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“They Are Destroying the Female Species in Congo”: Congolese Human Rights Activist Christine Schuler Deschryver on Sexual Terrorism and Africa’s Forgotten War

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In a war that has already killed over four million people, Christine Schuler Deschryver describes how women continue to be the victims of “sexual terrorism” in the Congo. John Holmes, the U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, called the sexual violence in the Congo “the worst in the world.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush made a strong statement about rape and genocide at a U.N. Security Council meeting on September 25th.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Maybe some don’t think it’s genocide, but if you’ve been raped, you think it’s — your human rights have been violated. If you’re mercilessly killed by roaming bands, you know it’s genocide.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush was talking about the violence in Darfur, Sudan, but he made no mention of another crisis in Africa: the long and ongoing wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Between 1997 and 2004, up to four million people died in the conflict. That’s according to the latest mortality survey carried out by the International Rescue Committee and published in the British medical journal Lancet. The IRC also estimates today, three years later, 38,000 people continue to die each month.

Today we focus on a particularly brutal aspect of the ongoing war in the DRC: the war against women. Speaking to The New York Times, John Holmes, the U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, called the sexual violence in the Congo “the worst in the world.”

Christine Schuler Deschryver is a Congolese human rights activist. She lives in Bukavu in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the violence against women is the worst. She came into our firehouse studio last month. I asked her to describe the situation in her country.

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: In Congo, since 10 years ago, the war started in '96. After the genocide in Rwanda in ’94, all the one who made the genocide arrived in Congo and stayed there in camps. And in ’96, when the war started, they went out from the camps and went inside the forest, and then they started killing and raping the Congolese population. Three years ago, we had the report from International Rescue Committee that already four million people died in Congo, so it's one of the most —

AMY GOODMAN: Four million?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: Four million. It was three years ago, in 2004. And now we are waiting for the new report, I think, for beginning October. It will probably be seven million or more, and nobody is talking about this silent war that’s going on in Congo, because the official war ended three years ago. We had elections last year.

But there’s another form of very violent war with sexual terrorism going on in Congo. We are talking about more than —- in all eastern part of Congo, more than 200,000 women, children and babies being raped every day, and now, right now, I am talking to you, thousands of women are taken and children into forests as slave sex. And today -—

AMY GOODMAN: As sex slaves.

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: As sex slaves, yeah. And we are not — I’m sorry just to talk like this — we are not talking about normal rapes anymore. We are talking about sexual terrorism, because they destroyed, and they — you cannot imagine what’s going on in Congo. Rape is a taboo, I think, in most of African countries, so the women who accept to go to the hospital or to be registered, it’s because they don’t have a choice anymore. They have to go and be repaired, because we are talking about new surgery to repair the women, because they’re completely destroyed. And the ones who are just raped without big destruction, they don’t talk about rape, because the African — the Congolese woman, she suffered so much that she can support being raped without telling it, when she doesn’t need medical care.

AMY GOODMAN: But the medical care you’re talking about is what?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: Very, very heavy surgery. We have some women, for example, this Panzi Hospital close to Bukavu town.

AMY GOODMAN: Bukavu is where you live?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: Bukavu, yeah, it’s where I live. It’s eastern part of Congo, just at the border of Rwanda, five minutes walking. And we do have a hospital that is very specialized in rape, because of —

AMY GOODMAN: This is the Panzi Hospital?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: Yeah, Panzi Hospital. And — I forgot the idea was.

AMY GOODMAN: And the women who come to this hospital, what —- they have been raped, and they have been physically -—


AMY GOODMAN: How? What is the operation? What is the — what is the operation that they go through?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: The operation —- today we are talking about repair surgery, because these women have to be repaired. They are not just rape like usual rape, but they put hot plastics inside the organs. They put woods, they put bamboos, they put everything -—


CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: Yeah, guns. They shot inside the women, so they’re completely destroyed. We have some survivors in these hospitals since more than three years, so every two months or every three months they have to be re-operated again. And it’s impossible, you know, to keep all these women in this hospital. We don’t have room anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: They suffer from fistula. Can you explain what that is?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: I’m not a doctor. It’s quite very difficult. But I know that when they have fistula, it’s like, you know, instead of — it’s everything, urine and things, everything comes out.

AMY GOODMAN: They’re completely incontinent.

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: You cannot control. You’re out of control, so these people smell very bad, and they have infections. And they cannot live, you know, in communities. And they have to be repaired by heavy surgery.

AMY GOODMAN: So they can’t control their urine or their bowel movement, and so —

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: Not at all. So everything just go out when they’re walking, when they’re sleeping. It’s just —

AMY GOODMAN: They become pariahs in their community.

