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Column: Healing broken souls and bodies – how sexual violence is shattering lives in CAR

“Sophie was on a bus going to the market in Boguila in northwest Central African Republic when it was stopped by a group of armed men.”

Hélène Thomas

Clinical psychologist Hélène Thomas has just returned from Central African Republic (CAR) where she completed an assignment for Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF). In CAR, Hélène opened a programme of medical and psychological support for victims of sexual violence (VSV) at the general hospital in capital city Bangui. There she gathered testimonies from people affected by sexual violence.

“SOPHIE’S* STORY AFFECTED me the most. She seemed to be literally falling to pieces when she arrived at the hospital. She had just turned 37 but looked more like 50. She had foot sores and malaria and was under-nourished. Traumatised, confused and disoriented, she was also suffering from Kaposi’s sarcoma, a disease that manifests itself as cutaneous lesions. What she had to say was truly shocking: “I don’t know if I’m alive or dead. My life is meaningless. Is there any dignity left for me? Am I still a human being?”

Sophie was on a bus going to the market in Boguila in northwest CAR when it was stopped by a group of armed men. They first separated the males from the females and then took the women into the bush. For two weeks, these women were gang-raped, drugged and forced to march barefoot on very little food. One day, some of the men left to attack a village and they managed to escape.

Sophie was utterly shattered. She had no notion of the courage it had taken her and the other kidnapped women to escape, that they could have ended up alone in the bush or subjected to reprisals by armed groups. Villagers took them in, gave them first aid and protection before the women went home. But Sophie’s misery was far from over.

“My life has no meaning anymore”

When she finally got home, her husband repudiated her and wouldn’t even allow her to see her 9-year old son. Her brother had heard on the radio that MSF was opening a VSV programme at Bangui general hospital and suggested that she should go.

We began by reassuring her and calming her down. We took her statement in Songo (a language spoken in CAR). Quite unusually, we had to admit her to hospital because she really was very ill and weak. We gave her a clinical and medical examination and sadly we found that she had been infected with HIV. It was so hard for her. She said she wanted to kill herself. But fortunately, thanks to the medical treatment, psychological support and social interaction with people accompanying other patients, she gradually recovered. We kept her with us for about a month, until she felt strong enough to go back to her village.

485 victims of sexual violence treated in CAR in 2014

CAR is in a state of absolute chaos and what happened to Sophie is far from an isolated case. Between July and November 2014, we treated 274 victims of sexual violence at the general hospital; 24 were minors—almost half not even eight years old—and seven were male.

One 90-year-old lady whose home we visited was wounded when we arrived. When we arrived, there was also a three-year old girl there who was in a state of shock. It is horrendous to see such suffering.

Victims mostly come because they, or somebody they know, have been made aware of what MSF do through the outreach campaign that we ran when we opened the VSV programme, and some are referred from other health facilities. Now the Bangui police, and more particularly the unit for the protection of minors tasked with handling sexual assault cases, have started to send victims of sexual violence to us.

Our programmes at the general hospital and the VSV unit at Castor health centre in Bangui, are the only facilities in CAR that deliver comprehensive treatment to victims of sexual violence. This medical and psychological care is so vital to the victims of sexual violence. Our work, along with the support of their friends and families, is so important for victims to help them to have the hope that one day they’ll heal and overcome their trauma.”

*name has been changed

Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) started their work in CAR in 1997. Since late 2013 when civil unrest and violence flared-up in CAR, MSF has doubled medical assistance and increased programmes to respond to the emergency in the country. Since July 2014, MSF has been treating and supporting victims of sexual violence at the General Hospital in Bangui. In three months, almost 200 people, mainly women but also young girls and several men, received treatment (from pregnancy tests to screening for sexually transmitted diseases) and psychological support.

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Hélène Thomas

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