Ombeni is late. School starts in 20 minutes and she still has to get her son Daniel's books sorted, make his lunch and do a few odd jobs around the house. Her home is a two-room mud shack, in a honeycombed complex of corrugated iron and twisted branches dug into the hills surrounding Bukavu, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
It's a half hour's walk from her front door to Daniel's school, where she fixes his collar and kisses him goodbye. He gives a quick look around to make sure none of his classmates is looking, and returns her affection. Ombeni continues her journey another kilometre down the road, to her own classroom. This is her first year back at school, and her headmaster says she is a model pupil: "If only everyone was like her."
By rights, Ombeni should be nearing the end of her university life, perhaps fending off marriage requests or applying for teaching posts in the city. But her schooling, and her life's journey, were brutally interrupted almost five years earlier.
Back then she was a typical 15-year-old with dreams of university and a better life. Her home was a village in the countryside, where, when she wasn't studying, she helped in the fields. It was while out working one evening that rebel forces captured her carefree innocence. For months she became their slave, both sexual and physical, as they lived in various wooded compounds along the Rwandan border. Heavily pregnant, and near death from lack of food, the rebels returned her to her village so her parents could watch her die.
But she didn't, and now, five years on, she is picking up the pieces of a fragmented life.
It hasn't been easy. Locals are wary of her son, thinking he will grow up and assume the same characteristics as his father. Ombeni says she can feel suspicious eyes on her every time they step outside, and unless she can get Daniel away from the village, she fears for his safety.
Daniel is oblivious, as any four-year-old should be. He likes school and gets on well with everyone in the playground. Next year his mother will start training to be a teacher. Two years after that, she hopes to have enough money to leave the village and get a house somewhere safe. A fresh start. Despite everything, she considers herself fortunate. For an increasing population of silent victims though, life in DRC has become a hellish pattern of sexual and physical torment. Along the eastern border region, a daily horror show is playing itself out, bolstered by the ambivalence of the world and the political vacuum created by decades of regional conflict.
The perpetrators include the Interahamwe, the Hutu fighters who fled neighbouring Rwanda in 1994 after committing genocide there; the Congolese army; a random assortment of armed civilians; even United Nations peacekeepers, and increasingly, local civilians.
Christine Schuler Deschryver, who works for a German aid organisation and has been a staunch and stubborn advocate for victims, says the perpetrators are difficult to identify. "All of them are raping women," she says, "It is a country sport. Any person in uniform is an enemy to women."
The problems have their roots in the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when thousands of victims and perpetrators fled across the border. Upwards of 10,000 Rwandan rebel forces remained, living in forested areas and terrorising local populations at their will. Rwanda doesn't want them back, and even if they did, many refuse to return. The Congolese Army, it seems, has neither the collective heart nor the political will to forcibly remove them, and with many soldiers not receiving pay for months on end, they too are guilty of looting and pillaging. So the forces remain, intent on the sexual and social destruction of the local population.
So far they are succeeding on a spectacular scale. For those who are apprehended, there is little impunity, thanks to antiquated gender laws. The attacks grow more numerous and sadistic by the day and the normalisation of sexual violence continues largely unabated.
"Darfur is nothing compared to what's going on in the Congo," says Schuler Deschryver, who despite constant death threats, continues to raise the plight of Congolese women. "My father was the founder of the National Park in Rwanda, which is home to rare silver back gorillas. During the war here, just one silver back was killed. And when it happened, within 48 hours millions in funding was sent to ensure the rest of the gorilla population was protected. Why isn't the same done with our women? I'll tell you why, because in the eyes of the international community animals have more value than humans in this part of the world."
Schuler Deschryver's anger is also felt a few kilometres away, on the outskirts of Bukavu, where Dr Denis Mukwege, an obstetrician for more than 20 years, tries to deal with the aftermath of sexual violence. He runs Panzi Hospital, set up in 1999 in response to the emergency crisis after the so-called African war; it houses more than 350 patients. Each day, 10 new cases are admitted, some as young as nine, so badly damaged that reconstructive surgery is often required. The victims sit on benches, lining urine-soaked corridors, alone and frightened. On eye contact, there is nothing. No expression, no acknowledgement, no smiles - just a fleeting confirmation that behind their eyes, a pained suffering lies deep.
