Femicide in the Congo

Award-winning author Eve Enslerhas witnessed and highlighted terrible acts of violence in her global campaign to protect women, butnothing has been as terrifying and complete as the rape, sexual tortureand attempted destruction of females in the Congo

SOLDIERS took Noella from her home, in a village in the killing fields of the Congo, when she was eight years old. The vulnerable child watched fearfully as her father was led in one direction, her mother in another – a chilling echo of the Holocaust, when families were cleft apart and taken to concentration camps to die.

The terrified little girl was held by the militia for two weeks and systematically raped, relentlessly and repeatedly. When she was returned to her village, her father had been slaughtered and her mother had also been gang-raped. Noella was incontinent, unable to control her bodily functions, her tiny body broken and scarred, inside and out.

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She was taken to Panzi hospital, in Bukavu, but she was so small that she didn't have sufficient body tissue for surgeons to repair the fistula – a rip in her internal tissue. She not only had a hole in her body, she had a hole in her soul, a hole where her confidence, her self-esteem, her spirit leaked out.

Noella – not her real name – was so young when she was raped that she didn't even know what a penis was. "When she told me what had happened to her, she kept saying, 'They were putting this thing inside me,'" recalls the award-winning playwright Eve Ensler. As she tells me this terrible story of profound suffering and the use of rape as a weapon of mass destruction, her dark brown eyes are filled with tears – as mine are too. "Noella is buried so deeply in my heart," she whispers.

Now, of course, the little girl always smells bad since she is unable to control her bladder. "She's constantly being humiliated by other children, because she's always peeing on herself. But this child has the greatest spirit, the most amazing soul. She's so alive, so smart and so desperate to be educated.

"The day I met Noella was the day I knew I would give the rest of my life to the hell that is the Congo," says Ensler.

With the recent arrest of rebel leader General Laurent Nkunda, hopes are finally rising for calm in this troubled land, which Ensler points out is breathtakingly beautiful, as well as rich in mineral resources. Yet, bloody conflict has raged there since 1996, when civil war erupted to overthrow the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, although the country has been tortured for more than 120 years – the consequences of genocide and colonialism.

After she had listened to Noella's heartbreaking story, Ensler took the girl on to her lap and hugged her. The child struggled to get away. "I realised that no one had hugged her since she had been raped, because everyone was so afraid of her peeing on them. I told her I didn't care – then she peed on me. Afterwards, I went away and wrote a poem called 'Baptised', because for me it was like a baptism. She gave me a gift, a kind of holy reminder that we all seep into one another, that we are all integral in each other, that Noella being raped is connected to me – there is one huge river of humanity flowing between us.

"We all are responsible for Noella," continues Ensler. "She is, of course, only one of thousands of little girls in that situation. In the year 2009! It's unbelievable. That's why every one of us is responsible for all of them."

There is something surreal, almost shaming, about sitting in the lobby of a hip London hotel, drinking ludicrously expensive coffee and listening to this glamorous 55-year-old woman speak of the evil that men do. Telling of heinous crimes against women and children that are so incomprehensible they almost beggar belief.

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The charismatic American author is best known for writing, producing and acting in the phenomenally successful play The Vagina Monologues, which has starred, among countless others, Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett, Glenn Close, Oprah Winfrey and Susan Sarandon, and which comes to Scotland this month, with Kaye Adams, Karen Dunbar, Michelle McManus and Gail Porter.

Ensler is also the founder of the worldwide V-Day campaign. Staged every year on Valentine's Day, V-Day has raised 44m in the past decade to help end global violence against women and girls – particularly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where tens of thousands of women are raped, mutilated and tortured every year.

Women like Alfonsine, who was walking through the forest near her home when she met a lone soldier. "He followed me and then forced me to lie down," this thin, petite woman told Ensler on her first visit to the DRC, in the summer of 2007. When Alfonsine struggled, he pressed his rifle on the outside of her vagina and shot an entire cartridge into her. "I just heard the voice of bullets. My clothes were glued to me with blood. I passed out," she said.

Left for dead, Alfonsine – not her real name, since she could be subject to reprisals for speaking out about the atrocities perpetrated on her – was blown apart. Her insides were destroyed. Her colon, bladder, vagina and rectum were gone. She had also lost her mind. No one thought she would survive. But she did, just as countless other women have done.

Nadine is another, a 29-year-old from the village of the Nindja, an insecure area where families often spend many nights hiding in the bush. "The soldiers found us there," she told Ensler. "They killed our village chief and his children. We were 50 women. I was with my three children and my older brother; they told him to have sex with me. He refused, so they cut his head and he died." Ensler speaks softly, saying she will be haunted by such tales for the rest of her days.

