestic slaves in military camps; and sexual exploitation encouraged by the extreme poverty and vulnerability of the population.

    While working as a surgeon in Bunia during January, Dr. Rowan Gillies treated several rape victims.

    "A girl of about 14 came in after she had been tied down by militias and raped by between 8 and 10 perpetrators.," Dr Gillies said. "They used sticks, guns and knives and there was a need to repair the considerable physical damage. But the other damage we can unfortunately not do much about."

    Gillies also delivered babies for women who had been raped, knowing that the future of these children is very uncertain.

    "But life has to continue, and the women have no choice but to go on," added Françoise Duroch. "After treatment they often go back home, back to where their family is living and cultivating. Because of the lack of protection in the area, we cannot guarantee their safety. They go home in fear of being stigmatised. Many of the rapes happen in the presence of the family. We can offer medical and some psycho-social care for the victim, but the trauma touches the whole community."

    This article is based on an MSF press conference on March 3, 2005.