Mukwege can't say for certain if the attacks are on the increase. In general, the hospital estimates it sees just 10 per cent of all sexual violence victims, but certain patterns are developing. Attackers are now identifiable by their manner of attack: one group, after raping the woman or girl, inserts the barrel of a gun into her vagina and shoots, thus destroying her vagina, bladder, rectum and causing massive blood loss. Some force males at gunpoint to rape mothers or sisters, often in front of the whole community. A large percentage of the attackers are HIV-positive and knowingly try to infect their victims.
These aren't just random acts of grotesque inhumanity; it is the systematic sexual and social destruction of whole populations in eastern Congo. And little, it seems, is being done to stop it.
"I have seen men literally lost," Mukwege says. "Emotionally ruined and unable to go on after witnessing the destruction of their wives and the resulting destruction of their families. They are permanently haunted by thoughts going through their head - 'I raped my wife and family and didn't stop it.' Some men flee and abandon their families. In cases where the perpetrators don't kill their victims outright, they kill them slowly and painfully, not just physically, but psychologically and emotionally. It is the destruction of society."
British and American journalists have passed through Panzi, yet Mukwege says nothing has changed. The hospital still turns away patients and those responsible for the violence are seldom brought to justice. "I have spoken to everyone from the international media who have visited, but still the rapes continue. I have to keep hope otherwise I'd take off my shirt and stop my work.
"I know the situation can be resolved if people really get involved and international political will is behind it. We cannot ignore what's happening here and portray it as barbaric African culture, as it is sometimes portrayed."
The sense of exasperation is palpable, and as Mukwege is called away, victims who have queued outside hobble into the room to tell their stories.
Chibalonza Nsinire, 16, was asleep when the Interahamwe came. After tying her hands, they led her to a forest and over three days, took turns raping her and other women. After being raped, the women were forced to prepare meals for the forces, using food pillaged from their own houses.
Mugoli Muhamiri was expecting wedding guests when she answered a knock at her door six months ago. Instead of relatives, a group of men poured in and began a rampage. She was tied up and the men took turns raping her. From the corner of her eye, she saw her husband's throat being slit, and two of her children being mutilated. They were two years old. She says she counted seven men raping her, before she lost consciousness. Now she clings to her only surviving child, Stephen, who is unaware of the HIV that infects his mother's body.
"I have been given great medical support here, but I know one day soon I have to die. I cannot keep the medicine for the HIV in my stomach because I have no food. I feel bad for my child who remains, because he will have no mother and no father. That brings great sorrow to my heart."
Heavily pregnant 15-year-old Furaha Tajiri is from the Ninja province. The forces came for her at night, tied her hands and started beating her and her parents repeatedly. "I then saw them take my parents and kill them," she says.
"After that they took me with them to the forest. They started raping me there - I counted 17 who attacked me. I stayed in the forest for six months and each day I was raped by two men."
Furaha gave birth to a boy the day after telling her tale. She was distraught, and needed food. Without a husband or family, she was only too acutely aware that much hardship lies ahead.
Throughout the eastern Congo, the stories were of the same horrific magnitude. There is little hope and little in the way of happy endings. Words such as rehabilitation and justice are no longer part of the daily vocabulary.
One group trying to help is the Irish aid organisation Trocaire, which believes UN troops should patrol the areas particularly prone to attack and protect vulnerable communities, notably women and girls.
The organisation also believes the DRC Government has a responsibility to seek a solution to the conflict in the east, and to do so while respecting human rights.
For many working on the ground the destruction is total and the task often overwhelming. Efforts to deal with the problem are only grazing the surface, in a country rich in resources but poor on relief. Fewer than 50 non-government organisations ply their trade in eastern Congo, in contrast to Rwanda, which is something of an NGO haven.
In the genocide museum in Kigali, the former UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, is quoted as feeling remorseful towards the atrocities committed in 1994, when 1 million Rwandans died on the UN's watch. The world could have and should have done more, he infers. Yet 17,000 UN troops are stationed in DRC, and within a stone's throw of their bases the most vulnerable in that society are being routinely destroyed.
Two months ago, the UN humanitarian chief, John Holmes, visited Panzi, was horrified when he heard the stories and saw the conditions. He also met Christine Schuler Deschryver. Normally an articulate and measured advocate, her diplomatic savvy deserted her. "I told him what is happening here is a holocaust. I was very aggressive. I said, 'You are in the Congo, so what are you doing? You came to the hospital and like everyone you cry. Like everyone you leave. And like everyone, we never hear from you again.' "
Copyright © 2007. The Sydney Morning Herald.