Nadine was forced to drink a soldier's urine and eat his excrement. The men killed ten of her friends and then murdered her children: her four-year-old and two-year-old boys and her one-year-old girl. "They flung my baby's body on the ground like she was garbage. One of the soldiers cut open a pregnant woman. It was a mature baby and they killed it," said Nadine, the only one of the 50 women to escape.

When she got away from the soldiers, there was a man passing by. He asked what the bad smell was. "It was me; because of my wounds I couldn't control my urine or faeces," said Nadine. When she told him what had happened to her, the man wept, then took her to Panzi hospital, where Ensler met her and many, many others, whose stories have outraged and nauseated her. Now, though, she has helped them to break the taboo of silence, speaking and writing about what she has witnessed.

Transforming the lives of these brutalised women has become Ensler's mission. Using her fame and celebrity contacts, she is raising global awareness about the suffering of girls and women such as Noella, Alfonsine and Nadine. It's hoped that this year's V-Day will raise tens of thousands of pounds for grassroots women's groups in the Congo, with more than 3,000 events being staged worldwide – from large-scale charity productions of The Vagina Monologues to small-scale college shows, supported by eloquent celebrities such as Jane Fonda, who travels the world on behalf of V-Day.

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Wearily, Ensler points out that UN statistics show that a third of all women in the world will be beaten or raped in their lifetime. It's these figures – shocking in their magnitude – and the women who share their stories that spur Ensler and activists like Fonda on. "We have to help women everywhere survive the tyranny of violence," declares Ensler

A SURVIVOR herself, Ensler was born into a middle-class family and grew up in a wealthy New York suburb. Her childhood was scarred by her late father, Arthur, an executive at Popsicle, who raped and abused her from the age of five until she was ten. "I survived terrible sexual and physical violence at the hands of my father," she says. But she also points out that what she went through is nothing compared to the suffering she has seen in the Congo.

How did she cope as a child? Her emotional strategy, she says, was "to fight back". However, by the time she was in her early 20s, she was "as wild as it gets", an alcoholic drug addict living naked in communes and "having massive amounts of sex" with both men and women. At 24, she met her first husband, barman Richard McDermott, with whom she has a stepson, the actor Dylan McDermott, and she now has a grandchild.

With Richard's support, she sobered up. Well into her late 30s, though, she suffered from profound depression as she struggled with the legacy of abuse. The marriage eventually ended. "It was all very friendly," she says. Then she met and married Israeli artist and psychotherapist Ariel Orr Jordan, staying with him for many years, although they have also since parted, amicably.

Now she describes herself as "gender-fluid", since she has relationships with men and women. "I had darkness; I still have darkness," she says, adding that it takes decades to survive a childhood of violent physical and sexual abuse. "I'm a damaged person, that's inescapable."

When she began touring with The Vagina Monologues – she wrote it after trying to make it as an actress and playing in a rock band – women besieged her with their stories, many of which uncannily mirrored her own traumas. "Only then did I realise the epidemic proportions of violence against women," she says. "And that violence takes many forms: the violence of poverty, the violence of oppression, the violence of rape, the violence of what we're doing to the planet, the violence of healthcare deprivation."

But none of the stories she has heard has affected her as deeply as the plight of the Congolese women. "These are without doubt the worst atrocities I have seen on the planet – and I have seen dreadful things, terrible devastation."

These days, Ensler divides her life between Paris and New York, where she has homes she rarely sees because of the extensive travel she undertakes as part of her commitment to V-Day (120 countries at the last count) and the time she spends in the Congo.

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We meet today for a late breakfast of fried eggs and toast during a flying visit to London. She eats her food and drinks her coffee as quickly as she speaks, and says, "I've travelled to the rape mines of the world, places like Bosnia, Afghanistan and Haiti, where rape has been used as a tool of war. In Croatia, we helped set up the country's first rape crisis centre. I've sat in a shelter in Zagreb with women who were beaten by their husbands after the war. I've been to Juarez, in Mexico, and searched for the bones of the missing – young, poor women who have been murdered and forgotten. In Islamabad, I've sat with a woman whose melted face is the result of an acid-burning by her husband. In Kenya, I've talked to women who have undergone the cruelty of genital-mutilation. And in the United States, I've found that war is in the home, the place where women are often the most insecure, where they are abused, beaten and murdered, and where there is little or no money spent protecting them."

She pauses for a moment, then she says, "Nothing I've seen or experienced while campaigning against violence against woman felt as ghastly, terrifying and complete as the sexual torture and attempted destruction of the female species in eastern Congo. It is not too strong to call this femicide, to say that the future of the Congo's women is in serious jeopardy."

