Sarah Fretwell’s photographs may be beautiful to look at, but the truths they reveal are not easy to digest. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), one woman (or child) is raped nearly every minute, according to the project statement on her website, The Truth Told. When Fretwell launched the project site in 2011, it was to bring awareness and funding to help prevent these atrocities, a result of the fight for resources in the mineral-rich nation where, according to Fretwell, “rape is used by rebel and military groups as a scare tactic to control and destroy local communities.” This violence, however, has sadly become a way of life for many. For a period of 50 days Fretwell teamed with humanitarian and writer Amy Ernst, and the human rights group COPERMA, to interview and photograph victims of rape in the North Kivu region of the DRC to promote healing and help the women (and family members of the women) in isolated communities get their stories out into the world. “With no immediate way to protect themselves and a dysfunctional ‘justice system’ survivors are left alone and afraid they will be attacked again,” she explains in her project statement. The image above depicts a 14-year-old young woman, named Kavira, who had to flee her family and village after being raped and ended up at a COPERMA center where she hopes to be able to rebuild her life.
To see more of Fretwell’s work, visit: www.sarahfretwell.com.
— Lindsay Comstock
Captions courtesy Sarah Fretwell.
This mother of eight was raped by Congolese troops who raided her village at night. She hid in her house, but they trapped her. Before they left, they stole everything in her house including the clothes she was wearing. She was left injured and naked. She said a neighbor gave her the clothes she was wearing in this photo. She says it is wrong to have to live “like an animal.” She is so traumatized by the attack she has been unable to return to her field to cultivate her crops.
Paluku is one of the men who stayed with his wife and family, even after his wife was raped. He described watching and listening as his wife, Hangie, screamed when she was attacked by two soldiers, but was unable to do anything to help her because they had guns. He convinced her to go to the hospital (a small fortune for someone living on less than $2 a day). He says he forgave his wife because he knew it was not her fault; the event did not change the love he has in his heart.
Five years ago, Goretti woke up in the hospital after being brutally raped by ten soldiers. She was only 16 years old at the time, alone and afraid. Nine months after this incident, she returned to the hospital to give birth to her daughter, Waridi. In the DRC the name used to describe girls like Goretti is “girl mother.” She dreams of being married, but because of the stigma of rape it will be difficult for her to find someone who is willing to marry her.
Masika Anwaritta (photographed at 16 years old) was raped twice by soldiers within the span of three days. She has seen the soldiers who raped her in the adjacent town. When asked if there is anything that would help her protect herself, she said, “yes, a sewing machine.” She said she is an apprentice sewer and if she has a sewing machine she can sew clothing for a living instead of working in the field where many women are attacked.
Kavira Kabambi, (photographed at 16 years old) is another victim of rape. Her sister and paternal aunt were also attacked. She says her grandmother knows and is mad at her. Her attackers spoke Lingala (language of the FRDC soldiers). Like thousands of other girls, she has no access to mental health services so she is isolated and stigmatized. She will suffer alone trying to reconcile this event in her mind for years to come.
Fifteen-year-old Kavugho Vawhere was angry and terrified that she was pregnant. She refused to allow Fretwell and her team take her to the hospital for care because she was worried the kids at school would find out what had happened to her.
Mama Jacqueline says the stigma of rape used to be worse and women who were raped were forced to live in the bush. Now rape is more prevalent, but in her village women are not forced to leave. She explained that women have no way to protect themselves and that where she lives, one doesn’t talk about rape because people will “sing it throughout the village” and it will be very bad. Some husbands abandon their families and young girls are considered undesirable for marriage. Without men in their communities who are willing to stick up for them, women have no place, few rights and little hope for the future.
A part of the “fatherless generation,” Waridi is a very jubilant and beautiful five-year-old. She excitedly explains she wants to be a nurse when she grows up so she can help others. She lives with her mother and grandmother, who are both rape survivors. When she asks who her father is, her mother says she does not have one because the truth, “would hurt her heart.” Waridi is one of a generation of children who are being raised by mothers who survived rape by soldiers and civilians, and now struggle to raise the children on their own. COPERMA tries to help the young mothers through petite commerce (small business) and skill training, like sewing and bread-making, but many girls and women have to turn to prostitution to make money to feed their children.