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: Yeah, yeah, of course. And also, you have to know that in your community, when they know you are raped, you are fired from the village. They stigmatize you, and also the husband, if you survive, he will just ask you to leave, most of the time with the children.

AMY GOODMAN: Who established Panzi Hospital?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: Panzi Hospital is established by the community of a church, a church, and lots of help we do have, it’s from European Union, UNICEF and also a Swedish NGO. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And there, the women come; they are operated on, and they live there?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: The most lucky ones who can reach Panzi Hospital, because, you know, Congo is very — it’s a huge country, so every time permanently we can have 250 raped women, the worst of the worst one. And can you imagine when a woman has to wait surgery? So we have to find houses around the hospital for them to stay and wait — and to wait for the surgery. It’s impossible for them to stay there. That’s the reason we really need to have a roof, to have a house, where this all — all these women can stay while waiting the operation.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the Kabila government doing about this? Do they know?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: I think everybody — in Congo, everybody know what’s going on, but I think they didn’t — you know, they have problems everywhere, and they did not know where to put priorities. And priority in Congo was, of course, security, security of people, because now they’re just talking in Congo about new contracts, and especially with the Chinese who are coming in Congo like — my goodness, it’s like in far west, so people are just interested in signing this big mines contract and everything, but nobody cares about the population. Even if we see the budget the government has, there’s nothing for the raped women, nothing for all these people.

AMY GOODMAN: You took Mrs. Kabila through the hospital, through Panzi Hospital?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: Mrs. Kabila came last October to visit the hospital, and, of course, she promised to come back and help, but we are still waiting. As I said, the problems in Congo, it’s everywhere, so they have to know where priorities is. As long as we have raped babies, raped grandmothers —


CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: Babies. The last baby who was raped, it was in April. She was 10 months old, so a very small baby. She was raped. The same gang raped the mother during two weeks. Then they came to Bukavu into my office. I wanted to bring the baby to the hospital, but she was so injured she died in my arms. Ten months — can you imagine that? And these people, these women in Congo, are just begging for life, not begging for money, just the right to live in their country safely.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is doing this?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: The ones who are doing this, they are 60 percent — because we made studies — it’s 60 percent is committed by these people who made genocide in Rwanda, by Rwandans, the Hutu, the one who made the genocide. And, you know, we talk to women, and sometimes these people who made this can tell them, “You know, we died in '94 in Rwanda, so now we don't care about what we are doing.” So 60 percent of these rapes are made by these random Hutu who made the genocide in their country.

AMY GOODMAN: There are supposedly peace talks that are going on. Foreign ministers from the Great Lakes countries failed to make progress in two days of talks in Uganda. Latest news, no solution has been agreed on how to deal with the dissident General Laurent Nkunda, whose forces were at war with the Congolese authorities. How does this figure into what you are describing?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: You know, I’m just sorry to say that it’s one more meeting, and I think these meetings are just going on because of the international pressure. The consequences, I’m sure, it will be nothing. Like General Nkunda, he has an international mandate against him, but everybody, every journalist who go to Goma — Goma is north part of Bukavu — can go and interview him. He’s like a king there. He became a pastor. So is that normal, this impunity?

AMY GOODMAN: How do these rapes take place? What happens in a village? How do the women, how do the girls, the babies get taken?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: They usually come at the end of the day or during the night. They just come and circle the villages. Most of the time, they killed all the men, and they take all the children, the girls, the mothers, the grandmothers as the sex slaves into the forest and steal — what can I say — everything they have, just maybe a goat or a chicken, and take them and use them, use them as slaves, sex slaves and slaves to work for them in the forest.

AMY GOODMAN: Christine, how did you get involved with this human rights work?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: I don’t know if it was my destiny, but the first — the first raped woman was my best friend. She was like my sister. It was in ’98. She was colored like me, so not black, not white, and no political position, and she was — she was raped in such a — I cannot describe the violence, because after she was raped by more than 20 men and after she was killed, we found more than a hundred holes with knives in her body. And the husband has to assist — he was Canadian, and then they killed her husband. So that was the first case in ’98. And then we thought maybe it was an accident.

AMY GOODMAN: Where did she live?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: In Goma, northern part of Bukavu. And then, in 2000, when they brought me that little girl, she was 18 months old.

