At 29, Sarah was taken to the forest as a hostage by an armed group of six men, and gang-raped every day until she lost consciousness. These repeated attacks destroyed her bladder and reproductive organs, and left her incontinent.
The aim of these brutal rapes, used as a weapon of war, is to destroy the victim, her family and her community. Armed groups use rape to destroy the social fabric of the community, using fear and intimidation to exert power and influence.
After being freed from her captors, Sarah was taken to Panzi with her six year old daughter, who had also been raped. Both were infected with HIV and in critical condition: Sarah could not walk, or even stand on her feet. She felt that life was no longer worth living.
Our team started Sarah’s treatment with counselling to support her emotional needs and strengthen her psychologically for the long recovery ahead. Her next step, when she felt mentally strong enough, was to undergo the physical rigors of reconstructive surgery.
“With each passing day, the desire to continue to live sparkled in Sarah’s eyes and it was she who encouraged the medical staff not to lose hope.”
Sarah’s fistula repair surgery allowed her to regain complete control over her body, an important victory on her road to recovery. She and her daughter also began antiretroviral (ARV) therapy to combat their HIV/AIDS infections.
With each passing day, the desire to continue to live sparkled in Sarah’s eyes and it was she who encouraged the medical staff not to lose hope.
Today, Sarah is a beautiful, smiling, strong and charming woman who has committed herself to helping people who have survived a history like hers.
While at Panzi, Sarah joined programs at our innovative Maison Dorcas after-care facility, where she had access to literacy and vocational skills training and continued therapeutic services. There, she could focus fully on her recovery with confidence that her daughter’s needs were being met as well, with schooling and child care for our patients’ children provided by Panzi.
Through Maison Dorcas, Sarah received $50 dollars as a micro loan to invest in a future business. Today, Sarah runs her small business as a seamstress. She has bought a plot of land. The Panzi Foundation has helped her with sheeting to make a roof. She has built a house. She is independent and proud.
As she continued her reintegration into society, Sarah’s feelings of empowerment also grew, and with them, her desire to see her attackers brought to justice. With the support of Panzi’s Judicial Clinic, Sarah has the legal assistance and representation she needs to build a case against those who committed the violent acts against her and her child.
Her experience shows that, no matter how difficult and hopeless the situation, with determination there is always hope at the end of the tunnel.
This is Sarah’s story. Sarah is Congolese. But there are Sarahs in the Central African Republic, Colombia, Bosnia, Myanmar, Iraq and many other conflict-riven countries in the world.
Our founder, Dr. Denis Mukwege, has devoted his life to treating as many Sarahs as possible and to ending rape as a weapon of war in conflicts around the world. Join us on our mission to help survivors rebuild their lives and start their journey toward healing.
*This testimony has been excerpted from Dr. Mukwege’s 2018 Nobel Peace Prize Address.