People in Need at work in the Congo, part I


Czechs are working in crisis spots around the globe, predominantly through the charity foundation People in Need. Some of the people most truly in need of that aid are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose eastern conflict was largely unknown in the Czech Republic until a few people who thought they could help came in and started doing so.

Markéta Kutilová
Think the perfect climate, lushness and incalculable mineral wealth... unlimited war, mass rape and slave labour - the Congo leads the world in both regards. Wherever you go in this place of exoticism and hardship, you hear the deeply stirring sound of song.

The work of People in Need in the Congo began in a place called Bunyakiri - a territory of towering mountains and unending jungle - at the incentive of Markéta Kutilová, who came to the place as a journalist and left a humanitarian worker.

“The first time I arrived in Bunyakiri I was really, really shocked. I met the Catholic sister Clotilde, who had been taking care of rape survivors for 10 years and she was almost the only one in the whole region of 120,000 people who was taking care of these women. But more or less she had no material assistance for them so she could only provide them with moral and psychological support. And she let the women stay in her own place. So when I arrived I found 20 women living in terrible conditions with their children. These women have been held as sexual slaves by the Hutus and because of this there is a huge stigma surrounding them. They are called “Hutu women” by the community, and the community refused them, as did their husbands. So they were abandoned, with their children, they didn’t know where to go, so they went to Clotilde, where I found them living in terrible conditions, nothing to eat, no shelter, their children didn’t go to school and they never got any medical assistance, nothing. So, I was really shocked.”

Bunyakiri, photo: Christian Falvey
Since Sister Clotilde first began aiding the rape survivors, she alone has registered 1,648 victims of sexual violence in Bunyakiri, and they are not all women; among them are children as young as 2 years old and many men as well. It is often said that rape is not about sex but about control; in the context of the war in Eastern Congo however it goes even beyond that, existing as a means of achieving not only personal but societal destruction. Brandi Walker is an American working at Panzi Hospital in Eastern Congo, the only major hospital for the treatment of victims of sexual violence, and one of the main partners of People in Need.

“Rape here is a weapon of war. It’s used here not just to destroy the women, but to actually destroy entire families and entire communities. The rapes often don’t occur in private. We’ve heard a number of cases where communities have been brought out at gunpoint and forced to watch the women being raped. And this traumatises not just the women but families and larger communities, who then have to deal with the trauma for many years to come. So absolutely it begins with the women, but I think the plan is much larger than that. It’s an attempt to destroy and break apart communities.”

Putting aside for a moment all that brought about the deeply troubled Congo, namely colonisation and foreign intrigue, what pains this African country, the size of Western Europe, is, at heart, an endless war over rocks: diamonds, gold, copper, coltan… in terms of mineral wealth, the Democratic Republic of Congo is the richest country in the world. The conflict is a direct continuation of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, after which the culpable Hutu militias fled to neighbouring Congo and dug into the infinite jungle. There they were pursued by Rwandan Tutsi militias, who have, in turn, been at odds over the years with the native Congolese Army. All of this has given rise to various minor insurgent groups, such as that of Laurent Nkunda. What all of the armies on this battlefield have done is taken some of the mined resources for themselves, forced the locals into servitude, the children into battle, and the women into sexual slavery. It was the latter crime that brought in People in Need. The scale of sexual violence in the Congo is believed to be unprecedented, with as many as 200,000 rape victims in the country today.

PIN beneficiaries, photo: Christian Falvey
“You see a couple of different things with the rebel groups. They will come in and attack and plunder the villages and in process rape the women. Another instance is that rebel groups will come in and attempt to drive the villagers out, and in doing so they rape the women to instil terror so that the women won’t return. In the first case that I mention, the rebel groups don’t kill the women and they don’t kill the villagers, because they need them there to grow the crops and provide the infrastructure so that they can continue to thrive. They need them there to run the local economy and supply the rebel groups.”

The first step for People in Need in the Congo was to ensure immediate aid for the victims. The physical and psychological consequences of rape as an implement of war make an appallingly long list: victims often suffer from fistula, the opening of the intestinal and genital passages into a single cavity, and younger victims are left mentally handicapped by trauma.

People in Need first set out to create a system of immediate medical aid. Once that was in place, the focus could shift to the fact that many of the victims had no homes and no livelihood. A tract of land was purchased in Bunyakiri and houses were built for victims of sexual violence who had been abandoned by their communities and their husbands. One of the local men working with People in Need showed me around what is an entire village created with Czech funds and initiative and introduced me to its inhabitants.

“All of these houses were built by People in Need?”

“Yes, all of them.”

“How many houses? For how many people?”

“26 houses for 26 families.”

“She says People in Need built this house because she had no house and no husband, and she was raped. We are thankful, because we didn’t have a house, and we live very well now – we thank People in Need for that. But we continue to need something to eat. The children need clothes. It isn’t easy to find clothes for them, and it is difficult to find food to eat every day, and the money for school. Two dollars a month.”

Incentive and even money means a lot, but it isn’t everything. Critical to the success of any endeavour in Bunyakiri or anywhere else is self-sustainability. To that end the People in Need foundation began a programme of education: not only providing goats but teaching the villagers to breed them, not only providing clothes but giving them the means to make them, in an effort to bring together a functioning society here. Sister Clotilde spoke to me of what the Czech charity has brought her and her women, and what it has meant to them.

“First they started a micro-credit project which aided 27 female survivors of rape, and they supported the schooling of their children. Also through the micro-credit programme they helped the women to buy livestock, they’ve helped the women get vocational training in making soap and sewing, and this has aided them in the reintegration process. People in Need is like a star that has shined in the middle of the night for us.”