By Chris Crowstaff, Safeworld founder
Early in 2010, a remarkable husband and wife team joined the Safeworld online volunteers centre.
Meet Bahati and Mugisho
Bahati Valérie and her husband, Mugisho Theophile, live in Rwanda but they are originally from South Kivu in DR Congo. Like many others, they have fled from conflict.
When we first 'met' Bahati and Mugisho online, Mugisho had found work at Kigali University and Bahati was at home with their 3-year-old daughter. But they could not abandon the people they had left at home in the DRC. Especially the women.
Mugisho would recount to me stories of the violence 'back home'; of the rape and abuse of women. Of the poverty and hopelessness.
Over time, I came to know more about the region. Like many people I already knew a little about the genocide in Rwanda and that DR Congo was a country which seemed to be in endless conflict. I had heard of conflict minerals and armies fighting for control. But this was different.
This was first-hand and there was a passion that was contagious and unstoppable. For Mugisho and Bahati, the story had to be told.
Mugisho sent us the first of many articles and blogs, An Eye on Mass Rapes in DRC.
One day Mugisho said that they were going to be going to the DRC to visit their family and friends. I suggested that perhaps they could talk to some of the women and we could publish their stories.
Their plans were bigger.
By the time they got back to Rwanda they had decided to set up an organisation to actively do something to support the women and girls around their homeland in South Kivu. They called it COFAPRI
Within months they had gone further. They had established local coordinators in ten villages and were building a network. All with their own money.
Soon we were getting photos of the livestock they had bought - and more stories from the women.
Arrest and Release
The New Year of 2011 began with the following email from Mugisho:
"I hope you started the new year in a safe way with Safeworld. Bahati is pregnant and we hope this time God will bless us with a kid... [Bahati had suffered a series of miscarriages].
We are also sorry to let you know that one of our members has been arrested in Nyangezi. He was arrested for rebelling women and girls, which is not true. He was just discussing issues of household and war violence in the country. Now I am on the way to the place to see how we can intervene for his release."
And, two weeks later, the following:
"I am terribly sorry not to have been in touch with you for such a long period. Indeed, I was struggling to release the member who was arrested, which I succeeded... Thank you for the efforts you had summoned to help us free our member. He is very committed to continue his activities. The candle is lighted to chase darkness."
New Baby - Even More Plans
You would think that with the combination of a new baby, and the obvious dangers that they might be putting themselves into, would have given Mughisho and Bahati second thoughts
But no; within a few weeks of the birth of their baby son in April, they had even more plans.
Bahati would make the journey this time. It was felt that, as a women, she would connect closely with the women and present less of a 'threat' to the men.
"For us the best way to sensitize village women is to integrate their daily activities, this is what Bahati is doing with them when she meets them at their home. They understand that we are really committed to uplifting them as women. Bahati discusses their daily activities and issues with them."
Later that summer, when Bahati was safely back in Rwanda, we received news that COFAPRI members and one of the villages had suffered great loss. Armed bandits had come from the mountains, raided stores, stolen animals and even looted the school, which was Mugisho's childhood school. Moreover, they kidnapped a man at gunpoint and refused to free him until a ransom of $15,000 was paid.
Country Back at War
Over the next few months, Mugisho and Bahati made several more trips to the DRC. Every journey was fraught with dangers. But the respect for the work they were doing in the villages grew. Soon even many local village elders were on their side.
By May this year, the international media was carrying regular stories about a new outbreak of violence in DRC, and accusations that the Rwandan government was connected to the violence. We started to get increasingly worrying emails.
Mugisho said there was an increased presence of the militia in the region and the local communities were growing alarmed, remembering the previous atrocities.
"The DRC, my country is again under fire. A new war is initiated in North Kivu province. War is raging and many innocent people are being killed while thousands of others are fleeing the area, making them become homeless. The situation makes everyone in the country very angry and fearful. War is the only discussion on people's tongues. Things are worsening day to day. "
But the troubles weren't limited to inside the country
Mugisho started writing about troubles at the border
"The DRC embassy in Rwanda issues us with legal papers that confirm we are Congolese based in Kigali and, in that temporary passport, Rwanda attaches the work permit. However, when we go the DRC, those custom officers refuse it saying it is not legal. Their aim is that you give them corruption money."
