A shaft of hope and humanity amid the rape and massacre in Congo

I don't suppose this African matron will ever win a Nobel Prize but, heavens, Mama Jean Banyere deserves it

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The war is not over. The war never ends. Yet there is a peace. Technically speaking the foreign armies have withdrawn from Congo and the militias are disarming. But it is the peace of treaties and documents; the peace that is the absence of fighting. It is not peace of heart or mind. Not if you are a woman in the mountains above Goma, or in Ituri or any one of the villages of Congo where men with guns make the law.

The war is not over. The war never ends. Yet there is a peace. Technically speaking the foreign armies have withdrawn from Congo and the militias are disarming. But it is the peace of treaties and documents; the peace that is the absence of fighting. It is not peace of heart or mind. Not if you are a woman in the mountains above Goma, or in Ituri or any one of the villages of Congo where men with guns make the law.

For nearly a decade the women of Congo, and before them those of Rwanda, have been subjected to an epidemic of sexual violence. We have been aware of this because agencies such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have told us. The figure of thousands of women raped has been in the public domain for several years. So too have the individual accounts of this scandal. In Rwanda many of the victims of rape during the genocide are now dying of Aids. In the Congo they estimate at least a quarter of the population has become infected.

I learned about Congo's sexual violence a few days ago when I travelled high into the mountain ranges west of Goma to a region that has been largely cut off from the world for the best part of a decade. The track led along the slopes of the Nyaragongo volcanoes into a land of forests and mists. It is the perfect hiding place for the cruellest fantasies of the human mind.

It can all sound so neutral when you talk in statistics and the clichés of outrage. Not, however, when you sit next to the survivors of rape, not when you stand next to a girl who cannot stop the urine from flowing down her legs because her insides have been so savagely damaged by a gang of men. When she walks her small feet squelch in her soaking sandals. The counsellor warns you not to act as if you notice the smell. Of course you pretend that you haven't noticed the searing ammoniac odour. You embrace this child - for she is only 16 - and you take care to remain standing. This is because her wounds are so painful that she cannot sit.

Vulumilia Lakando was at home in her village last October when armed men attacked. It was night and in the panic Vulumilia was separated from her family. She was nine months pregnant at the time. Running into the forest she was captured by the militia. They stripped off her clothes and threw her to the ground. Four men raped her and then they took sticks and inserted them into her vagina. They told her that they would kill the baby and in this they were successful.

Vulumilia fainted from the pain and when she woke up the men were gone. She was bleeding heavily and knew immediately that the child which had been kicking inside her was dead. She wandered in the bush and then found a village. There were some older women there, traditional midwifes, and they massaged her stomach until the dead baby emerged. Vulumilia tells this story in a small voice. She sounds hollowed out. I know she doubts I could ever comprehend what she has endured. In this she is correct.

Later Vulumilia found herself dependent on the mercy of her community. Her parents had been shot in the attack. But the people among whom she'd lived all of her life showed no mercy. In many Congolese villages the rape victim takes upon their shoulders the shame of the perpetrator. They are outcast and despised. So Vulumilia began to walk.

Think of that journey. Walking with bleeding, suppurating wounds and the knowledge that there is nobody left who cares about you. And then Vulumilia reached a village where there were people who cared. They were women, most of them older than herself and with large families. Dressed in brilliant yellow cloth and bustling with good humour, they embraced her and told her that she would survive and that her life would eventually be worth the effort of living. The women were from the Kachanga Association of Protestant Women and they were led by a stout and beautiful lady named Mama Jean Banyere.

I don't suppose this African matron will ever win a Nobel Prize but, heavens, she deserves it. There is a small dispensary which Mama Jean's women help to run. They clean the wounds and dry the clothes. The survivors are gathered into a secret world of women. Here Mama Jean listens to their stories and holds them in her arms when they cry.

There are times when I curse the job I do for bringing me so close to the worst in man. Watching Mama Jean Banyere I felt quite the opposite. Back in Goma there is a hospital which treats the rape victims. "Docs" hospital has admitted more than 1,000 rape victims in the past six months. Most of those who are attacked never reach a hospital. At "Docs" you encounter hope and horror in equal proportions. The pre-surgery ward is a tent planted on black volcanic ground (the hospital was almost obliterated by the volcanic eruption a year ago) near Lake Kivu. It is filled with women who need operations to mend the tearing and ruptures caused by men with their penises, sticks, bottles and even guns. One of the women had a gun fired into her vagina. It passed out through her lower back. She survived, whatever that word means after such a violation.

I mentioned earlier that this was a problem that had existed over the past decade. I realise now that I was wrong. The women of this region have known the terror of rape for centuries. This is the country of King Leopold's ghost where the white man and the Arab slave trader obliterated native cultures. What has happened to the women of Congo is a metaphor for the country itself. But I didn't set out to depress. Because I didn't come back from Congo depressed. I was angry and sad over the stories I'd heard but Mama Jean and the people at "Docs" hospital bristled with energy.

Lynne Lusi is a British woman who works at the hospital and has lived in Congo for two decades. She is married to the main doctor and chief administrator. She and her husband saw their last hospital destroyed and 48 patients massacred. Every day Lynn sees new rape cases arrive. I told her that I didn't think I could do the job. I would probably lose my mind or, at the very least, my capacity for hope.

No, that wasn't what happened, she said. You ended up being changed by the people themselves. You saw what the people themselves managed to do. They kept going. They might suffer from Aids but they looked after their children while they could. With the most painful of wounds they went into the fields to gather food for those children. When they met at the clinic they found the capacity to be gentle with each other. Congo was a country of untold horrors all right, but it was not lost to redemptive powers of love.

Lynne Lusi said the people of Britain should look into their hearts and help these women. The hospital is desperately short of money and facilities. With help many thousands more rape survivors could have their bodies mended and dignity restored. This is not a question of charity. As Lynn and Mama Jean would tell you, it is about our capacity for love.

Fergal Keane reported from Congo for the 'Ten O'Clock News' on BBC1

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