Reference : V-P-CD-E-00943
Date : 28/01/2009
Caption : Kibati camp. A counsellor, listens to a rape victim at an ICRC-supported Maison d'écoute or ''listening house".
Photographer : HAVIV, Ron
Confidentiality level : public
Publication restrictions : reserved users only
Copyright : ICRC/VII
Description : The "listening house" is one of many that were set up all over Eastern Congo in recent years. This was the response of civil society, mainly of women associations, to the "epidemic of rape" that has engulfed the region over the past 15 years, in the wake of its countless conflicts. The ICRC supports 33 listening houses, both in North and South Kivu.

In these modest structures, victims find counsellors who listen to them, bringing both material and psychological support. A small room offers beds to rest, and post rape kits are available on the spot, or at a nearby hospital. If administered within 72 hours, the drugs minimize the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases like HIV-AIDS.

Rebuilding the woman's self-esteem is a longer and much more arduous endeavour, which takes months at a minimum. Often, mediators have also to go and explain husbands and other members of the family that rejecting the woman is a senseless and cruel second punishment. When they do not succeed, the listening house offers a longer term shelter to the woman and, sometimes, to her offspring.

Charlotte, on this photo, is one of the psycho-social assistants trying to help and to listen. She tells her story.

It had rained that morning, and the mud tracks at Kibati camp were even more difficult to pass than usual. Wherever one looked, there were only makeshift shelters, covered in dried banana leaves or blue tarpaulins, interspersed by bigger tents, bearing the logos of humanitarian agencies. Mamas cooked and men idled, children ran about. Sometimes, a small head would be covered in the white powder used at the local infirmary to fight scabies. Some 65,000 people had been sheltering at this sprawling camp on the outskirts of Goma since the fighting in October 2008.

In the walled compound of the clinic, one corner was taken by an unassuming little house covered in plastic sheeting. Inside, two tiny rooms, one with a simple table and a few chairs, the other containing a small bed. There was no sign, but those who needed it knew how to find the "listening house" where Charlotte Tabaro, 32, and her colleague had been trying, for the past year, to assuage some amongst the worst suffering in the camp.

"You wouldn't believe it, but it is not only women who come to us. More than once, we had men who had been raped or otherwise sexually abused. But the worst are the children", said softly Charlotte.

Like Manou, ten, and his sister Chance, six. "Their family was living further north, close to the Ugandan border. The children were looking after the goats when a group of armed men arrived. Some, we do not know how many, raped the little girl. Meanwhile, others were trying to abuse Manou, who was wearing a dress. It seems for this reason they mistook him for a girl. When they realized he was a boy, they started to hit him everywhere, including on his genitals, to the extent that he could not even cry anymore, only moan."

When the mother found the children, Chance had a broken pelvis and was paralyzed from the waist down, while Manou had horrific genital injuries. "Ever since, the father has taken the boy from one hospital to the other, up to here in Goma. Last time I have seen them, Manou had a serious infection. They have left again, for another hospital further north, and I have had no news since."

"I am myself a mother of six, and I cried so much when I heard that story. It is difficult to keep one's calm in such cases." How did she, as a rule, manage to keep her balance with a work such as this? "We have had this training given by the ICRC to psycho-social assistants, showing us how to cope with the constant stress. It helps. And then, I go home, I play with my kids, I talk to my husband, I go for a walk. What is certain is that one needs to find an outlet when one does this work."

Feelings of guilt

The most surprising was perhaps the shining smile Charlotte managed to keep throughout her daily routine at the listening house. When a new victim came, she explained, she would first check whether the aggression had taken place less than 72 before, in which case the first priority would be medical. The "post rape kits", containing a variety of medicines, allow to prevent an unwanted pregnancy, and minimize the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases like HIV-AIDS.

In most cases, "victims are psychologically shattered, and they need rest", continued Charlotte. The tiny room with the bed provided some privacy, until the person would feel "well enough to speak. We listen, passively at first. And we always start by explaining that everything which is said here is strictly confidential."

Fighting the feelings of guilt a victim almost invariably feels, rebuilding her self-esteem, may take months and many follow-up meetings. The woman sitting that day in Charlotte's office, a toddler in her lap*, had already come several times over the past months. "What is also frustrating is that these women, who are often displaced, have urgent material needs, and there is little we can do for them in this respect", added Charlotte. And she smiled, encouragingly, to the woman holding the toddler.
Original material : digital
Resolution : 3744x5616
Orientation : portrait
Colour/B&W : colour