WARNING: Graphic content
Goma, DR Congo – Patricia, who was displaced by conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, had a hard look in her eye.
Similar to thousands of other women and girls, armed men raped the 15-year-old when she left her displacement camp, near the city of Goma, in search of food.
Hundreds of thousands of people are crammed into miserable displacement camps around the city, hastily erected on fields of mud.
They are victims of a vast humanitarian crisis triggered by M23 rebels, who have captured swathes of North Kivu province since launching an offensive in late 2021.
Rwanda backs the Tutsi-led M23, according to several Western countries such as the US and France, although Kigali denies it.
Most residents of the displacement camps fled with nothing, and despite humanitarian efforts, food remains scarce.
Patricia and her family fled fighting in North Kivu earlier this year, facing harassment and robbery as they made their way to the relative safety of the Rusayo camp near Goma.
But in late summer, the teenager disappeared.
“I sent her to fetch potatoes in our village, because of hunger,” said Patricia’s mother, who recounted the story as her daughter used a scarf to hide her face.
“I thought she was dead.”
Patricia – whose name AFP has changed to protect her identity – turned up again in late September, pregnant.
She said ethnic Hutu fighters had captured her. And one raped her over the course of several weeks. Patricia managed to escape one morning after pretending to fetch water.
Sexual violence has long plagued eastern DRC, where armed groups have sown chaos for 30 years.
Cycle of misery
Sandra Kavira, a Congolese social worker with the charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), listened as Patricia’s mother told the tale.
Kavira, 28, said she’d heard hundreds of similar stories since she started working at the Rusayo camp in July.
“We get 10 new cases a day, even little 4-year-old girls or grandmothers over 80,” she said.
Armelle Zadi, her supervisor at MSF, recalled one bedridden woman who could no longer walk after being subjected to her third gang rape.
“Her daughter had no other choice but to prostitute herself to feed the family,” Zadi said.
“Women are prisoners of a cycle of misery.”
If stories of extreme violence are legion, the scale of sexual assaults around Goma is also astronomical.
Brian Moller, an MSF emergency co-ordinator in Goma, said about 70 victims seek treatment at the charity’s facilities every day – or about 2 000 women and girls a month.
“These numbers represent only a part of the reality,” Moller said, explaining that they have figures only for areas where MSF works.
Another mouth to feed
Charmante, 18, dandled a newborn baby on her knee.
The mother – whose name AFP has also changed – explained that a man in army uniform had raped her when she left Rusayo. She had intended to gather wood and sell it in order to feed her siblings.
“When he’d finished I couldn’t walk, my friends brought me back to camp,” said Charmante.
Two of her friends and her 19-year-old sister were also raped when they left the camp, the young mother said.
A week after her ordeal, Charmante discovered she was pregnant at an MSF clinic. Her baby, Queen, was born a few months later – another mouth to feed.
All the women interviewed by AFP at Rusayo said they had faced a choice, at one moment or another, between hunger and leaving the camp at the risk of rape.
Rose, 43, was no exception.
She had walked for three days with her seven children to reach Rusayo, last November.
Rose was alive to the dangers of leaving the camp – she had been gang-raped once before in 2017 – but was forced to in June, with three female friends.
“We were all raped,” she said, explaining that the attackers were four men in military fatigues.
When she returned to the camp, Rose said her husband had beaten her for getting raped, and then disappeared.
The woman had tears in her eyes as she told her story, clinging to her 4-year-old son.
“In the camp, it’s difficult to talk about,” Rose said.
“But here, we see our neighbours, girls we know, and we say: oh, you too?”