After being raped by government troops, women in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo face the further pain and humiliation of being repudiated by their husbands.
“My husband refuses to share the bed with me. I sleep on the floor,” one woman who asked not to be named told AFP in the eastern village of Nakiele, where soldiers raped more than 100 women in early June.
“My husband also rejects the meals I cook for him. He eats the ones my sisters make for him. I don't understand why I should be abandoned,” said the woman, who is 19 years old with a six-month-old baby.
In Nakiele, a village of 12,300 inhabitants perched on a hill overlooking the Fizi plateau in Sud-Kivu province, 121 women told a hospital doctor that they were raped on the night of June 11 by renegade troops.
Since that night, more than a dozen of them have been disowned by their husbands.
On the fateful day, when more than 150 army deserters led by a colonel, former members of a local Mai-Mai tribal militia, approached the isolated village, the men of the community fled into the bush.
They abandoned the women and the children for fear of being abducted as porters by the soldiers, who would beat them if they refused. Only a few men stayed behind, including the village headman and the doctor, with his nurses.
In two other villages in the same region, 127 women have reported being raped by the same troops.
During successive military operations since 2009 against armed groups in the region, soldiers arrived in villages and “asked for rations, a goat, and the women were left in peace. But this time, it ended badly,” the headman of Nakiele, Losema Etamo Ngoma, told AFP.
When her husband returned on the morning of June 12 after the soldiers had gone, a 20-year-old woman told him that she had been raped.
“He told me that now I'm a soldier's wife, that I should go with the soldiers and not stay here. But he hasn't yet chased me away,” the woman told AFP.
“I don't understand why he said that,” she added, fiddling mechanically with the knot of the sling that held her one-year-old baby in a cradle on her back.
Rape is such a taboo in much of the DR Congo that the victims keep quiet rather than risk being rejected by their husbands, their families, and indeed the whole community.
Yet relief agencies estimate that scores of thousands of women have been raped by armed men in the successive conflicts that have ravaged the country, before and since a bloody war that drew in half a dozen other nations between 1999 and 2003.
In Nakiele, “the women have had the courage to speak out. There was a mass movement and non-governmental organisations intervened to have them tell their stories,” said Eugene Byamoni, a psychologist who consulted about 50 of the women on June 16 and 17.
“I'm ashamed to go through the village. I'm the object of criticism, of teasing, people say that I'm a soldier's wife, carrying a disease,” murmured a woman aged 28 and accused of having the AIDS virus since the rape.
Her husband has told her “to go away and leave the bed”.
“We need to get together the men and the women, to make them aware, to tell them that the misfortune that has happened is not the fault of the women,” the 28-year-old said.
“Since the problem arose, I've brought together a group of 10 elders to talk to the men, so that they can still live with these women, explaining to them that what happened to the women was done by force, against their will, and that they have to live with that,” village chief Ngoma said.
Ngoma asked for professional help because “the group of elders has no technique. We need specialists to come and teach them methods as quickly as possible, because otherwise households will continue to fall apart.”