Tue, Feb 27, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Lone warriors rescue sex slaves and rape survivors in Central African Republic

By Inna Lazareva  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, BANGUI

Illustration: Yusha

As the wife of a pastor, Hulda was getting ready for Christmas, hanging up decorations and preparing for church services in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, when gunshots shattered all attempts at festivities in December 2013.

Trucks crammed with masked men touting firearms and machetes pulled up on Hulda’s street. They broke down her front door.

The rebel fighters yanked Hulda out of a cupboard where she was hiding with her two boys, aged three and five.

“They screamed at me: ‘Tell us where your husband is so we can kill him. If not, we’ll rape you!’” recalled Hulda, who declined to give her full name, sitting as darkness fell in the courtyard of her friend’s home. “I did not say anything, so once they finished ransacking the house, they beat me, and then raped me in front of my children.”

The Central African Republic has been fractured by sectarian conflict since 2013 when Muslim-majority Seleka rebels ousted President Francois Bozize, triggering a vicious backlash by predominantly Christian and animist fighters.

Rape is used systematically as a weapon of war and sexual violence is widespread in the central African nation, according to the UN and rights groups.

Exact numbers are difficult to find, but human rights activists say there are hundreds of thousands of survivors, while no one has counted the corpses of those who were abused and then shot, hacked, burned or beaten to death.

Only one court in the whole country, about the size of France, has ever sentenced anyone for rape, Human Rights Watch said.

Despite evidence logged by the UN of sexual violence perpetrated by most armed groups, so far not one fighter has been held accountable. Some of those accused have not only evaded justice but have remained in positions of power.

However, in Bangui and beyond, activists are trying to assist survivors and fight for justice against the odds.

Monique Nali, former head of gender promotion at the social affairs ministry, spent her career helping women and girls to overcome abuse, learn to read and write, and gain job skills.

In 2013, just after she retired, she was incensed to find gang rapes happening practically on her doorstep.

When she heard about the suffering of her neighbor, Hulda, she asked the distraught pastor if he knew of other cases. He returned with a list of 67 names — all from his church alone.

SECRECY AND STIGMA

Nali began contacting the women.

“I would take them to the hospital for medical check-ups, and then I would arrange group meetings with other survivors,” she said.

Since then, she has counseled hundreds of women — Christian, animist and Muslim — from across the city, and organized training to build up their confidence and abilities.

Hulda said that sharing stories helped to heal her pain.

“I thought my case was the worst — but then I heard of others, whose husbands were killed in front of them, whose children were kidnapped,” she said.

At the meetings, Hulda met Solange, thrown to the floor and raped by fighters while clutching her two-month-old baby. Her husband, who was tortured for weeks, later abandoned her and her seven children.

Solange cannot work or send her children to school, and depends on her elderly parents. However, being in contact with other survivors has at least helped her beat depression and get on with her life.

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