Who listens to listener? Health workers and war trauma in DRC

Apart from generating media hype, I doubt many policy makers in the West are genuinely interested in the DRC. I happened to be listening to an interview with Gerald Prunier recently and his conclusion was not that different: our perspective of the DRC conflict are clouded by racism. No one wants to address the politics. Instead, the image of total chaos is encouraged. The tragic consequence is that many more continue to die and suffer.

I support efforts by Panzi hospital, but like all interventions that are emergency we can’t help wonder, is the humanitarian focus enough to solve the conflict? I guess, one may say, the two are not mutually exclusive. Besides, who am I to be asking such a question? Except, I was in those same places not so long ago.

It’s taken me some days to come to write about my time at Panzi but this passionate email I received from a friend who is both Rwandan and Congolese gave the needed push. It followed a chat on my recent trip to Bukavu and Panzi in particular where I spent a week with a team of Psychologists and a Psychiatrist assessing war trauma among health workers.

What my friend raised above in the email were the same questions and feelings I found with the health workers I found at Panzi. Many wondered what difference they were bringing. They treat the sick and try to revive devastated lives of women who are sexually violated. Women violated in ways that you won’t easily get an explanation of why this goes on.

My friend’s concern of providing humanitarian aid and not solving the root cause of conflicts in Eastern DRC had many health workers feel helpless. They constantly asked questions of how can we ever address war trauma when we receive same cases everyday . Many had a hard time seeing how they can reduce trauma if the wars are still going.

Panzi receives at least 10 raped women a day. These women come from the Kivu provinces, Katanga other neighbouring provinces. Most times they arrive after many days or months after the violation.

One of the initial ways to manage trauma, i am told,  is avoidance but in DRC, it’s difficult for a health worker to avoid the horrors of rape. They shoulder the burden of having to listen. If you have experienced war trauma or dealt with communities out of war, one of the most challenging but necessary things is having to listen to the terrible stories. Some people say it’s easier to just forget but they really never forget. For health workers they have to listen in order to heal others but who listens to them? these accumulated images of killing and raping have a very big impact on the health and life of healthworkers..

One surgeon told of how sometimes she doesn’t know where to begin. She said many women come with pieces of wood that have been pushed in their vagina and beyond and she’s supposed to figure out where to start with the surgery. Such is the work of health worker in DRC. Dr. Dennis Mukwege the founder of Panzi told me the rape in Congo is not just a sexual matter.

“They are using all sorts of things to destroy the society. This is beyond a sexual matter, it’s a way to destroy us.”

Dr. Mukwege also told me it’s a situation that one can easily give up on due to the magnitude yet they have stayed and played their part. The political leaders and international community haven’t really played their part much.

“I have spent ten years repairing fistula everyday and sometimes you lose hope. I stay because it’s important for Africa that we have our destiny in our own hands. We are good enough to make it.”

Listening the different health workers and social workers I felt these are the people Naomi Shihab Nye talks about.

“How do they maintain any shred of dignity and balance? You know those are the courageous people to me. All the simple people of the earth who don’t lose their sanity in the face of constant dis-ease in the world they live in.”


Women during a prayer at Panzi. The hospital hosts prayers for all patients every morning.

As one person on twitter said when I put up the last post, Panzi workers are some of the world’s most hardworking health workers. Many have lived through war and everyday their work revolves around tending to war affected.  The presence of the UN in Congo has not helped so much is getting the DRC government to take charge. Some of the rapes have gone in close proximity to the UN.  What has the UN done to strengthen the military capacity of the Congo to govern itself? The more stories I heard from Congolese about the UN the more I realized that someone else won’t save the Congo. They will continue to address humanitarian issues because they are the easiest to tackle.

For the health workers that try on daily basis  to piece together shattered lives in Eastern Congo , the worry is not just about if the women can recover but when will they see an end to the violence.


5 thoughts on “Who listens to listener? Health workers and war trauma in DRC

  1. First of all, I knew the situation was bad, but when I read your blog I feel like crying. What on earth poseses men to destroy women like this?

    The question you raise is whether politicians in the west have any interest in DRC and figure it is chaos anyway?

    I am not sure. But I can tell you one thing as a Dutch freelance journalist. I was in Uganda 2 weeks ago to write about something positive namely the young cheetahs. Young people using ICT to help their communities. I wanted to write about nice things, since the perception of Western Europe that Africa (sorry but most see it as one, not as an entire continent) is trouble: poverty, aids, war.

    When I asked national newspapers in Holland whether they would be interested, they reacted all in the same way: no not Africa again. They didn;t even bother to see it was a positive story.

    Now if media are tired of ‘Africa’, how in the world would politicians in the west think otherwise?

    However, I will think on your story and see if we can give it the attention it needs.

  2. I hope that you don’t mind that I have taken the liberty of posting a link to this post on the Facebook page of Planned Parenthood Central Ohio, USA, as well as on my own blog. I suspect that such criminality is rooted in a profound lack of self-respect in the perpetrators, and I do not know what anybody in the West can do to fix that. What will it take to “arm” the women of the DRC to defend and then assert their human rights? The country is awash in weapons, and that hasn’t helped the women of the DRC one bit as far as I can tell from this post.

    1. Thanks Charlotte I don’t mind you re-posting. On your query on how the perpetrators we have conflicts in Congo over minerals and arming of militias which goes, we have companies benefiting lots from these minerals sold by different armed groups who carry out these rapes. I say when i see the rape of women in Congo i don’t separate it from the rape of Congo as a country by the west and some regional African governments. Until we stop fueling the conflict i am afraid just like the doctors said that we cant see a difference here. unless the political is dealt with somehow the humanitarian is almost a drop in an ocean. The handing over power to small fractured groups which compete for these resources results in use of rape and weapon. Like Dr.Mukwege said its not about sexual its about the move to destroy a society. I spoke to a translator who has worked with different groups in DRC and he indicated often militias who have well established villages do rape women from another ethnic group or villages. so we have a state that doesn’t function the international community efforts are on humanitarian and we have seen limited efforts to address the underlying drivers of these conflicts.

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