BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Welcome to this week’s episode of Voices on Genocide Prevention. This is Bridget Conley-Zilkic. With me today is Lee Ann de Reus, who is an Associate Professor at Penn State, Altoona, in two departments, the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, as well as in Women’s Studies. Lee Ann, thank you for joining me today.
LEE ANN DE REUS: Thank you for the opportunity. It’s my pleasure.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Lee Ann is here to speak with us today about research she’s been doing on women who have been raped in Congo, specifically in a series of interviews that you conducted there at the Panzi hospital. Can you tell us something about the methodology? When did you go in, and what was the structure of your research?
LEE ANN DE REUS: Okay, I was actually there this past May, May into June. I was on the ground for three weeks and had gotten permission through Dr. Mukwege, who is the head physician and surgeon at Panzi hospital to actually visit the hospital and to interview 30 rape survivors. In addition to -- in exchange for that, I also taught a research methods class to about ten of the doctors every morning for two hours. So I would start at the hospital, teach the class, and then I would move on to interview women. Each interview lasted approximately an hour, maybe a little over. I had 35 to 40 questions, and I had a Congolese interpreter who assisted me with all of those interviews.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And how many women did you end up interviewing?
LEE ANN DE REUS: So we ended up with 30 total. The majority of them were from Panzi. I had five of them that were from the Heal Africa hospital close to Goma, and then I had a few women that I interviewed when I traveled out with the Panzi Hospital Mobile Clinic one day. We traveled about an hour and a half to a very rural area, to a little clinic.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And what was the age range of the women who had been raped, that you were speaking with?
LEE ANN DE REUS: I spoke to women between the ages of 14 and 75, but the 14-year-old was not an official interview. I would have had to have had parental consent. She’s not officially in the study, but she was this amazing young woman who had actually been at Panzi hospital for two years, and kept coming back. I kept saying, “I can’t interview you, because you’re not 18.” And every day, she would still return. It was clear to me, telling her story was extremely important, so I did everything off the record. She shared her story with me, and it was probably one of the most powerful stories that I collected in the time that I was there.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: But it’s not one you can divulge.
LEE ANN DE REUS: I can share her story. She just cannot be a part of the official study.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Can you tell us why hers was particularly powerful?
LEE ANN DE REUS: Well, I think, and I’ll use the pseudonym of Mateso, because protecting the women’s identities is extremely important. Mateso actually was 13 years old and she’s a classic story in many ways, I mean, she was on her way to the market to sell cassava when she was attacked. She was kidnapped by the FDLR, and held as a sex slave for several months until she was able to escape. She became pregnant during that time, actually gave birth to a stillborn child, but had difficulty and the soldiers actually used a knife on her to try and make the birth happen faster.
But of course she received no medical care and was thrown into a locked room after the baby was born, and was left for days, was forced to drink urine of the soldiers. Flies began to swarm around her injuries. Mateso was in a very weak state, but she also realized that the soldiers were ignoring her because she was so weak. She realized that this was actually her opportunity to flee. So she used it and was clever enough and strong enough to escape, and traveled for many days, usually at night, so she would not be detected, until she found someone who assisted her, and then eventually took her to Panzi hospital.
I think what’s really remarkable about Mateso’s story is not only what she encountered, but she was 13 years old at the time. She did develop a fistula from this. She’s been at Panzi for two years because her fistula, the surgeries have not taken, so she still is incontinent. Yet this amazing young woman is this absolute pillar of resiliency and strength. And when I asked her, “Mateso, why do you insist on telling me your story?” And she said, “Because I want people to know. You need to tell people my story.” And she was absolutely just one of the most remarkable women, or young girl that I met while I was there.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And while you were there, what were-- many of the women, I assume suffered similarly. When do they come to Panzi? At what point generally, after such violence has occurred, do they end up seeking help?
LEE ANN DE REUS: You know, for many of the women, for the majority of them, they’re not coming until approximately a year later. There are so many issues that complicate them actually getting to Panzi. First and foremost is distance. Many of the women, they have families, they’re farming, they have responsibilities. To actually find transportation to get to Panzi hospital, if they are some distance, is an issue. Leaving family or bringing children is also a concern for them. Many of the women that I interviewed have brought a child, but had left children behind, and were extremely stressed about what was happening to their children. They couldn’t return home fast enough, because they were worried about their care. Many of the women also don’t realize that they have complications after a rape, until some time has passed, and then-- or they think that they can treat it themselves. Then their condition becomes so severe that they realize they absolutely have to get medical care, and they come to Panzi.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And I would assume the immediate trauma, at some point, means that they’re not thinking clearly about where to go next to continue their lives.
