War is over in DRC's Kasai region, but sexual violence rages on
Single or married, sometimes pregnant, and among them even men: hundreds of people are coming forward as victims of sexual assault and rape in Kasai, the poor, troubled heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
After a brutal conflict that claimed thousands of lives, Kasai today is officially at peace -- it is located far from the DRC's conflict-torn east where rape by armed groups is notorious.
But sexual violence here is widespread. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) says it treated 1,373 victims in the first three months of 2021 alone.
Dr Kourouma Facely is head of MSF's medical and mental health services for victims in Kananga, the capital of Kasai-Central province.
"We see patients who've suffered violence and who may have suffered penetration or not " he tells AFP. "But in every case, the victims are traumatised."
It was on a trip to buy tomatoes and peppers that Marissa, whose name has been changed, was ambushed and raped by three men about 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Kananga.
"They came out of the bush wielding machetes," recalls the 31-year-old, "They asked me for money. Since I didn't have any, they beat me and raped me one after the other."
"I have pain in my lower abdomen, in my back, vaginal pain," she says, "I'm unable to wash properly."
"I am afraid these men could have given me AIDS," says Marissa, a mother of five.
Marissa's husband was killed in the conflict that raged in Kasai from September 2016 to March 2017, upending the region.
After Kamuina Nsapu, a traditional chief, was killed in a military operation, militias loyal to him took on security forces in violence that killed more than 3,000 people, displaced 1.5 million, and led to many incidents of rape.
But while the fighting has ceased, sexual violence persists, dispelling the notion that such attacks are only linked to conflicts between armed groups.
Fear of rejection
"Sexual violence existed before the conflict," says a nurse in the main city Kananga, Marthe Tshiela.
According to MSF, 18-45 year olds are the age group most affected, with men making up three percent of victims.
Marinette, 39 and eight months pregnant, is in outpatient care after being raped at home after a break-in.
Only 40 percent of victims treated by MSF arrive within 72 hours of the attack, the key window for preventative treatment for some sexually transmitted diseases.
But a second effect from the trauma haunts the victims just as much as illness -- fear of rejection from their communities, families or partner.
Catherine, 35, sobs as she says she fears how her husband will react when he learns she was raped at home by two armed men in January while he was away.
"I beg him to forgive me," she says.
Nurse Tshiela says that while couples occasionally come in together for post-rape psychological support, such cases remain rare.
"About 60 percent of women who are raped are rejected by their husbands, along with their children," Tshiela says.
Impunity and deals
As elsewhere in the DRC, prosecutions for sexual assault in the Kasai are rare. Only two victims out of five report their assault to the police.
Nathalie Kambala, president of Congolese advocacy group Women Together for the Development of Kasai (FMMDK) says that the majority who do go to court do not get any compensation.
Victims' parents "prefer to settle out of court to obtain clothing or goats -- their children are the ones who pay the price, because the judicial system isn't working," she says.
In Kasai, one of the DRC's poorest regions, 46 percent of girls are married before the age of 18.
Outside of the health community, reports of sexual violence can be met with dismissal or even suspicion.
One humanitarian worker suggested the victims could be lying.
"As a trick some girls or women make accusations against men for material gain," he said.
Kananga's mayor Mamie Kakubi Tshikele meanwhile says figures from aid organisations are "a bit overestimated".
"They have their data and we have ours and they don't match," she says, without going into further detail.
DRC first lady Denise Nyakeru Tshisekedi has taken to Twitter to promise to campaign against sexual violence in Kasai, the home region and constituency of her husband President Felix Tshisekedi.