KAMPALA — They are men who have lost all pride and self-confidence and who have been left severely traumatised by their experience. At the medical centre in Uganda where they are being treated, they talked candidly about crimes carried out against them.
“In the past, I thought that it was only females who were raped, but not men. I cannot understand myself today. I feel pain all the time in my anus and bladder.
I feel like my bladder is full of water. I do not feel like a man. I do not know whether I will ever have children,” said John (not his real name), a 27-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who is just one of possibly thousands of victims of male rape as civil wars and tribal conflicts continue unabated across Africa.
On January 14, 2009, rebels loyal to the former renegade Congolese general Laurent Nkunda attacked Jomba village in the DRC’s North Kivu province.
There, the militia abducted 10 people, including six boys and forced them to carry out looting before taking them to a jungle base in Virunga National Park. John was among those captured.
“We were held for nine days. The leader of the group asked to have sex with me. I did not understand what he meant. He ordered that I be tied up and then he raped me. The other nine came after him.
I passed out. My bottom was covered with blood. All nine days in the bush were like that. It was like that for the others. One of the boys died,” John said.
Nearly two years on from his ordeal, he is one of dozens of male and female rape victims being treated at a trauma counselling centre called the Refugee Law Project (RLP) in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.
The survivors come from a number of African nations ridden with conflict including — among others — DRC, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Burundi.
The RLP was founded 10 years ago and is an outreach of the law faculty at Uganda’s main University of Makerere, where the staff help rape victims recover from their mental and physical wounds.
The project is unique in that it is largely unknown to the Ugandan community and it is situated on a hill in the northern part of the city called Old Kampala where it is housed in a colonial-style residential building.
Salome Atim, the RLP gender official responsible for aiding male rape victims, said since the beginning of the year they have received about 30 cases of male rape, mostly refugees who have escaped from conflict zones.
“These are the ones who are open. The others do not speak and that means there could be very many (victims),” she said.
Many boys and men fear speaking out because they are often branded homosexuals, even by doctors and medical workers trying to help them.
Rape victims from Islamic states such as Somalia, for example, often refuse to talk because revealing what happened can result in them being labelled criminals by wider society.
Atim added the question of homosexuality — which is taboo in many African societies — compounds the dilemma. But she said some people do feel able to talk, although only after much counselling.
“People are not used to homosexuality and they do not listen to these people. They think anal sex is consensual where they think the victim agreed.
They (victims) get further stigmatised because the moment they go to a health centre, they are asked, ‘so you are homosexuals?’ So they do not speak. We help them to open up slowly,” she said.
One of Atim’s patients, Pierre (not his real name), was a student at a school in Congo’s city of Bukavu, but in 2004 gangs from one of the numerous militia groups trying to exert control of the area attacked his family home and gang raped him, his father and brother.
“Men in uniform broke into our home. They tied up my father’s legs and arms. They then undressed my brother and told me to have sex with him.
I refused,” Pierre said before breaking down in tears.
After composing himself with the help of Atim, he continued: “They undressed me, held my penis between sticks and repeatedly banged it.
One of them held one of my legs and another held the other and they pulled them apart. The rest of the gang then raped me one by one.”
According to Atim, Pierre was suicidal when he arrived at RLP and has since been treated at a psychotherapy clinic.
Male rape has been prevalent as a weapon of war in many conflict zones and also in prison cells. But since these crimes are mostly unreported, also because the focus is on female victims, the extent of the problem is unknown.
What is known is that male victims face horrendous problems in recovering.
John, who covered his face with a cap during the interview, said he now struggles to walk any distance due to unhealed wounds. “When I walk a long distance, blood flows out of my anus. When I eat hard food like cassava, I have problems going to the toilet because my rectum gets out when I pass out faeces,” he said.