LEE ANN DE REUS: Well, exactly and, you know, many of them have been-- most of them, at least the majority of women that I spoke to, were abandoned and rejected by their husbands, their families and their villages. So, you know, again, how are you going to get assistance to be even able to make it to Panzi Hospital? That’s a real issue.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And what were some of the commonalities in stories you heard about the nature of the attacks, including the perpetrators?
LEE ANN DE REUS: By and large, the women that I spoke to had been attacked by the FDLR, and those are Hutu soldiers who were part of the-- committed the atrocities in Rwanda in 1994, participated in the genocide, and fled Rwanda into Congo, and were in order to avoid prosecution. They have now formed armed groups in eastern Congo. The women that I spoke to, the majority of them had been attacked by the FDLR.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And how-- how were many of them attacked? Were they attacked in their homes, or when they were in the fields, is it-- just a little bit more about what are the circumstances surrounding these assaults?
LEE ANN DE REUS: In the majority-- well it was about split, it was about 40% and 40%, where they were being attacked in their homes and their villages. The FDLR, or whatever the armed group is, might storm a village and basically rape and pillage while they’re there, burn homes, steal livestock, that sort of thing, food and money, and rape the women. Some of them were happening there, but about an equal number were happening in the fields. So the women are out digging, or planting, harvesting their crops, and the soldiers come along down the road, and then see a woman is vulnerable in a field, and would rape her there or kidnap her. Many of the women now were very fearful about working in the fields, because of this, and that, of course is contributing to food insecurity, because they need to be able to raise those crops.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And what are some of the typical health effects, because, obviously, there’s an extraordinary difference between rape and any kind of consensual sex, but also between the kind of violence that’s being suffered by the women under these circumstances?
LEE ANN DE REUS: It actually has a medical term. It’s called traumatic rape. And traumatic rape is rape that involves an object. So maybe a stick, or the barrel of a gun that’s inserted into the vagina, so a common injury for women is to develop what’s known as a fistula, which is an internal injury that is usually a tear in the vagina, and then maybe consequently a tear in the bladder or an intestine, which causes the women then, to leak urine and/or feces, because of this. So they-- that’s typical as well as the psychological trauma that a woman encounters from the attack. Of course HIV/Aids is an issue, and other sexually transmitted infections. Those are the pretty common injuries and infections that they were treating the women for at Panzi.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And as you mentioned, the women have not only suffered this extraordinary violence, but many of them also suffer from being ostracized then, by families and communities. How-- what is their psychological health like, when they get to Panzi?
LEE ANN DE REUS: Well, it’s interesting, you know, many of the women are, for lack of a better term, just kind of zoned out, because of what they’ve encountered. And really, with the 30 women that I interviewed, not one of them cried, not a single one, and--
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Really.
LEE ANN DE REUS: Yes, and again, I think that that is, as she told this horrific story. I interviewed women who had been there anywhere from two days up to two years, and, of course, not-- you know, there was a variation in terms of how recent their attacks were, but I thought it was interesting that they did not express that particular emotion, and were basically affectless. I think that that speaks to the incredible trauma that they have endured.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And how did the women think of themselves afterwards? In your preliminary study you talked a lot about, they saw themselves as physically weak but emotionally strong. Can you help us understand how their coping skills start kicking in?
LEE ANN DE REUS: That was really interesting to me. I would ask the women if they thought of themselves as survivors or victims. I think every single woman, except for, maybe one of the 30 said that she considered herself to be a survivor, which I thought was remarkable. Now part of that could be because of some of the counseling they’ve already received at Panzi, although it’s minimal. They only have two psychologists there for over 300 women, but it may be the strength that they’ve gathered from each other. Really it’s neither here nor there, I guess, in the end, the fact that they see themselves as survivors is wonderful, and that’s a very good thing.
