DR Congo: A heavy weight – treating the mental trauma of war displaced

By: James Stairs

Goma_(dpa) _ Before the rebels came, Justine Bengehya and Simwerai Muhanaka lived quietly with their seven children outside the Congolese town of Masisi, 50 kilometres west of the provincial capital Goma.

He was a farm labourer; she stayed home to mind the children.

Congolese IDPs in Eastern DRC
Justine Bengehya (left) is one hundreds of thousands Congolese IDPs in Eastern DRC displaced by recent fighting.

Everything changed for the couple on November 29, when the city of 33,000 was captured by rebel Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda and his National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP).
The Congolese army, which had controlled the city, fled. The CNDP then began operations to flush out pro-government rebels.
“They came at night and made people open their doors,” Bengehya, 40, says, sitting on a concrete block in central Goma amidst the afternoon bustle.

“They were looking for enemies. My husband told them we were not involved but they didn’t listen.”

Bengehya watched in horror as a soldier shot her husband in the face several times. The 40 year-old Muhanaka died on the floor of his home.
“I had 200 US dollars under my skirt so I gave it to them to let us go,” Bengehya says.
Outside, neighbours were running wildly in the street amidst the shooting.
“So many of us were killed,” Bengehya says. “We were just so terrified.”
The family joined others fleeing the violence, but despite travelling by night and avoiding checkpoints, the group was attacked by CNDP soldiers on the second day.
The refugees scattered into a nearby forest. During the panic, Bengehya’s four-year old daughter, Baraka, was grabbed. When the rebels moved on, she rushed to find her lost child.
Baraka was lying by the side of the road, badly injured. She had been raped by the soldiers.
“When I found her, she was bleeding so much,” Bengehya says, her eyes frantic with grief, tears streaming down her cheeks. “She died in my arms. We buried her beside the road under some stones. We had to leave because of my other children.”
The group weathered several other attacks over the two weeks it took to reach the relative safety of Goma, the provincial capital. After arriving they disbanded and Bengehya wandered the streets with her children before being taken in by a local family.
There are an estimated 350,000 refugees currently living in Goma, most of them displaced by fighting that intensified in August.
Hundreds of thousands more live along the routes between Congolese trading towns and in massive refugee camps dotted throughout the country and operated by the international community.
The numbers in the camps mushroomed after fighting ramped up in October after Nkunda accused the Congolese government of failing to act on the 2008 Goma Accords, which prioritized disarming Hutu militias who crossed the border during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
CNDP forces have since captured large swathes of eastern DR Congo, sending hundreds of thousands fleeing once again five years after the official end of the 1998-2003 war that killed over five million people and displaced over one million.
After reaching the outskirts of Goma, home of the United Nations peacekeeping command post and the nerve centre of the international aid community, Nkunda halted his advance.
Heavily fortified positions surrounded the city until Wednesday when a dramatic and unexpected shift threw chaos into the region.
Rwanda, which had been accused of managing the war through its support of Nkunda, suddenly invaded its larger neighbour. .
With the consent of the Congolese government, 4,000 Rwandan soldiers poured across the border under the cover of darkness, announcing an offensive on the Hutu militia.
Access to the military operation has been restricted by Congolese and Rwandan troops. Journalists and international observers have been turned away or detained by heavily armed soldiers at several checkpoints on routes leading to the heaviest fighting.
In another shocking twist, Nkunda, an ethnic Tutsi closely aligned with the Rwandan government, was arrested by Rwandan troops and taken to Kigali, where he is currently reportedly in custody. The general had been facing opposition from within the CNDP and had recently cancelled several press engagements.
Neither the Rwandans nor the Congolese governments have commented on the arrest.
Amidst the chaos, the news means little to Bengehya and the other refugees, most of who are loyal to the Congolese government and distrust the Rwandans.
“I just want to find food today and to go home soon,” she says.
Humanitarian agencies estimate that hundreds of thousands more have been raped or sexually assaulted since 1998 and according to local health officials, most refugees – like Bengehya – have suffered severe mental trauma.
Ten kilometres from Goma at the Kibati II refugee camp, Justine Najua welcomes visitors with a warm smile into a small tent tucked into the back corner of the camp’s health compound.
The tent is called a Maison d’Ecoute (Listening House) and until Wednesday, was less than one kilometre from the front lines of the war.
“This is where people can come if their troubles overwhelm them,” the 31-year-old clinician says.
The tent is operated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and is on the front lines of a major humanitarian effort to address the mental trauma caused by the war.
“The people who come through here have so many problems – many have no homes, no food, their families have been killed or their kids have disappeared,” Najua says.
“We have people who are so traumatized but have to put aside their own problems – some even forget that they themselves were raped,” she adds.
The ICRC offers counselling and referrals to psychiatric teams for the more serious cases.
“If we don’t intervene, the problems can get much worse,” Najua says.
Najua says that women who have been sexually assaulted are often rejected by their communities, further compounding the trauma.
Since November, the Maison d’Ecoute has treated over 160 cases of mental trauma. An estimated 40 to 70 per cent of refugees live in public spaces or with host families and getting aid to them has proven next to impossible.
Care for the mentally traumatized will have to last for years after the conflict ends, Najua says.
“I hear terrible things,” Najua says with a tired laugh. “Sometimes I feel like I am a secondary victim.”

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