Portraits Document The Effects of Sexual Violence In The Congo

Paluku is a loyal husband who stayed with his wife and family even after his wife was raped. He described watching and listening as his wife was attacked by two soldiers, but being able to do nothing to help her because the assailants had guns. After the soldiers left, he convinced her to go to the hospital (costing a small fortune for someone living on $2 USD a day). He says he forgave his wife because he knew it was not her fault, and the event did not change the love he has in his heart.© Sarah Fretwell
Goretti is a 21-year-old single mother of Waridi. Five years ago, Goretti woke up in the hospital after being brutally raped by ten soldiers. Nine months later, she returned to the hospital to give birth to her daughter. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the term used to describe Goretti is "Girl Mother." She would like to get married, but she still suffers severe depression and physical pain from the attack, and because of the stigma of rape it will be difficult for her to find someone willing to marry her. She is part of a generation of girls forced into motherhood by rape, raising fatherless children.© Sarah Fretwell
Waridi is a jubilant and beautiful five-year-old girl who says she wants to be a nurse when she grows up so she can help others. She lives with her mother and grandmother, both rape survivors. When she asks who her father is, her mother says she does not have one, because the truth “would hurt her heart." The non-profit group CoPerma tries to help young mothers through petite commerce (small business) and training in skills such as sewing and bread-making, but many girls and women have to turn to prostitution to make a few dollars to feed their children.© Sarah Fretwell
Masika, 16, was raped after seeing fighting in her village and hiding in her house. Two days later, she was raped again by three other soldiers. She has seen the soldiers who attacked her in a nearby town. When asked if there was anything that would help her protect herself, she said, "Yes, a sewing machine." She is an apprentice seamstress, and if she has a sewing machine she can sew clothing for a living instead of working in the field where many girls and women are attacked.
A 40-year-old mother of eight, Kavira was attacked in a nighttime raid of her house. Before they left, her assailants stole everything in her house including the clothes she was wearing. A neighbor gave her the clothes she wears in this photo. She remains so traumatized by the attack that she's had difficulty returning to the fields to cultivate her crops.© Sarah Fretwell
Kavira is 16-year-old a rape survivor. She was with her sister and paternal aunt who were also attacked. Her grandmother knows and is mad at her. She feels okay physically, but the attack disturbed her; when she thinks about it her body feels heavy. Like thousands of other girls, she has no access to mental health services, and she is isolated and stigmatized.© Sarah Fretwell
Seeming more like children than soldiers, these boys said it was impossible to count the number of people they had killed while serving in the DRC army. They act with the social and emotional intelligence of adolescent boys, but they are used to the respect that a gun yields. They have no viable job prospects in sight—their sole chance at employment would be to return to the army. They are hiding in a CoPerma member village; the army was in the area searching for them.© Sarah Fretwell
A young Cogolese girl walks for hours to get firewood. Girls and young women walking alone are especially vulnerable to attacks by soldiers and unscrupulous civilians. "Women have no way to protect themselves," one interviewee explained. "Where we live you don't talk about rape because people will 'sing it throughout the village' and it will be very bad." Some husbands abandon their families, and without a man to serve as the liaison for society women have no place, few rights, and little future.© Sarah Fretwell

When Sarah Fretwell dove into the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2010, her only plan was to cover a story, not to change the world. “I didn’t understand when people said they had a calling,” Fretwell says, looking back on how her journey to the DRC to document survivors of sexual violence turned into the Truth Told Project, an ongoing multimedia series. “This topic somehow stayed with me.”

What began as a 50-day journey turned into a life-changing encounter with the women and men of this war-torn region plagued by mass killings, conflict and rampant sexual violence. According to data from a 2011 report in the American Journal of Public Health, in the DRC a woman is raped almost every minute, a rate even higher than previous UN estimates—and a problem that has only recently received attention in international media.

With her camera in tow, Fretwell delved into the women’s everyday lives as they recounted their ordeals and confided their hopes. The result was a documentary that combines haunting portraits with fragments of handwritten interview notes, all pointing to a larger story of conflict, a conspiracy of silence and survival.

Tackling gritty circumstances in areas of crisis was not new to Fretwell. The 35-year-old based in Santa Barbara, California, had reported on displaced Eritrean refugees, women’s rights in Haiti and child survivors of land mines in Cambodia; one of her photos of street children there won first place in Digital Photo Pro magazine’s Best Emerging Professional Photo Contest in 2006. When she learned what was going on in the DRC, she was compelled to act.

“I’m a fan of [independent news show] Democracy Now! I would listen to the audio stream every morning while working,” she recalls. “One day I heard a snippet about villagers in the Walikale region who had been held hostage. More than 200 women and girls were raped repeatedly by rebels, or so-called rebels, without any intervention. I was outraged—and I couldn’t fathom why the world hadn’t made a bigger deal of this.”

Seized by a familiar sense of purpose, she could only follow her instinct: “I decided to take a leap of faith and buy a ticket. I just knew I had to go.”

In a serendipitous twist, Fretwell was introduced by a friend to Amy Ernst, a freelance journalist who was working with CoPerma, a humanitarian nonprofit of farmer-businessmen based in the North Kivu region, to help victims of rape and demobilized child soldiers. The NGO helped Fretwell secure a visa into the notoriously insular nation.

Fretwell and Ernst put out the word through CoPerma that they wanted women from the surrounding area to come and share their stories. In a culture where trauma is commonly accompanied by silence and shame, the gesture was unique and, Fretwell recalls, cause for trepidation: “I remember riding on the back of Amy’s motorbike to the first set of interviews and thinking, ‘What if no one will talk to me?’”

To her relief, the first outing was an immediate success, with triple the number of women expected lined up ready to share their trials. It was an act of generosity, but also a leaden charge for Fretwell, who had to rethink her approach.

“I recall one particularly difficult interview with a girl who was a minor. She must have been about 15. I really wanted to convey her story, but also maintain her privacy. That’s what first led me to experiment with layering text, so that her identity wasn’t immediately recognizable but she was also very much present. I posted one of these first images on my blog, and someone working at the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian saw it and encouraged me to continue.”

The text eventually became a pivotal aspect of her image making, providing a written record of her subjects’ testimonies. As these came together, so did the Truth Told Project (thetruthtold.com), an ambitious undertaking that seeks to place these issues on a worldwide platform.

It’s working. This year Fretwell presented at SXSW Interactive and has spoken at numerous human- and women’s-rights summits; she’s now partnering with the Responsible Sourcing Network to raise awareness about how the tech industry’s reliance on the DRC’s rich mineral deposits helps fund armed groups and hinders peace.

The Truth Told Project now encompasses portraits and landscapes, interviews, journals, blogs and video and has been exhibited at the Contemporary Arts Forum in Santa Barbara and the Walk to End Genocide event in Los Angeles. In August her work was shown at Human Rights Watch’s second annual “Art with a Heart” event, which focuses on global humanitarianism in Eastern Africa. Plans are also in the works for a documentary short. As it evolves, Fretwell says her mission remains the same: “This is not over. This is still happening every day, and that has to stay at the forefront.”

For more on the Truth Told Project, check out this video.

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