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Support for Congolese rape victims not matched by action

Memories of past war horrors haunt thousands of African women living in Ireland

Mavie Kitenge and Salome Mbugua outside Carmichael Centre in Dublin.Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Congolese-born Mavie Kitenge, now living in Portarlington, believes in breaking the silence that surrounds the suffering of thousands of African women now living in Ireland who still carry the mental and physical scars of rape.

Her outspoken ways have often landed her in trouble with conservative Congolese men, who prefer the silence: “I myself was silent for years. Now I am so angry,” she tells The Irish Times.

The Government produced a national action plan in 2011 on foot of United Nations resolution 1325 to recognise that women need help to recover from war experiences – often including widespread brutal rape.

Last year, it launched a second phase of the plan, with updated commitments to supporting the relief, recovery and rehabilitation of women who have migrated to Ireland from conflict-affected areas of the world.

Meanwhile, the Health Service Executive has also pledged to look after the particular health needs of ethnic minorities in this country. However, the distance between ambition and achievement is significant.

A new study carried out by the African diaspora development organisation Wezesha has found that many women raped in conflict are still suffering trauma and are receiving no meaningful support.

According to Kitenge, rape is embedded in tribal culture. “Identity is a problem for women. It helps you to belong or it exposes you to danger. I am from a small minority tribe in rural Congo so I was always at risk,” she says.

Her grandmother forced female genital mutilation on her when she was a child. “She said, ‘Open your legs or I’ll flog you.’ The woman is at the heart of the culture, so if a man rapes you he succeeds in attacking your whole tribe. It is shameful. You are treated like a virus. You can never speak about it,” she says.

As a girl she was raped by a doctor from a more dominant tribe. “I told my mother – she put her hand over my mouth and told me never to speak of it.”

During the war, she remembers nights lying on the floor, with gunfire outside: “War came and went like the rain. Sometimes Range Rovers with tinted glass drove into the village. We’d run. Soldiers jumped out and grabbed girls and drove off. My friends got raped and killed and disappeared. No one spoke about it,” she recalls.

In the livingroom, a muted TV shows images of Syrian refugees trying to get past razor-wire, women trying to protect their children from tear gas.

When she was a teenager, Kitenge’s father, a miner, sold a diamond. He brought his daughters to South Africa and left them there. “We were not told we were leaving and we were not told we weren’t going back.

“I never saw my parents after that. I feel like I have always been a refugee, a stranger, even when I was at home,” she says.

Today, she has married in Ireland and has children. Her laptop is open on the table. She has just finished her master’s thesis on gender-based violence. “I feel my country turned its back on me. I disappeared and no one even asked where I had gone. I was a nobody.”

Profoundly silenced

Organisations that can offer support must do more to reach out to women who have been profoundly silenced, she argues. She says she needs to go back to Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). “It can’t go on like this. It has to change and I want to be part of that,” she says.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of victims living in Ireland, ignored by some in their own community, but ignored too by a local population unable to grasp the horrors they endured.

Solange is one of those women. In the mid-1990s, her family had to flee to Tanzania to get away from the war in Congo. The family, now living in Monaghan, came to Ireland in 2010, sent by the UN from a refugee camp in Tanzania. Outside of the livingroom, the snow falls. There is no fire in the grate.

The African women gathered together tug their fleece jackets around beautiful printed long cotton dresses. The younger ones wear Irish clothes, boots and jeans and jumpers. Matisse, Solange’s husband, passes in a tray of oranges and bananas, bottles of water, a packet of biscuits, then discreetly withdraws.

“We walked for many days through the forests to reach Lake Tanganyika. Some people were forced by the rebels to sell their daughters into marriage. I had two babies and I was pregnant.

“The rebels had taken my husband four days before. They needed a man to carry for them. We were in the forest when my daughter was born. Thirty minutes later the war came to where I was,” she says.

Then, she stops, saying that she will explain later. She does not want to talk about it in front of her teenage daughter, Alizia. Her daughter, busy on her smartphone, looks up and smiles.

One of the women, Lena, pulls her scarf over her like a sheet.

“I was born in Congo during peace time. Life was hard. I was working for farmers from age nine. In 1996 war came. I moved to a camp in Tanzania. My son was born while we were moving.

“People were dying. So many people. Everywhere, dead people. Blood.” She gestures to all the other women in the room. “All of our parents died.” She stops. “That is all.” Sitting beside her, Lillian’s face is a mask of sorrow. A gaunt woman in a red turban, she stares at me intently while the other women speak. “My life was very hard,” she says. “My mother died when I was small.”

Her parents had nine children. Six of them died in the war: “My father, too. I don’t know where the others are. I got married. The rebels came and we had to flee. My child died while we were running.

“We saw many things. I was very sick in the camp in Tanzania. In the years after that I had seven children who died. Even here in this place I do not have peace. I have a lot of thoughts about the children who died.”

After the other women have left, Solange moves into the kitchen. There is a bowl of flour on the counter, a scent of spices. She speaks in French now.

The flight to Tanzania was not the first that she had to make in search of sanctuary. Congo, formerly colonised by French- speaking Belgians, has known many conflicts. “I was born in Congo but it was war, not peace. My family had to move to a refugee camp in Burundi when I was two,” she says. “I went to primary school in the camp, but we were not allowed to go to secondary school, so I left my parents and went back to Congo to get my education.”

Later, she married Matisse. They enjoyed a few years of peace before the civil war broke out again. What she meant when she said the war came to where she was in the forest is soon clear.

“I was raped,” she says. “Look.” She pulls up her dress to show the vivid scars on her thighs, scars on her breasts.

“They had knives and axes,” she says. She does not know how many men raped her. They blindfolded her first.

Nightmarish journey

The journey to Tanzania, with other families desperate for safety, was nightmarish. Rebels made some families leave daughters behind for forced marriage. They raped women in front of their husbands and children.

“One of my relatives was raped by many people and she became pregnant, but the baby miscarried and she died not long after that.”

When they got to the refugee camp in Tanzania, the Red Cross tended Solange’s wounds. She was reunited with her husband. They got a small tent in which they lived for almost 15 years. “Small peas and maize was all we had to eat,” she says.

“It was very dangerous to go out, but you had to go to look for food and get water and firewood. There was a lot of rape. People like businessmen raped even small five- year-old children – they believed if they took virginity it would be magic for them. Life was very bad.”

“The women did not tell anyone about the rapes. We were shy,” Solange says. “But it gave me very bad emotions. Even today, my husband and I talk about our memories of that time and we cry.”

Matisse comes into the kitchen. “The situation in Congo was catastrophic,” he says. “There were rebels, there were soldiers, there were militias. All of them were raping. There are a lot of women who were left pregnant. Their family cast them out.

“Now they are wandering the earth. The men who raped my wife were from our area. They would have known she was a twin. They would have believed that raping her would give them magical powers.”

Such rapes, the men believed, brought protection from bullets. “There are things that we have seen that make us, as Christians, almost want to pray for death rather than for life,” says Matisse, sadly.

Solange says she is glad to be alive, because so many died because of HIV, or were left sterile by multiple rapes. “We are safe here. But none of us has a job. We are all in our houses all the time.

“We are all . . .” she searches for the word. “Découragés. Discouraged.”

About 3,000 Congolese women live in Ireland, according to Salome Mbugua, who researched and wrote the Healing the Wounds of War report, interviewing women all around the country.

“A significant number are rape victims, even if many will not speak of it. They were happy to come here and they are grateful for the shelter they have been given. But they thought they would get help to integrate.

“Instead they are stuck, with no support, no counselling. They go to doctors, some of whom just prescribe painkillers and have no cultural sensitivity. They have nothing to do. Many don’t speak English.

“They feel that even though they are not waking up to gunfire, they are still living in war,” Mbugua goes on. Some of the women talked to her about the men who hang around outside direct provision centres trying to get women to prostitute themselves.

Few of the women will be named. One woman, Clarisse, now living in Kilkenny, remembers fleeing with her mother to a Ugandan refugee camp. “I saw plenty of death, plenty of rape. We had to keep moving.” By night, the women and girls slept under beds. “That way when the men came and said ‘We want the girls here’ we could crawl out into the bush, slowly, slowly, to hide. We knew they would kill us if they found us,” she says.

“My friend was 14 and she was already pregnant from rape. Three men saw her and they all wanted her and they could not agree so they shot her. Sometimes they will just rape you and rape you until you can never walk properly again.

Died from raping

“A friend of mine, they raped her so much her leg flaps out to the side now. She was 11. Some girls died from raping. One of my friends was taken and I never saw her since.”

The effort to tell such stories is painful: “Who are you going to talk to about a thing like that? Some women go mental. They walk all the time and they cry and they never go home. Some of them walk with no clothes on.

“I saw that in the camp. It is very terrible. There is such a woman in this town. She is alone. She has gone mad. And in Sudan it is still going on – last month my brother’s daughter was raped in her house. She is 14.

“There were other women there, but they wanted the small girl. They told the women they would shoot them if they screamed. You feel really heartbroken. There is nothing I can do.

“I cannot send money because I have none. I get social welfare for me and my children, but every cent must be budgeted, or chaos comes. We live on rice and beans. I worry all the time. There is no one to help you rest your mind.

“When I feel hurt I go to the Bible. At least my children are at school. Women like me who grew up in war did not get education,” she says, adding that she is constantly seeking work, but never even gets an interview.

“We African women want to work,” she says. One woman she knows had the same experience until she changed her name on the application form to make it sound Irish. She got an interview.

“When she walked in the woman looked at her and went bright red and she did not hear back from her.

“Another woman was told by an Irish businesswoman she thought her customers would not like her voice.

“We don’t want to call it the race thing, but it is there,” says Clarisse. “I don’t think my children will get jobs on this island.”