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Rachel Brass1st Secretary, Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Goma
On the outskirts of Bukavu, there's a hospital called Panzi. It was established in 1999 as a specialist hosptial for women in childbirth. It still plays an important role in providing general health care for the local population. But in the last decade, it's become famous across South Kivu and world renowned for its treatment of the victims of sexual violence. Women walk for days, sometimes weeks, to get there. And when they arrive, they receive the medical care they so badly need as well as the support from the amazing staff and the understanding of the other women there who've been through similar experiences.
Here's a link to the hospital's website
Last week I was at Panzi with Baroness Kinnock. It's always difficult to strike the right balance on issues like this. On the one hand, it's important to increase the understanding of the issue of sexual violence and raise the profile of the hospital's work. But on the other, we didn't want to disrupt the hospital's work or encroach on the patients' privacy. So we tried to keep the visit low-key and informal. In fact, it seemed to me that the visit was really appreciated by both the staff and the patients. Baroness Kinnock spoke privately to some of the women and told them of her personal support for them. And Dr Mukwege told us how many more patients he was now able to treat since the UK-funded operating suite and new wards were opened in 2007.
A picture of the women at Panzi
The Minister wanted to hear some of the women's stories first hand. So she, I and a local friend of mine who runs a women's NGO in Bukavu spent half an hour with three women - all young mothers in their 20s and 30s - who had been kidnapped, raped and then viciously beaten by the FDLR on their way home from the market. (The FDLR are Rwandan militia, who fled to DRC after their involvement in the Rwandan genocide in '94.) Five of their friends from the same village had been killed in the same attack. These women's stories were so horiffic. But they were incredibly dignified and courageous in telling them. They were all holding out hope of seeing their children again soon. Although they feared that they would be shunned by their husbands and communities for what happened to them.
It was such a stark reminder for me of why we're putting so much effort and money into ending the conflict in DRC. It's what the Embassy team (FCO, DFID and MOD collectively) spend a huge amount of our time on. The hospital, established and run by the impressive Dr Mukwege, will keep on doing it's important work. But unless we can support the Congolese government and UN efforts to stop the conflict in the east and see the end of the FDLR, more and more women will live through unimaginable experiences like these three have done.
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I’m now back in Goma after Baroness Kinnock’s visit to Bukavu (at the other end of lake Kivu from Goma). The last few days have been hectic, so it's good to be home. I headed down to Bukavu on the boat early on Monday morning to make sure everything was in place for the visit. It takes between two or three hours, and on days when it's not pouring with rain (and thundering and lightening, like it was on Monday) you can sit outside and watch the world go by. It's a spectacular journey through beautiful countryside - the lake and the volcanoes. And you get a glimpse of daily life here - fishermen in their dugout canoes (priogues), cows on the mountain side and people working in the fields. Monday and Tuesday were taken up juggling meetings to catch up with political contacts to find out what is happening in South Kivu, and finalising the details of the visit.
I drove with a UNICEF colleague to a water and sanitation project that the UK government (through DFID) has funded. It was great to hear directly from the women of the village what an impact it has had on their lives. It’s a really simple concept, but clean water and proper latrines make such a difference to the health of the village - particularly children. And the fact that the women can collect water from a source much closer to the village without any fear of being attacked by any of the armed groups seemed to be the most important for them. I met the Vice-Governor of South Kivu province to give him a final heads up on the visit and talk through what Baroness Kinnock would want to discuss with him.
It helps that I know Bukavu quite well - I used to travel here regularly in 2003-4 when I was based in our Embassy in Kinshasa. So I’ve been able to re-establish links with old contacts and I have enough of a background in the politics of South Kivu to give me a head start in trying to understand what’s really going on.
Everyone was exceptionally supportive in terms of setting up the visit. They knew it was an important opportunity for them to influence the UK as one of the main players in the region. Colleagues in MONUC - the UN peacekeeping mission in DRC - were great throughout. From briefing on the politics and the security situation, to providing the logistics and security support and even a cup of tea while we were waiting at the airport.
Baroness Kinnock arrived in Bukavu on Wednesday. The visit itself went well - and even nearly to time. After the high level discussions in Kinshasa (where she met President Kabila and a whole range of government ministers and other key individuals) it was really important for the minister to see the current realities on the ground. We went with a UN helicopter to a remote village called Bunyakiri, on the edge of the Kahuzi Behega National Park. It was clear that the levels of poverty were still high, but I had the impression that things had improved since I was last there in 2003. There is still insecurity at night in the surrounding areas from the Rwandan rebel group, the FDLR, who attack villages, loot houses and often rape the women while they are working in the fields. But the population centres are more secure, main access routes are now open, and Bunyakiri is linked to Bukavu and other towns by road (even though they are mostly in poor condition). So even if there is still a long way to go, better access and more trade are starting to have an effect.
While we were in Bunyakiri, Baroness Kinnock spoke to the UN Pakistani troops and the Congolese army commanders about the levels of human rights violations which are being reported. Many of them are carried out by the Congolese troops who are supposed to be protecting the population. So she pressed the commanders hard on how they were implementing President Kabila’s “Zero Tolerance” campaign and what impact it was having on their troops. They seemed very aware of the international spotlight that is on them at the moment, no matter how isolated their area of operations may be.
She also met an amazing selection of dynamic South Kivu women from a range of different professional backgrounds. I think their interpretation of the situation adds a fascinating and important perspective. The minister also found the views from these strong women particularly insightful in a country where the role of women is too often undervalued.