Nathalie’s nightmare began in 2003 when her father, a political activist, was murdered for opposing the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country where more people have been killed in violent conflict than any other in the world since World War Two.
Angry and distressed about her father’s death, it was too dangerous to go to the funeral. Following in her father’s footsteps, Nathalie became increasingly involved in opposing the Congolese government – mobilising women, in particular – to bring about democratic change and end state-backed violence, bribery and corruption. The Congo is a failed state, where millions of people live in fear of indiscriminate violence, murder, rape and torture.
A few months after her father’s murder, Nathalie helped distribute leaflets at an anti-government demonstration, attended by thousands of people, who called for immediate elections, which had been postponed for the umpteenth time. Scores of people were arrested, including Nathalie, who was handcuffed and beaten and then taken to prison where she was beaten and raped every day.
Nathalie was pregnant at the time. After a few days, she lost the baby and she was then blindfolded and driven away at night in a jeep and dumped on the roadside, crying her eyes out, still bleeding after the loss of her baby.
The following year, another demonstration took place in the capital, Kinshasa. Nathalie was pregnant again and stayed away from the demonstration. The same evening, while at home with her husband, the police arrived and tried to break into their house by shooting at the front door. Nathalie assumed the police were stopping by to extort money, a common practice in the Congo, where the police might not be paid for months on end. But Nathalie was wrong. The police had come to arrest her. After beating her up, they took her away in a jeep.
Nearing the end of her pregnancy, Nathalie feared for the life of her unborn child. Again, she was beaten and raped daily and the bleeding started again.
Sitting in front of an interrogator in a dark room with a bright light, her vision was blurred and she felt dizzy. She was warned that if she ever got involved in a demonstration again, it would be the end for her. They took a blood sample and her fingerprints, and she was then blindfolded, taken away in a jeep, and dumped by the roadside.
Fortunately, Nathalie arrived at the hospital just in time and gave birth to a boy, prematurely. It was touch and go whether either of them would survive and they both had to spend three months in the hospital. Because of her experience of being raped, Nathalie wanted to help other women who had been through similar experiences. In the Congo, rape is a weapon of war. Millions of women – and children – have been raped. As a trained nurse, Nathalie felt she could offer practical help and decided to volunteer for a Catholic charity helping rape victims, including young girls, all of whom were traumatised. The perpetrators were always Congolese soldiers; their victims, fleeing from violence, often had no clothes or food to eat.
One weekend in March 2009, Nathalie was working as a volunteer nurse, which she had been doing for quite a while. There were soldiers everywhere, after a brutal crackdown against anti-government demonstrators, with many fatalities.
The hospital where Nathalie was helping out was full of wounded people, including a priest who had tried to intervene. When it was time to go home, a military jeep started to follow her very slowly at first and then when she started to run back to the hospital, a group of soldiers jumped out of the jeep and tried to grab her. But she managed to escape their clutches by going back into the Catholic-run hospital, which was a no-go area for the soldiers.
It wasn’t long, however, before Nathalie was arrested again when she was randomly stopped and searched by soldiers in the street. She was arrested because of the contents of a diary in the handbag she was carrying, in which she had written accounts of the experiences of the women and children who had been raped.
It wasn’t a jeep this time, but a much larger van with about ten other women inside who had been forced to lie down on narrow wooden bunks, where they were all raped, including Nathalie, while they were being driven to a prison. The cell where she was dumped was small and filthy. There was no bed, no furniture and no natural light, except a small chink of light coming through a ventilator.
‘When you are alone like that in a tiny cell, lots of things go through your head’, said Nathalie. She would cry all night, worrying about her children and whether they would have enough to eat, especially the baby.
Interrogation was accompanied by electrocution and beating. She still has the marks on her back.