AMY GOODMAN: What were you doing at the time?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: I was working just like administration, you know, in my office. But when they brought me this young child, 18 months, with broken legs, who was raped for two months, then I knew, my goodness, there’s a problem going on in Congo. And, of course, she died. It was impossible to save her. And then, at that time, I said something is wrong in this country, and the two solutions I had is just to take my suitcase, my children, and leave this hell, or to try to change something in Congo. And I chose the first one — the second one, to try to make an international lobby and to try to help these people the way I could, because it’s not so easy, you know, to find help. The problem in Congo is so huge.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you protect yourself?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: I’m not really protecting myself, because I cannot —- I cannot live with bodyguards around me. I know I’m in danger, because the war I started against these people, I do receive lots of letters to tell me that it will be my turn soon and things like that, but I don’t want to know what’s going on around me. I’m just focusing in helping people the way I can, like denouncing and trying to find some funds to help. And I don’t know, maybe the one is protecting me, it’s my father, who died some years ago, or my best friend who was killed, the first one, so -—

AMY GOODMAN: How can people help here?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: People can help me, first of all, being our ambassador, you know, talking about the problem that’s going on in Congo, because it’s a silent war. It’s like silent. They are killing, they are raping babies and women in Congo. It’s to talk about — you know, it’s like Darfur. Darfur started four years ago. I don’t want to compare, you know, problems we have in this world, but Congo, it started almost 11 years ago, and nobody’s talking about this femicide, this holocaust.

AMY GOODMAN: Femicide.

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: Yeah, it’s a femicide, because they are just destroying the female species, if I can talk like this, because can you imagine now — in Africa, woman is the heart of family. She is doing everything, babies, looking for food, looking for the whole family. And now they’re destroying this resource.

Also, can you imagine with this massive rape, AIDS? How will be the population, for example, in 10 years? And these children who are teenagers now, who just know violence, seeing murdered the family, raped sister, the mother, what’s the next generation?

So, for me, the most important thing now, it’s that the international community to realize that there’s an holocaust, to wake up and try to change something, because even the war we had in Congo, it was not — it was like an African world war, because so many countries were involved, but it was not a Congolese war, Congolese against Congolese. It was some countries who came and invaded Congo with the help, of course, of the international community to come and steal everything out from Congo. And now we are asking for the international community reparation, not for money, but to be involved to try to find solution, Rwanda to take back these people, these genociders, and also Congo to prioritize security of the population.

AMY GOODMAN: Has Mrs. Kabila called you ever since October, coming to Panzi Hospital?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: She called me before I came here, and I think now she would like — she asked me to think about what we can do concretely to help, to help these women, because I think also she noticed that the pressure is also coming from everywhere, because, first of all, the Congolese, and I think the first lady and the president and the institution we have now, they have to be enforced, even before the international community. They have at least to show a sign to say we are there, we would like to change. Maybe they can ask for help, but they have to show that they have this will to change these things.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you afraid to go back home, as you leave here to get on a plane?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: No, I’m not afraid at all to go back home. You know, even if I’m here, my heart is in Africa, so it’s like I’m just going home. I will be happy to see my family there and also all these women at Panzi Hospital. And, no, my place is in Congo, so I’m not afraid at all to go back home.

AMY GOODMAN: If people wanted to help Panzi Hospital?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: To help Panzi Hospital, we are just begging for a roof, so we would like, with V-Day and UNICEF, to make what we will call the City of Joy, just for about for a hundred women to have a roof, where to stay while waiting for these heavy surgeries. Or we do have, for example, very young raped mother, their mothers, they’re 13 — 12 years old, 13 years old, they lost all the family, so they don’t even know where to go. Instead of going, you know, on the road and be prostitutes to survive, we would like just to — we are just begging to have enough funds to build our City of Joy. We will work, of course, closely with the hospital of Panzi, because if you see a woman — for example, also these very old women, when they’re safe enough, you know, to go back home, and they just trying not to leave the hospital because they are there, they feel secure, it’s really breaking our hearts. So priority now in 2008, we would like to have this house for the survivors.

AMY GOODMAN: Where can people get more information online?


AMY GOODMAN: Eve Ensler’s international organization, V-Day.

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: Eve Ensler, yeah, of course, of course. She came to Bukavu some months ago. She’s an amazing woman, and she was so moved at what she heard and what she saw. When she heard, she could not even imagine that today we can talk about cannibalism, having women witness how — you know, how they ate their children, the food they were cooking, like, every day for them was their own children, and some horror you cannot even talk about. So she was moved, and I think she really wanted also to move the entire world for them to try to change something in Congo.

AMY GOODMAN: Christine Schuler Deschryver, Congolese human rights activist, she lives in Bukavu in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the violence against women is the worst. I spoke to her when she came to New York.

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