Help us build the "Justine House" to provide a haven of peace and dignity for victims of rape and sexual violence who are undergoing care at St Vincent Medicl Center in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo
Justine (middle front) shared her personal story with the seven women (pictured) who are also rape victims that are currently living with Justine. Dr. Jeff (middle) works at St.Vincent Medical Center in collaboration with Justine performing reconstructive surgeries.
In a country torn by violent crimes, governmental corruption and brutal rapes, it is nearly impossible to turn away from the inexplicable pain and suffering of innocent people. Why is it then, that the American people and the rest of the world seem to know very little about the Democratic Republic of Congo and these injustices against humanity?
Only after travelling to the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo was I able to witness first-hand the horrors of one of the most dangerous developing countries in the world. One out of every five women are brutally raped by soldiers who raid villages, killing and pillaging anyone and anything they find. The sadistic practices of these rebel soldiers are appalling. They have forced fathers to rape their daughters and have raped babies as young as 6 months old. With so many problems plaguing these people, it’s difficult to see the glimmer of light that provides hope in the midst of immeasurable darkness. I kept asking myself, “Where are you God?” That’s when I met Justine.
Justine is a woman who was born in Walikale in 1979. As the housewife of a male nurse, she was living a peaceful life when the plague of systematic rape broke out with all of its complications. In 2004, while visiting her husband in Iunyakiri, Justine met a woman in the waiting room who was very sick and was unable to sit on her chair. After her husband had examined the woman, Justine learned that this woman had a vesico-vaginal fistula from being raped and there was little he could do to help. She learned that this was happening in villages all over the Eastern DRC and little was being done to care for these women. Filled with compassion for these women, Justine decided to investigate what could be done to care for them. She met with various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Bukavu but was met with unsatisfactory responses. Feeling a deep calling to help these women, Justine decided to take matters into her own hands.
In order to fully understand the challenges and obstacles these rape victims face, it is essential to understand the cultural context: In a culture where brides are bought and women are viewed as property, a woman who was the target of a brutal and emotionally-scarring rape becomes little more than “used-goods.” As a disgrace to her family and an embarrassment to her husband, she is quickly disowned by both. What was already a devastating physical and psychological experience then becomes a social problem.
Justine helped to organize the women so they could work together and earn money doing simple tasks, such as transporting goods on their backs. In 2006, she heard of the St. Vincent Medical Center in Bukavu that had recently taken in three cases of rape victims with vesico-vaginal fistulas. After meeting with the director at St. Vincent’s, Dr. Jeff Mibi, a promising collaboration was formed. Dr.Mibi agreed to take in some of the women she was working with on a provisional basis.
While this encounter provided a solution for the women’s medical needs, they were still faced with the great task of picking up the pieces of their lives in order to maintain a sustainable living. The women had no food or lodging. This is when Justine’s dream really gave birth. She made plans to have a second home in Bukavu where she could house the women and care for them while they underwent treatment at St. Vincent. Under this plan, she helped more than 300 women over a seven year period. Together with St. Vincent, she has faced many logistical difficulties. Her work often required her to walk hundreds of kilometers with women she had gathered and accompanied to St. Vincent. This journey was not a safe one, with armed soldiers, rapists, hunger and death always looming on the horizon.
It was on one of these journeys that these nightmares became reality. As an advocate for women who had been raped, Justine became a target. Justine was accompanying six women from Bunyakiri to the St. Vincent Medical Center in Bukavu; this journey consisted of a one day walk to a village where they could travel the rest of the way by truck. On Friday, September 23, 2011, they decided to spend the night in a village situated 90km from Bukavu. On Saturday, around 8pm, they heard gun shots and war cries in the village. Three armed men broke into the home she was staying in and led her out into the center of the village where they had gathered all of the people from their homes. They looted the village and kept some of the younger women as sex slaves. During their trip into the jungle, Justine realized she was being guarded by three armed men while the other women were being raped repeatedly. It was then that she learned they were saving her for the leader of the operations.
When they finally arrived at the Democratic Federation of the Liberation of Rwanda’s headquarters, Justine was surprised at their level of organization. They had solar panels, a V-SAT, satellite phones, computers and televisions. She was taken to the leader where he took her as his “wife” for ten days. As the health of some of the women quickly deteriorated, Justine begged for their release. Justine spent her days crying because she felt so dishonored. She didn’t eat or talk and was raped every day.
She was approached by one of the FDLR soldiers who expressed his interest in helping her escape. He shared his distress at the situation and claimed that not all of the soldiers are bad, but do the work out of fear for their own lives. He told her that he could organize her escape if she came up with three thousand dollars of ransom money. Justine was able to convince the leader to let her leave with three guards (one of whom was the one who organized her escape) to get her youngest child. During this time they met with a team from St. Vincent who exchanged money and secured Justine’s release.
After this traumatic experience, Justine had all but lost hope. Her courageous and vivant spirit was replaced by depression and a defeated heart. Justine was preoccupied because she knew that her marriage and old life were in jeopardy. Fortunately, after much counseling, her husband agreed to keep her as his wife. He said “when I permitted my wife to start this work, I was conscious of the risk that she was running. I accepted the fact that she was doing this work because I noticed that this work pleased her enormously. What happened to her is painful and difficult to accept, but she is my wife and I swore to stay faithful to her in joy as well as in grief.”
After this experience, Justine decided to leave her work as a social worker. But three weeks later, she learned of 26 women who were victims of sexual violence that had arrived at the St. Vincent Medical Center. She felt deeply compelled and called to help these women. She decided to return to her work assisting these women claiming that “if I had given up and stopped working, it would have been like admitting to them that they have conquered me. I am not ready to do that.”
Justine lives in a small home that consists of two rooms roughly 10x7 feet each. She lives with her husband and five children (one of which is adopted from a victim who passed away). She is also currently housing seven additional women who are receiving medical care. Her dream remains to open a home for victimized women which would allow them to regain their footing in society. In order to realize this dream, she needs to raise roughly $30,000 dollars.
What Justine wants the world to know: “The women have suffered enough in the eastern DRC. It is time to stop the violence and see justice rendered and to insure that the victims be cared for and reestablished to their rightful place in society.”
Justine in front of her home with her family where her husband (left), five children and seven women live.
Sylvia with a grandmother (left) and her two granddaughters. The granddmother begged the soldiers to take her instead of her granddaughter and was taken deep into the jungle and raped numerous times before being freed for a ransom. They are unable to return to their home village because she is now a target for the rebel forces in the area.
This woman is a widowed mother who used to work in the fields. She was sleeping in her home one night when armed soldiers entered. They immediately killed her husband who was laying in bed with her and took her deep into the jungle for four days before releasing her. Upon returning to her village, she noticed that she had missed her period. She explained that her stomach has been growing as if she were pregnant, but the pyschological trauma of what happened has prevented her from admitting the obvious; she is pregnant.
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