26-year-old Maombi Elizabeth was living in a camp for internally displaced people when she suffered disfiguring 3rd degree burns during a violent gang rape. At the time she was pregnant with what would have been her fifth child. Her children were playing while her husband and youngest child were with her in their tent. Six men, wearing military uniforms, used knives to tear through the fabric of the tent. Her husband ran away but Maombi and her child were caught. Three men stayed outside the tent. Inside, one held a gun to her four-year-old child's head and warned that if either cried they would be killed. Sometime during the attack Maombi lost consciousness. When the men had finished they set the tent on fire with Maombi and her child still inside. Maombi survived, but with severe burns, the young child died. ^When my mind comes back it is after two weeks. It was the time they... Photo by Robin Hammond
The last thing Basamae Maombi would see was the face of the man raping her. She had recognised him and called out his name, hoping the pain and indignity of the attack would stop. But it only made things worse. He held her down, pulled out his dirty knife and gouged out both of her eyes.
As shocking as Basamae’s story is, it is not unusual in a country ravaged by a war that has claimed over five million lives and seen as many as half a million women and children become victims of sexual violence.
The hospital in which she lies in the border town of Goma, the capital of the war-ravaged Congolese province of North Kivu, has kept her alive physically, but they have few resources and the emotional trauma she has endured will not be treated here.
When Basamae awakens, she puts on a bright blue dress that has been delicately embroidered with small flowers. The colourful attire is not unusual for a Congolese woman but seems out of place in the drab ward with its stained walls and rusted beds. She sits up to have her picture taken and turns her face toward the sun coming in through the window. She can feel the sun but will not see it again.
Maombi Elizabeth tells her story without emotion. A once pretty young woman, she is now covered in the scars from 3rd degree burns. She was lying in her tent with her husband and youngest child. Her other three children were playing outside with their friends. Suddenly the children’s laughter stopped.
A knife tore into the roof of the tent above Elizabeth. Her husband darted out the entrance of the tent. She went to follow but by the time she had picked up her 4-year-old child, three armed men were inside her makeshift home. They pushed her to the ground and drew their weapons. One of the men placed a gun to her child’s head. ‘If you scream, she dies’ he said. Then the men took turns raping Elizabeth. Her young child stood witness to the entire attack.Some time during the rape, Elizabeth lost consciousness. It wasn’t until two weeks later that she was able to understand what had happened. As the men left the tent they set the canvas and grass construction alight. Neighbours ran to save the occupants. Elizabeth survived. Her daughter did not.
Sexual violence against women has become part of modern warfare. In 2008 the United Nations officially recognised rape and sexual violence as a weapon used by armies against civilians. The Security Council voted unanimously that sexual violence was ‘a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instill fear in and forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group.’