Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Congo to New York: 'Lumo', the story of rape victims fighting for hope and dignity in the DRC

I would so love to read a ‘good news story’ about the Democratic Republic of Congo but what I am able to find online on most major news sites are stories about conflict and suffering and poverty. Fortunately I have a good female friend and neighbor who hails from Kinshasa, the capital city of the DRC, and we sometimes have a good laugh as she tells me anecdotes about her own life growing up in the Congo or about the lives of her family and friends who still live in the vast central African nation.

The following post about the road to recovery and normalization for a young Congolese woman victimized by gang rape and the subsequent injuries to her physical and psychological well-being may qualify as a ‘good news story’, in that it shows how the determination and resilience of the women and girls at the Heal Africa hospital in Goma (eastern DRC) together with a lot of help from a heroic doctor and his staff and sponsor partners from the U.S.A. and other countries can do a great deal to help at least some of the rape victims in the eastern Congo heal and feel wanted and useful in a community again.

I was delighted and surprised this past weekend while viewing the CNN ‘Inside Africa’ program to see an interview with one of the original Congo Crew* (see below) group of blog authors. Louis Abelman of the Goma Film Project and editorial assistant at The New York Times was interviewed along with director/producer Nelson Walker III about their recent release of the documentary film ‘Lumo’. The film is about the life of women and girls in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo who have suffered mass rapes and brutality at the hands of some of the most inhumane militia members, government soldiers, and child soldiers the world has seen in a very long time.

The documentary focuses on the recovery of Lumo Sinai, a 22-year old Congolese woman who as a young girl was gang-raped by marauding soldiers/militiamen during the outbreak of the Congo Wars following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Lumo like 100,000’s of other women and girls in the eastern DRC has suffered for years with the psychological trauma and physical injuries caused by these brutal rapes. Lumo has a fistula, a debilitating medical condition that affects thousands of mass rape victims in the eastern DRC today. Obstetric fistulas are the type where a female’s reproductive organs and/or rectum has been damaged so badly that she no longer has control over her urine and bowel movements. Typically, a hole is torn between the woman or girl’s vagina and bladder leaving the victim continuously incontinent (leakage of urine from the bladder) accompanied with an offensive smell. Here is an excerpt from the PBS Point of View (P.O.V) website about the September 18th, 2007 airing of the documentary on the PBS TV network in the U.S.A.:


Twenty-year-old Lumo Sinai was engaged to be married and going about her daily chores when she fell victim to an act of brutality of "Africa's First World War" — rape as a tool of political terror. On the road to her village, Lumo and another woman were kidnapped and gang-raped by one of the groups of marauding soldiers vying for control of the eastern Congo in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Lumo suffered not only the trauma of rape, but was soon afflicted with a resulting fistula, a chronic condition that leaves women incontinent and typically unable to bear children. Her affliction led to rejection by her fiancĂ© and most of her family and village. Violently robbed of her future, Lumo faced a future of shame, loneliness, ill health and poverty.

"Lumo" is an intimate look into a woman's tragedy and healing process, and, by extension, into the scourge of rape that marks the war-torn politics of central Africa. "Lumo" is also the story of a remarkable African hospital that works tirelessly to restore the physical and mental health of women suffering in an epidemic of fistula caused by rape. The hospital's self-called "Mamas," African women who work tirelessly as healers, even flouted traditional prejudice and government policy by leading a march in defense of women's human rights. But "Lumo" remains most of all Lumo Sinai's story as she struggles through four failed surgeries and searches for strength to face the future — whatever the outcome of one more surgery by the hospital's dedicated doctors. ..

…The end of the Rwandan genocide sent thousands of Hutu militiamen, the Interhamwe — who were responsible for the mass murder of Tutsis and moderate Hutus — fleeing to the Congolese forests, where they were pursued by the new Tutsi-dominated Rwandan army.

Their struggle became entangled with a long-running insurgency against the crumbling Mobutu regime and cross-border tensions with other nations, helping to fuel the First and Second Congo Wars. The latter, lasting from 1998 to 2003, involved nine African nations and some 20 armed groups and led to the death of nearly 4 million people, earning it the epithet of "Africa's First World War." As in some other African conflicts, child soldiers, drugs, superstition and a virulent terrorizing of women characterized the fighting.

