As rebels and government forces in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo face off in battles in an escalating conflict, armed groups are using sexual violence as a weapon of war to terrorize the populations. Doctors at a hospital where the victims are treated say the numbers are growing and little is being done to protect the vulnerable. Kari Barber reports from the North and South Kivu provinces of eastern Congo.
An estimated 400,000 people in eastern Congo have fled their homes this year because of fighting and insecurity. Armed groups often prey on civilians.
And as rebels loyal to renegade General Laurent Nkunda wage a back-and-forth battle against government troops, security in the region deteriorates even further.
After a recent rebel attack on neighboring villages, a hospital in the South Kivu town of Minova received several women who had been raped as they fled the fighting.
Francoise Mwamasirika is one of the victims. She describes her incident. "I was leaving the market and I ran into FDLR Hutu rebels on the road. They robbed me of everything and then four men raped me."
Mwamasirika says she will not return to her village, but will stay with other women who have been raped.
Human rights groups say women also are raped at displacement camps where those fleeing the fighting arrive for help. Assaults usually happen when women leave the camp to look for firewood or food.
Francoise Kayindeh says she feels safe inside the camp, but she has no choice but to go out for food or other necessities. She says, "We have little or nothing to eat here, so I have to go out into the woods to look for sticks to sell." A bundle will fetch Kayindeh the equivalent of about 20 cents.
Doctor Christophe Kimona works in surgery repairing the genitalia of rape victims. Without surgery many can no longer control urination. "It's not only the operation, but you also have to think about how they will readjust to society. These women often are not married or their husbands were killed while they were raped and the family do not want them anymore because they smell like urine," he said.
Dr. Kimona says as rape escalates with the conflict, it is also becoming more common throughout society.
Faura Ngabu Noela is staying at a clinic with her 11-month-old daughter Chaunce. Noele says a man in her village raped the child and left her for dead. She says, "The man took my baby in the bush and raped her. When people from the neighborhood found her by the side of the street she was covered in grass, dirt and blood."
Noela pressed charges, and the man is in custody. But that is not the norm here where rapists largely go unpunished.
Dr. Kimona says treating victims after they have been raped is not enough, there should be prevention. "We take care of them, but then you have people who leave and are raped again because society is not safe. What we need is help ending this form of barbarism."
But as attention is drawn to the conflict, the victims are often forgotten.