A nearly full moon was the only light over the village of Kavumu, in eastern Congo, on the night of 26 December 2015. Just before midnight, a figure slipped quietly through the shadows along the red-earth tracts between huts and entered one of the wooden shacks. The intruder proceeded to take a three-year-old girl called Denise from the bed where she was sleeping next to her mother. Also at home that night were two women and three other children. None of them heard anything.
Denise’s mother woke up after midnight and groped for her daughter next to her on the mattress. She found only an empty space. An iron bar normally used to block the door was on the floor. A machete was stabbed into the ground outside the entrance. The women recognised the signs: this scenario had been repeated in Kavumu many times in the previous two and a half years.
The family woke the neighbours, who spanned out into search parties. In a nearby field, beneath stalks of sorghum, corn, and desiccated cassava, they soon found Denise lying on the wet dirt, wearing only her fuchsia-pink hoodie. She had been raped and was badly hurt, bleeding from between her legs. They took her straight to the local hospital and one of the search party was sent to notify the village chief and police of the attack. Denise spent the night in hospital and the next morning, she was sent to Panzi hospital, a much larger facility in the provincial capital of Bukavu. In the early days of the attacks, untrained medical staff in Kavumu had been washing away evidence in an attempt to clean up the girls, but Panzi doctors had since instructed them on how to treat victims of rape in a way that preserved forensic evidence.
Denise was, by some counts, the 39th child to be raped in the village of Kavumu, since the first was reported on 3 June 2013. Each time, men in groups had kidnapped a girl of between 18 months and 11 years old from her bed, raped her, and either returned her to her home or left her in a nearby field, which is farmed by demobilised soldiers. At least two girls have died from their injuries.
Although rape has been used as a weapon of war in this part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for 20 years, these attacks on children are new – in terms of the repeated patterns, the symbolism and the youth of the victims. At first, the cases didn’t appear to be related. But over time, as each abduction resembled the last in certain significant details – the way men entered the houses; the way the girls were taken, violated and returned or left in the same field; and the fact that none of the families woke up as men stole their children – investigators began to suspect that there was an organised ring behind the attacks.
Because the girls are so little, their organs are often irreparably damaged. Panzi hospital’s founder and medical director, Dr Denis Mukwege, said that he and his staff frequently weep while operating on the girls. Another doctor said the brutality of the rapes made her faint for the first time in her life. “When I treat a child with all her bladder and abdomen destroyed, I think, This is really not something I want to do with my life,” Mukwege told me. We were sitting at a long, plastic-covered table in a conference room at Panzi in January. He looked exhausted. “You are thinking about how you are just repairing and instead you should be preventing this.”
And yet, despite the horror of these attacks, the news has barely trickled out of DRC.
“Everyone should be shocked by this,” said Mukwege. “But why aren’t they?”
Earlier in the week that Denise was taken, two other girls, aged five and six, were also gang-raped in Kavumu. All three now lay in beds shrouded in mosquito nets in Panzi hospital’s cavernous sexualised violence ward, medicated with antibiotics, antiseptic and painkillers. One child, the six-year-old, was particularly small and appeared catatonic – she sat unresponsive in her bed with her green-flowered shift dress falling off her shoulders. The girls spoke to me with their mothers. The children’s voices went whispery and the life seemed to leave their eyes when they talked about the attacks. All looked at their hands or the ground as they spoke.
The girls will reach puberty before they and their families know the extent of the physical and psychological harm done to them. “We don’t know if they will have sex normally because of fibrosis,” the girls’ doctor, Dr Neema Rukunghu (known to all as Dr Nene), said, “Because of destruction of the cervix, we don’t know if they will bleed normally or have babies. We don’t know.”
For the Kavumu families caring for their “ruined” (as they put it) daughters, every day that passed brought new terrors. “We don’t know who will be the next child visited by the rapist,” one mother said. (The families asked that I not use their names in order to protect them from retribution.) They had gathered in a sweaty, dim room and crammed on to benches, chairs and the floor in order to tell their stories and talk about their fear.
“Now,” the mother said, “we no longer sleep.”
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