Ensler has therefore made a promise to those women. She has given them her word that she will tell what has happened to them. "Their stories, their lives, their pleas have entered me. I've promised these women that I will go out and tell the world about this epidemic of rape. Of course, it's not only me. Many people are working on their behalf. But I'll never stop speaking out about this barbarity – and how we can all help to put an end to it."

Who was – and is – raping the women? Ensler has written that the better question is: who isn't? The perpetrators, she says, include the Interahamwe, the Hutu fighters who fled neighbouring Rwanda in 1994 after committing genocide there; the Congolese army; a loose assortment of civilians; even UN peacekeepers. One aid worker told her, "All of them are raping women. It is a country sport. Any person in a uniform is an enemy to women."

When she was in the Congo in September – she will return in April, after a March fundraiser she's organising in London, hopefully with the help of Sarah Brown, the Prime Minister's wife – Ensler felt as if she were living in some futuristic horror story. "It was like being inside a novel by Doris Lessing. Not only are women raped, sometimes their vaginas are mutilated with sticks or guns, as Alfonsine's was. Also, women are often raped in front of their children, their husbands and their neighbours. Which means all of their lives are destroyed too.

"As a human being, I can't support that going on in the world. My life? Who cares what's going on in my life? I don't! Sure, I still have the odd adventure, but nothing compares to what's happening in the DRC, not when you find there is this level of torture and terror being inflicted on helpless women and girls and babies." And yet, Ensler says, stopping to drain her coffee cup, despite this litany of violence and unimaginable cruelty, and what she calls "the tsunami of memories" that overwhelms the abused, the resilience of the human spirit is truly humbling.

Similarly humbling is the work of a remarkable man, Dr Denis Mukwege, at Panzi hospital. He "sews up women as fast as the mad militiamen rip them apart", says Ensler. This man is a saint, she adds softly. She met him at a fundraiser in New York several years ago, and he told her about his work and what was happening to women in the Congo.

Panzi hospital has 334 beds, 250 of which almost always hold female victims of sexual violence. "The hospital is essentially a village of raped women, and the grounds are overwhelmed with children and hunger and need," says Ensler. At Panzi, she watched the surgeon carry out an operation to repair a fistula, one of 1,000 such operations performed every year on rape victims who have been left doubly incontinent. She listened as women spoke of nightmares and insomnia, how they have been rejected by their husbands, and how they have no interest in nurturing the babies of their rapists. "They were filled with shame; women and children with nowhere to go."

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On her last day at the hospital, Ensler was asked by Dr Mukwege to lead some exercises with the women to relieve their trauma. In a hangar-like building, 250 depressed, sick women gathered. Ensler began with breathing exercises, then movement – stomping and punching, followed by a mad waving of arms. "Then the women were up on their feet, screaming, releasing guttural sounds of sorrow, rage, terror. In a matter of minutes, I watched them go from broken, mute women to wild, laughing ferocious beings."

They danced in the hot African sun – "a single, radiant, feminine mass" – into the open road and up a steep hill. "If 250 women who have been raped, torn, starved and tortured can find the strength to dance up a mountain, surely the rest of us can find the resources and the will to help them have a future."

WHAT HAS BECOME of Noella, Alfonsine and Nadine? "We're sending Noella to school," replies Ensler. "I offered her a private tutor because of the humiliation she goes through. She refused. She said she wanted to be in a classroom like a regular kid. And she is. I have no children, but she's the child of my heart."

Ensler says that when she listened carefully to Alfonsine's story, she could not detect one drop of bitterness or any desire for revenge. "Instead, her attention is fixed on transforming the future. She told me, with great pride, 'I am now studying to be a nurse. My first choice is to work at Panzi. It was the nurses who nurtured me day after day, who loved me back into living. I feel like a big person in my community; I can do something for my people. Women must lead the way.'"

As for Nadine, as she fled the slaughter, she saw an infant lying on the ground next to her slain parents. She rescued the girl; now having a child to care for gives her a reason to keep going. "I can't go back to my village," she told Ensler. "It's too dangerous. But if I had a place to live I could go to school. I lost my children, but I'm raising this child on my own. The girl is my future."

If only, sighs Ensler, we could all learn to value such women. "The global and personal cost of all this violence against women is devastating. We need, instead, to learn how to hold women sacred, to understand that to honour their beings and bodies is tantamount to honouring life itself." r

The Vagina Monologues, Edinburgh Playhouse (0844 847 1660, www.edinburghplayhouse.org.uk), from tomorrow to Saturday. For more information about V-Day, visit www.vday.org – donations to Panzi hospital can be made via the website

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