By the end of July, Bahati was busy preparing for her next trip to the DRC. This time their daughter Jemima wanting to go as well. It was school-holidays and she wanted to visit her homeland.
Mugisho contacted the local coordinators, who checked out the situation to assess safety. They reported that the situation in their region was so far unaffected by the renewed conflict, and by mid-August, Bahati had left for her travels with the two children.
Two days later Mugisho wrote and said they had safely reached the first village,. They were already having meetings with the COFAPRI members there, and were making plans to travel on with a small team, over the mountains to the more remote villages.
Someone had gone on ahead to check the security situation and all still seemed safe. The following Monday, Bahati had completed her travels around the villages and was starting the long journey home when we suddenly got an email..
'Bahati refused entry to Rwanda'.
We had no real idea what that meant and immediately started wondering what we could do - who could we talk to. What did this mean? But Mugisho wrote a few hours later and explained.
At the border the DRC customs officials had refused to stamp her documents. Although she had the proper paperwork, the customs people refused to accept them. They demanded money for some worthless paperwork which Bahati knew was meaningless. Realising that this is a way for the border guards to receive corruption money, she refused to purchase the 'temporary passport'.
"When they saw they did not get anything from her as corruption, they called her in a dark small room where they told her to stay in order to be checked whether she has no arm or minerals on her. This was just a way to scare her so that she pays them money.
We have tried to call different people to intervene so that she can be allowed to cross the border but in vain. She and both kids have official, authorized and known documents from both Rwanda immigration office and the Embassy of DRC in Kigali. At this hour, Bahati is till in the DRC but safe with both kids.
The situation is not that alarming but we have to denounce intimidation, corruption and non-respect of human rights. Bahati is not the only person who has been harassed in this way at this border. What is surprising is that the documents they refuse at this border are accepted in the other borders like Rwanada Goma in North East and the border Burundi DRC"
They were refusing to let Bahati and the children through. They were stranded. They even took her camera and also her phone so that she could not call for help! But at least she was not in danger. There was nothing we could do of course except watch and wait. Two days later Mugisho sent another update
"I have been in contact with Bahati right now on the phone [she used her brother's phone].
The situation in the DRC is really disheartening. She says the officials at the border told her that, being a woman, she has no right to travel with kids without the written permission of the husband."
Finally at the end of the week, we finally heard the news we were all waiting for:
"I have been in contact with Bahati and our two kids; they are fine and finally they have been allowed to cross the border.
Now she is on the way coming to Kigali. She called me, using a passenger's phone on the same bus.
She did not get back either the phone and the camera from the customs officers. But no matter as she has crossed the border with both kids."
The Full Story at the Border
When she got home the full story emerged. At the border had at first accused Bahati of trafficking children. They said she must provide evidence the children were hers. She asked them why they did not ask her such question when she entered, and showed them the papers.
Next they asked her for the letter written and signed by the husband to allow her to travel with the kids. They demanded that her husband must produce such a letter allowing her to cross the border with the kids and confirming the kids were hers. There was no such letter. Bahati kept arguing with them until they let her go.
"This border is called Poste de Rusizi 1 in French, and it connects the city of Bukavu in the DRC and that of Cyangugu in Rwanda. Corruption has been a rule of thumb there.
There are two main leaders in bribery and corruption; they are Michel and Solange, respectively a man and a woman. They never hide that they need passengers to give them cash, regardless the documents you have. They might tell you they need soda, chai, etc; we often hear them asking ‘will my children eat your papers?
The local authorities are aware of this but they do nothing.
This has become the set culture in the minds of people since they are rarely paid for the job they do every day. Those who are paid earn too little money that cannot cover their family members’ needs, which pushes them into corruption. You cannot take them to justice because that justice will never listen to you; they may ask you if you do not come from DRC, meaning this is the way things work here. This border has often been reported in newspapers because of their expertise in corruption.