Lumo Sinai was a victim of this war. About the rape, she puts it simply enough: "They destroyed us." Forsaken by everyone except her mother, she finds that village healers can do little to relieve the symptoms of her fistula — especially the incontinence that so shames and marks her. But she does learn about "counselors searching for raped women." They represent a hospital in Goma, supported by HEAL Africa, which offers nothing less than a miracle — reconstructive surgery that has a high success rate of reversing the effects of rape-induced fistula, even allowing women to give birth.

End excerpt from PBS P.O.V. – read more about Lumo

The PBS website also has text and video interviews with some key people involved in the making of Lumo including the filmmakers, Lumo and Dr. Jo Lusi of the Heal Africa hospital for rape victims in Goma, Pamela Schifman of UNICEF (a lawyer and child protection specialist working on the global crisis of rape and violence against women as an act of war) and playwright and women’s rights activist Eve Ensler of (see related articles and resources below).

CNN anchor and correspondent Isha Sesay interviewed John Prendergast of the ENOUGH Project to Abolish Genocide and Mass Atrocities for the Inside Africa program. Prendergast (bio) is well known to many of us who follow news on conflict crisis in the Sudan and the DR Congo and he has served as the Director of African Affairs for the U.S. National Security Council (Clinton administration) and as an advisor and resident expert on Africa for a long list of internationally recognized panels and organizations, the most recent being the International Crisis Group headquartered in Brussels.

Inside Africa host Femi Oke interviewed Ben Kalala, President of the Congolese Community Organization of Atlanta and a candidate for governor of Kasai Oriental province in the historic DRC elections of 2006. Unfortuantely there was no one-on-one follow-up interview with President Joseph Kabila of the DRC who was visiting Washington D.C. and Arizona last month (see CNN’s Jeff Koinange 2006 interview with President Kabila).

Related news articles and online resources

PBS P.O.V. Films
Lumo film update: Return to the Congo
Interview with Pamela Schifman (UNICEF): Ending Sexual Violence
Conversation with Eve Ensler: Femicide in the Congo, hosted by Michelle Kort

Lumo - about the filmmakers

Goma Film Project – official website for the documentary film “Lumo”
Co-director/producer Louis Abelman’s blog (retired) “Telegraphe Congolais

Heal Africa – home of the Heal Africa hospital and project in Goma, DRC

UNFPA – Ending Violence Against Women

UNIFEM Women War Peace – a portal on women, peace, and security & UNICEF
The Congo Campaign & Stop Raping Our Greatest Resource - UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict

Glamour magazine online
Women left for dead---and the man who’s saving them, August 2007

Black Looks: Carnival of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence

CNN ‘Inside Africa’ program on the DRC – transcripts and videos
DRC war fears (program segment video with President Kabila in Washington D.C. and the John Prendergast interview)
Congo Conflict Solutions (program segment video interview with Ben Kalala, President of the Congolese Community Organization of Atlanta)
Women in the DRC - Rape as a tool of war in the Congo (interview with Lumo co-directors Louis Abelman and Nelson Walker III)

CNN Anderson Cooper 360° blog: This is not a fairy tale, 10/05/06
Rape, brutality ignored to aid Congo peace, 05/24/06
Congo president on military rapes: ‘Unforgivable’, 06/01/06

The New York Times
Rape Epidemic Raises Trauma of Congo War, 10/07/07
Television Review of ‘Lumo’, 09/18/07
Video: Hearing the Horrors of War (Liberia), 10/31/07
Seeking Hidden Accounts of Atrocity, 10/31/07
Congo’s Army Clashing with Militias, 10/25/07
Congo by Rail: Filthy, Crowded, and Dangerous, 09/04/07

The Guardian (UK)
Hundreds of thousands raped in the Congo Wars, 11/14/06
The Deadliest War in the World, 05/28/06

Great blogs focusing on news and life in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Eye on Africa by Mvemba Phezo Dizolele

(Mvemba is a independent journalist and Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting fellow)
Global Voices Online – Democratic Republic of Congo (aggregated blog posts)

*The Original “Congo Crew” of bloggers (2004-2007)
The Salon of News and Thought by Ali the Malau
007 in Africa by Dorothy: Honouring African Women
Breaking Hearts in the Heart of Darkness by Sahara Sarah
Carl the Pilot (see Carl’s archives 2005-2006 for Congo posts)
Congo Girl – Adventures of a retired armchair traveler
Kim Gjerstad in Congo (see archives)
Congo Watch by Ingrid Jones
Elia – Lulu on the bridge (see archives, text in Spanish)

Technorati tags: