Four women want to give a face to Congo rape victims
Four women photojournalists have joined forces to tell the story of the more than 200 women that were raped during four terrible days in July and August of last year in Walikale in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “We want to put a human face to what is now only a number.”
Sarah Elliott, Benedicte Kurzen, Ying Ang, and Agnes Dherbeys have in common that they are all young, women and photojournalists. Two of them, Elliott and Kurzen, are based in Africa, in Nairobi and Johannesburg respectively. The two others, Ang and Dherbeys, have never been there. Yet all four of them have come together around an ambitious project to remind the world about the horrors of systematic rape in Eastern Congo.
The project revolves around four days of terror in July and August last year when hundreds of Rwandan and Congolese rebels attacked villages in the Walikale area of Congo, and began systematically raping their inhabitants. In all 242 people, mostly but not only women, were brutally raped, with the victims ranging in age from a one-month old baby to a 110-year-old woman.
Rape as a weapon of war was nothing new in Congo, but the magnitude of what happened in Walikale made headlines all over the world, not least because the rapes took place 20 miles away from a UN peacekeeping base. Elliott, Kurzen, Ang and Dherbeys now want to go back to Walikale to try and interview and photograph as many of the victims as possible.
We spoke to Sarah Elliott in California and Benedicte Kurzen in Juba, Sudan, where she was covering the independence referendum.
Sarah, you were the one who came up with the idea for this. What was your motivation?
“His statement really stuck me with me and it got me thinking about how many alleged rapes it would have taken for them to leave their base and check out what was happening. Ten? Twenty? Thirty? I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened in Walikale and I really, really wanted to go and cover it. But I couldn’t at the time because I didn’t have the money – Congo is very expensive to work in and the area is really hard to get to.
“I guess that’s when I thought it would be really interesting if a group of women went and covered it together. Four photographers covering different aspects of sexual violence would make it a really well-rounded and deeper story and give it more breadth.
“The first person I contacted was Benedicte because I had met her in the Congo in 2008 and she is based in Africa like me. Then together we came up with Ying and Agnes. There is no specific reason why we chose them other than that we really like their work. And they were both extremely passionate about the project right away. The fact that they have not worked in Africa before might actually allow them to bring a fresh perspective to the story.
KURZEN: “When Sarah contacted me I said yes immediately. I had been to the Congo in 2008 and it really had a big effect on me. I know that this is something that has been covered by the media already, but I think it is important to remind people that this is still going on.”
Is the fact that you are four women important to this story?
ELLIOTT: “I’m not saying a man wouldn’t be able to do this, just that we might be able to relate a little better. I have personally interviewed victims of sexual violence in the Congo before and the men were always asked to leave the room. I think the women will be more open and be more comfortable talking to another woman. I think if I was in their situation I would prefer talking to another woman.”
What exactly do you plan to do in Walikale?
“The portraits are meant to show the number of women who were raped, the scale of what happened there, and to put faces to the number. I think it’s really easy as a US citizen or someone in Europe to see a number in a newspaper article and say, That’s a lot of people, and just flip the page.
“It’s a whole different thing to see a face, to see many faces. I think that’s something you’re not easily going to forget. I think it’s going to be confronting and hopefully it’s going to have an impact on viewers. We would like to make this into an exhibition, a dedicated website, and of course to get it published in magazines and newspapers. We want as many people to see it as possible.”
KURZEN: “There are actually two parts to the project. One is to visually reconstruct the number of people that were raped in Walikale. We want to make people understand what that 200+ figure means. These are not statistics but real people who have gone through hell.
“The second part is that each of us will concentrate on a particular aspect. For instance, I’m going to try and get access to the Goma prison to see the men that are imprisoned for rape. I’m going to try and find out how the justice system deals with the issue, if at all, or if there is impunity for the rapists. Because the rape campaigns in the Congo are not isolated incidents; they are a political tool.
“Sarah is going to concentrate on life after rape. How does someone go on living after a rape? What happens to the children that are born out of rape? Ying plans to photograph a visual testimony of the physical damage that has been inflicted upon the victims of sexual violence, and hopefully to find a way to portray the emotional scars as well. Agnes is going to try and contextualize the whole thing by photographing the general situation in the Walikale area. I think all this put together is going to be something really powerful.”
You’re asking the public to help fund this through Emphas.is. How are you going to convince people that this is something worth doing?
“Some of the most important stories are not being told by the mainstream media. Like most photojournalists I have been self-funding several projects that I think have been underreported. I am hoping that Emphas.is will help free us from the constraints of the traditional media by helping us fund projects in a non-traditional way. The interested public can help decide which stories get told instead of a few magazine or newspaper editors.
“One question that people often ask is, What do I get in return for my support? I think one of the most interesting things we can offer people is the opportunity to be a part of the experience as we work on the project. People might be interested in what it actually takes to create the images. For example, what does it really take to complete a story in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Using social media such as email, blogs and twitter we can provide investors with the real time experience of ‘being there.’”
KURZEN: “I think it will be statement of some kind if we succeed in getting this funded by the public. In a way, what we are aiming for is to raise a crucial question: Do people still give a damn? Emphas.is is more than a way for photojournalists to get funding; it is also a way for people to show that, yes, they do care about terrible things that happen a world away in some jungle.
“And, yes, I believe that people do give a damn. I see it in my own family when I tell them about the places I’ve been. Or take the photo that Jerome Delay took in the Congo in 2008 of these two little girls who lost their mother in the chaos. After AP ran that picture, Jerome got hundreds of emails from people all over the world who absolutely wanted to do something to help these girls.
“But people feel helpless when they see misery on television or in the newspapers. So there is the question: once you have touched people, what happens next? I think there is no single answer to that question. You can donate money to an NGO, or it might change the way you talk to your own children or how you see the world.”
What will you tell people if they ask you, What’s next?
“But I don’t think we should take the place of the NGOs either. That’s not our job. It is our job to get the information out there to people so they can do something about it if they want to. So in the case of the Congo, if people ask us what they can do for people there, we will direct them to a number of NGOs that are doing excellent work in the Congo trying to help the victims of rape.”
(Interview by Gert Van Langendonck)
This is part VI in a series of interviews with photojournalists about how the crisis has affected their work and what they expect from Emphas.is.