When I asked them if they were strong or weak, it was interesting, because the women automatically interpreted that as their physical strength or weakness. It’s not what I intended, but the answers that I got were so interesting. When I followed up and said, you know, “What do you mean?” And the women explained that they felt very weak physically and that this was really a problem for them, because it meant that they couldn’t do the work that they needed to perform, like digging in the fields. So much of what women do in Congo and in so many other developing countries, is heavy, heavy labor. That notion was very much connected to their sense of self-worth and identity. They clearly felt less as a person because they were unable to perform this physical labor. So that weakness was really important. But when I followed up and said, “Well, are you strong in mind and in spirit, or are you weak?” The women said, “No, I am very much strong in mind and in spirit, it is just my body that is so weak.”
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And what did they think would be necessary in order to stop the violence?
LEE ANN DE REUS: This was interesting, because it was clear to me that the women didn’t really have any-- an understanding in terms of the complexities around all of what’s happening there. Of course that all has to do with access to information. What the women said to me, was, it could simply be summed up in one word. They said, “We need peace.” I heard it over and over again, “we need peace, because only with peace will we be able to go back and work in the fields, and have our families and return to our villages.” Even though these women have been abandoned, they were really-- they know that this life ahead of them probably means a life on their own, and that means their security is limited. So they would say to me, you know, “we need to get these perpetrators need to be removed from the areas where we live, and you also, you know, and remove them and then give us peace, so that we don’t have to have these fears.”
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And did they say anything specifically about what they thought should be done to their perpetrators?
LEE ANN DE REUS: Well this was fascinating to me, because I would ask-- I asked the women that question, “What do you think should happen to the men who committed these atrocities?” And the-- I asked the women, I said, “Would you be interested in pursuing legal assistance or prosecution, if that were available to you?” And the women overwhelmingly said, “No, I would not, because God’s judgment is enough.” And then when I asked them, “Well what do you think should happen to the perpetrators?” They said, again, “God’s judgment is enough.” So I pushed them and said, “Well, so should they be forgiven, should they be imprisoned, or should they be executed?” And all but one of the women said, “No, they should be forgiven and God’s judgment is enough.” And I was stunned, you know.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: That’s astonishing.
LEE ANN DE REUS: Yeah, it was truly astonishing.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: How did they-- I mean you mentioned that peace was what they most wanted for now. How did they envision their future? What were their hopes, and what were they investing their energies in?
LEE ANN DE REUS: This was really fascinating as well, because, for as much resilience as the women demonstrated to me, it was clear that they had hope, but they didn’t know how their lives would move forward, given the abandonment, given their injuries, given that many of them couldn’t go back to farming and didn’t have money, didn’t have access to funding, didn’t have all of these things that they were lacking in terms of resources. They would be optimistic, but at the same time, they would say, “I don’t know how I’m going to live, I don’t know what I’m going to do when I leave here, because I really have no place to go, because I’ve been abandoned.” Truly the resiliency and the hope, I think, was coming from the faith that these women had. All 30 of them identified as Protestant. When I’d asked them, you know, “How do you cope, what gives you strength, what gives you hope?” They would say, “It’s my faith, you know, I pray.” These sorts of things. And so it was clear that they were drawing a lot of strength from that.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And for this project, in your own research, what will be the next steps?
LEE ANN DE REUS: We’ve already, within four days of me returning from Congo, I was at a conference giving a presentation.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Four days?
LEE ANN DE REUS: Yeah, within four days I was in North Carolina, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, presenting. It’s just been a non-stop whirlwind since then, giving a presentation, talking about these 30 incredible women and what I learned. The intent all along was to bring this information back, so we could continue to raise awareness. I’m currently developing 30 profiles, a story for each one of the 30 women that the Enough Project will be using in some of their upcoming campaigns and initiatives this fall, again to further raise awareness about what’s happening, and to help people kind of connect with individuals and individual stories. In doing that, speaking every opportunity that I get, again to raise awareness and trying to plan the next trip and figuring out when I can get back to talk to more women, and try to get the word out.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And this is Lee Ann de Reus, who is an Associate Professor at Penn State, Altoona, and also a Carl Wilkens fellow with the Genocide Intervention Network. I’m happy to also hear that you’re working with our friends at the Enough Project. Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me about your research.
LEE ANN DE REUS: Thank you very much, Bridget. I appreciate having the opportunity. Thank you.
NARRATOR: You have been listening to Voices on Genocide Prevention, from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. To learn more about responding to and preventing genocide, join us online at www.ushmm.org/genocide.