What is surprising is that the same documents they refused at that border are accepted at both Goma and Uvira customs. This must be stopped because it will culminate into catastrophe sooner or later."
For Mugisho and Bahati this was just another of many incidents they have to go through. They see it as part of their work .
Already Mugisho is planning his next visit.
"First, men and boys members of Cofapri sent Bahati to tell me they need me for an exchange of ideas.
Second, the head priest of Nyangezi parish also sent Bahati to tell me he also wants to discuss with me regarding joint collaboration with his parish. Nyangezi is a conglomeration of more than 40 villages in which we have members."
To date, COFAPRI is still funded entirely by Mugisho and Bahati's personal resources.
|Action Type:||Awareness Raising|
Supporting Children Born of Conflict Rape
By Mugisho Theophile, co-founder of COFAPRI
"They were having turns on me, I felt so angry but there was nothing to do. I was bleeding inside me and I asked God why he created me woman...
When they [eventually] released me I was already pregnant"
Since the repeated fighting which began engulfing eastern Congo in the late 1990s, more than 5 million people have lost their lives innocently, and several hundreds of thousands of women were raped on daily basis.
During the Eastern DRC cyclic wars, women were repeatedly raped. Sometimes, they were raped several times the same day. In other cases, they were raped several times over a long period.
They are either raped in their own homes or raped in their hideouts. When warfare is waged, most women seek refuge in forests or in mountains, thinking that those places are safe for them to hide.
Typically, rape was carried out by different fighters; a woman would be raped and then taken to other fighters in the bush to be raped by them too. Thus the woman became a sexual slave.
What Happens to the Children?
Some women managed to escape after the rapes, but most of them were impregnated and many had contaminated Sexually Transmitted Diseases STDs, including HIV/AIDS.
In Congo, abortion is illegal, and in addition the religious beliefs of most people refuse women and girls to abort.
Though statistics on children born from these rapes are virtually nonexistent, they are counted in thousands in South Kivu alone.
The women and girls who got pregnant during this calvary delivered fatherless children. Their delivery process was often risky; they often delivered in the bush without any medical assistance, without any member of the family to attend to them. Those who were no longer in the bush also delivered in difficult conditions.
Once in their villages, these women became the 'song of the village' - i.e. no man could listen to them. The stigma and shame often made them flee their homes into the unknown, sometimes with their children. Other times, the children were abandoned.
COFAPRI co-founder, Bahati Valérie, discussed this issue recently with some young COFAPRI women who were raped during the DRC cyclic wars and bore children. She collected stories from different women who live in DRC's remote villages, encouraging them to speak out.
Suffering and Stigma
Nantamya Bashugi is a COFAPRI member, aged 29, and mother of four children. She contracted HIV during the war, and became pregnant.
"The war started and all of us ran to the forest [where it was thought to be safer]. I had three children and they left with my mother.
There the fighters met us and they took me to their residence far in the bush. I was with my sister but she escaped and then they told me 'you will feel us today'.
They were having turns on me, I felt so angry but there was nothing to do. I was bleeding inside me and I asked God why he created me woman.
When they [finally] released me I was already pregnant and I went home.
The village laughed at me and I became a proverb in the village.
I gave birth at home in hard conditions, without any assistance.
Now this is the daughter you see here but when I look at her, I feel more hurt than I felt at the time.
But thank you again as God sent you here; you are opening us the eyes on how to be independent and the pig you gave me has helped me a lot. God bless you.
I sold two piglets [to raise funds] and went to hospital; they told me I am sick with AIDS. I cried but I can’t kill myself. I will take my daughter next time also for a medical check."
'Who is My Daddy?'
All the children who were born from war rape are fatherless.
Because of the culture, such children are doomed to suffer a lot emotionally and materially, without help and support.
When they are abandoned by their mothers, they are especially vulnerable and prone to becoming street children, thieves and bandits. Others join militias.
COFAPRI is trying to help these children, but lack of resources means there are many more who we are unable to help.
Many women refuse to tell their children about their father, or how they came to exist. For these women, telling a child that they were born from rape is not culturally appreciable in this area.
One young woman told how her 6 year-old son who often asks her who is his biological father or his uncles.
