I met Myriam in a displacement camp on the outskirts of Goma – the bustling capital of the war-torn North Kivu province in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
I found her in an empty classroom – quiet and withdrawn, with her baby tucked up in blankets and held tightly to her chest.
“I got left behind”
I perched on the classroom bench and asked her how she came to live here. With her head down and in a quiet voice, Myriam started to tell her story.
“Back in January something happened. I was in the fields with three other girls from my village. We were there to collect cassava leaves.
“Suddenly we saw three men coming into the field. They were soldiers – I could tell because they were wearing army uniform trousers. They were running towards us.
“The other girls all started to run away – but I was the youngest and got left behind. One of the men managed to grab me. The other girls got away.”
“The soldiers had knives”
Before continuing, she paused and looked up at me… we both knew what she was about to say.
Having spent the last few months listening to stories of the scared, lonely and abused children of eastern DRC I was under no illusion as to what was going to follow. I asked her gently if she wanted to tell me what happened.
“The soldiers had knives – one of them said they should stab me with their knives but the other one said not to, he then took me away and raped me in the field. As it was happening I was crying and just thinking that there was no one around to help me.
“When it had finished he left me there in the field. I got up and started to walk back home.”
I tried not to show my emotions on my face, not to show the horror and distress that I felt hearing her story. So I focused on keeping my voice level and asked her calmly whether there had been anyone to help her when she returned home.
“My mum was in the market that day so she wasn’t there when I got home. So I just went straight to bed.
“I was too ashamed and scared to ring her and tell her what had happened. But the next day I knew I had to tell her so I rang her and explained.
“She said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me yesterday?’ She came home and took me to the local health centre, but there was no one there who could help me so we returned home.”
It is vital that survivors of sexual violence receive medical care within the first 72 hours. However, all too often reaching a health centre which can provide trained staff, appropriate medicines and equipment presents too great a challenge.
My heart sank – Myriam had taken no tests nor received any preventative measures for sexually transmitted diseases. She had taken no emergency contraception and had received no psycho-social support. Head bowed, she continued.
“A month later I realised that I had not had a period. My mother had explained to me that if you miss a period that means you are pregnant. So I knew then that I had got pregnant from the rape.
“I was so sad and angry. I then went to tell my mum that I had not had a period – she said nothing but just looked at me and slowly shook her head.”
As she explained, it all became horribly clear – the baby in her lap was hers and had been conceived a year ago.
“I knew then that I was alone”
Hiding the dawning realisation on my face, I asked her how she came to live here with her baby.
“Two months [after the rape] the conflict started. We were in the fields the day it happened, collecting firewood. We heard gunfire and ran back home to our village.
“When I got near the village I could see soldiers there. I started to get near my house and I looked in to see where my parents were. I saw them – they were lying dead on the ground. I knew then that I was alone.
“My brother had been at home with my parents as it had happened. But he had seen the soldiers coming and hid under the bed. When he came out from under the bed when the fighting had stopped he saw our parents on the ground.
“I just want to die”
“I then left our village and walked here. We had nothing to eat during the journey. We returned later to bury my parents, but we didn’t stay.”
Suddenly her tears started to fall, streaming down her face, and all I could think to do was hold her. There was nothing I could say to erase the pain and the hurt. Through her tears, she whispered:
“I think about what has happened to me and I realise I just want to die. I would rather be in heaven with my parents than here suffering. I have nowhere to turn to.”
Time to wake up
Myriam is 15 years old. A year ago she was a young girl going to school, playing with her friends, doing her homework, helping her parents in the fields.
Today she is an orphan, a survivor of sexual violence and a mother of a child she feels she cannot support. I have never felt angrier about the impact of conflict on the life of a child.
Save the Children is working in the camps around Goma to identify children like Myriam and ensure they receive the support they so desperately need. But our resources are not infinite – the international community needs to wake up to the horrors that are affecting the children of eastern DRC.
All I can hope is that Myriam’s story will prompt further action.