Wednesday, September 13, 2006

DRC: Sexual violence and lack of healthcare spreads HIV/AIDS among pygmies


The forest people of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), marginalised at the best of times, were easy targets for the marauding soldiers and militiamen that reduced the eastern provinces to one of the world's bloodiest war zones.

Rape was a weapon of war in the decade-long conflict, with the local civilian population the overwhelming victims of the fighting and chaos that sucked in combatants from throughout the region.

Over a million Congolese are HIV-positive, according to the United Nation's Children's Fund (Unicef), but there is next to no data on the country's isolated pygmy communities. The minority rights group, Refugees International, estimated in 2000 that there were about 80,000 pygmies, also known as the Batwa.

The pygmies of South Kivu Province say there was little, if any, HIV/AIDS in their community before the war. HIV prevalence is still believed to be lower among them than in the wider Congolese society, but their poverty, social isolation and lack of healthcare services means little help is available for those who contract the virus.

Kahuzi-Biega National Park with its world-famous silver-backed gorillas, once home to the pygmies' forefathers, has now become the base of the Interahamwe militia who perpetrated the 1994 Rwandan genocide and are one of the main groups vying for control of eastern DRC's mineral and logging wealth.

Over the years the villagers of Chombo, a Batwa village set in lush green banana groves downhill from the park, have come to know, and fear, the Interahamwe's demands for food, labour or sex.

The militia came upon Chiza Mwemdena, 36, and a mother of three, when she was tilling the fields near the village in 2002. "I looked up, saw them and ran as fast I could, but they caught me," she said.

"There were about 50 soldiers and I think about 30 took it in turns to rape me. It happened to all the women who were stolen." The Interahamwe kept her for two weeks before she managed to escape. When she returned to the village her husband abandoned her, ashamed of his wife's fate.

"It was four years after the rape that I started to feel very strange," Mwemdena said, stroking her bony arms. "My urine was different; my stomach was very painful and I had no energy in my limbs. I used to be very big but now look at me, I am so thin."

Mwemdena was tested for HIV in 2004 by a local nongovernmental organisation, Union Pour l'Emancipation de la Femme Autochtones (UEFA). She was positive, and she is not alone. According to Salome Ndavuma, 28, four Chombo villagers have died since May, three of them women raped by the Interahamwe.

One of them was Mwemdena's sister. "It's an awful way to die. We know when it's AIDS; all the parts of the body stop working. We are very worried about what might happen to the village if it spreads, but what can we do?"

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