Dispatch From Congo: Treating the Atrocity of Rape, Part 1

Lane Hartill, CRS’ regional information officer for West Africa, describes his visit to a CRS-funded hospital in a rural area of Eastern Congo that is treating women who have been raped, an atrocity of the ongoing war.

I went on rounds with Dr. Freddy Mubuto, the head doctor at Nyamibungu Mother and Child Hospital, to see what he faces everyday. He and his fellow doctor, Faustin, are the only two doctors in an area with around 103,000 people.

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Dr. Freddy Mubuto, head doctor at Nyamibungu Mother and Child Hospital in Eastern Congo. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

I knew seeing his patients wasn’t going to be easy. I steeled myself against the hot rush of emotion, but it came anyway. Reality, it seemed, was going to have its way with me.

One of the first women we saw had been taking her medicine religiously, said Mubuto, but she hadn’t eaten in days, causing complications. With a shake of his head, and in that calm, velvet voice, he explained to her why she had to eat, knowing all too well that she had no money for food.

A pretty woman, the wife of a gold miner, wearing clean red Puma slippers and silver earrings, had walked 25 miles to get to the hospital. She had the Congo’s flag painted on each toenail. She was having stomach pains, she said, could he help?

Mubuto suspected tuberculosis or a genital infection. She was only 25, but had already had three children. Only one was still alive. I didn’t have the stomach to ask her how the others had died.

The hospital has a sonogram machine and Mubuto spent much of the afternoon squirting gel on stomachs the size of beach balls and waving the wand over them. One lady had a scar running south from her bellybutton; it was as thick as a rope of licorice. Another physician had given her a C-section and done and awful job sewing her up. That wasn’t important, though: The baby inside looked just fine.

These were the easy cases. It’s when the rape cases come in – and the women who were forced to stay in the village to give birth – that things get complicated.

Mubuto sometimes finds himself facing complex emergencies he doesn’t know how to handle. He looks at reproductive systems so mutilated that he has to try something even if he’s never seen the problem. If he doesn’t, he says, they’ll surely die.

Like the time he worked on a woman – the surprise and disgust still registers in Mubuto’s voice – who had toxic leaves forced deep into her birth canal. So far, in fact, it punctured her uterus and the leaves entered her abdomen, causing her intestines to become infected.

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Dr. Freddy Mubuto on his rounds. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

After surgery, piles of pills, and a three-month stay, “She didn’t pay a single cent,” he said. Instead, she went to the court and brought a suit against the feticheur, the traditional doctor who had prescribed the treatment. She accused him of premeditated murder. Many women, Mubuto said, sneak out of the hospital at night, avoiding payment. He has no recourse.

He says the women rely on feticheurs out of ignorance. It bothered him so much, he visited a few local villages to persuade women to come to the hospital. He also talked to village chiefs who agree with him and promise the village women will go to the hospital from now on. He says he’s seen a slight uptick in the number of women coming to him first, but the feticheur problem is still overwhelming.

You’d think all this would get to Mubuto, that he too would sneak out of a window at night and escape. But he doesn’t. He stays because it’s in his blood. His father was a well-known doctor and several of his siblings are also in the medical profession.

He politely asks me about how he can get additional training. He says a good anesthesiologist is needed at the hospital because many gynecological operations can’t be done with a local anesthetic. But if that’s not possible, maybe $75 a month to buy fuel for the generator is.

When I got home, I emailed my college roommate, now a respected anesthesiologist in Seattle. I told him how some men in the U.S. smirk and giggle at the mention of gynecology, how it’s a punch line, not a profession.

That’s not true. Definitely not in Congo.

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