She says she was 18 when she was raped.
The fighters found them where she was hiding in the forest with her three brothers. They took her and she was obliged to go with them in the forest where they were raping her repeatedly and in turn. Their father had already been killed and the killers looted all their property (two cows, 3 goats and 5 hens)..
Holding back the tears and looking to the ground, one hand gently touching the scars and burns on her left knee, she explained:
“ I can’t feel well to tell him [my son] about his father, because this would bring more anger and suffering again. This will make me think of the hardship I went through when I was raped and the bad conditions in which I bore this child in my womb and how he was delivered in terrible conditions without any assistance at all, except the will of God.
I do not know who impregnated me because they were many who did that to me and on several occasions.
They used to beat me and raped me daily; I felt so ridiculed and downgraded that one day I tried to escape but unfortunately they caught me again.
They wanted to kill me but instead they tortured me a lot; you can even see scars on my leg and others on my thighs and belly.
A child can’t understand how a woman like his mother was raped.
So to his questions, I divert it and we talk about something else.”
Then her tears started flowing.
Supporting Mothers in Acceptance and Bonding
Intense social discrimination in Congo against rape victims and their children makes bonding a challenge.
Although the mothers suffer morally when they see their fatherless children, they can also feel comforted by them. Especially when mothers see their children playing with other children, it comforts them a bit. And sometimes when children are playing with the mothers and laughing and smiling, mothers feel happy. Sometimes, they forget their problems and everything when they hug their children.
This might imply that the mothers readily accept the children they conceived so violently.
But for many women this acceptance comes slowly, and only with the counseling and support we give them.
Some women here were surprised to see another woman, Bahati, encouraging them not to reject their children born from rape, which the people here consider as shame and abnormal.
Many women ultimately embrace their children; they cannot reject them as they are their children despite they are born from rape.
One of these mothers, a member of Cofapri, explained:
"We didn't like to be raped and become pregnant by rape; we cannot commit abortion because it is a sin and a crime. You may want to abort but you die; then who will be to blame? So we think it is better to keep our babies until we give birth.
If we decide to abort; it is risky and it may become another crime. In this way, we and the rapists will have become rapists.
We must love our children; they are our children in their innocence.’
These women also believe that it would be a sin to kill themselves because they have been raped.
Children born of conflict rape have specific needs; they need educational, material and emotional help.
They need to be educated in order to feel not neglected, so they don't go astray. They can learn positive thinking and constructive values that are necessary for their future and the future of the country.
COFAPRI is helping four of these children at the moment, but the means we have are miminal.
These children need school materials, uniforms, shoes, food, etc as they come from destitute families. The pigs we are giving to different groups in the remote villages of South Kivu are helping the families of these children to generate income, and we teach income-genearating skills to the mothers.
Empowerment Through Information and Skills
The mothers’ needs are different to those of their children. The mothers need a kind of education that can help them to learn the skills needed for income generating activities like sewing, running small business, rearing animals like goats, pigs, rabbits, cows, knitting, baking, molding bricks, etc.
We also teach the women and men that HIV/AIDS is a very real disease, which can be passed on.
Whereas local traditional witchdoctors teach that HIV is a myth.
Overall, Bahati has successfully motivated COFAPRI members to leave behind outdated beliefs, and to believe in education. And when sick, to go to hospital.
She tells them:
"From the villages to Bukavu, where the hospitals are, is a long distance and expensive, but it is also essential. This is why you have been given some pigs to help you raise income for such issues.
Here, you also have healthcare centers that can help in the case of emergencies.
You have also to know that AIDS exists; it is not a myth but a reality. It fears no one, you, me and him can contract it if we are not careful.
We have to fight the stigma that hinders us to speak out about what happens to us.
We must be open and tell everything so that those who can help are able to do so.
Women can get AIDS if they have been raped in the home or during the war. This is why you have to be HIV tested in advance.
These children born of rape need more assistance in education.
Since their psychological status has been hurt, much should be done to help them otherwise they will become a social threat when they grow up."
To date, COFAPRI is still funded entirely by Mugisho and Bahati's personal resources.