About two years ago a friend of mine in California told me about a  story on National Public Radio about the war in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Called “Africa’s World War” because of the estimated five million people killed there since 1996, it’s been called by human rights experts  the deadliest conflict since World War II. To put it in perspective, more people have died in the Congo than in Iraq, Afghanistan and Darfur combined.

A 2007 rape survivor in DRC Congo hiding her eyes. (Photo: Hazel Thompson, New York Times)

DRC Congo is one of the worst places on earth to be a woman. Rape as a weapon of war and sexual terrorism are rampant, and literally hundreds of thousands of women – including girls as young as three and women in their 80’s – have been victimized. It is not uncommon for women to be attacked in their homes; gang-raped, mutilated with guns, sticks and other instruments; kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery. In some villages it is estimated that ninety percent of the female population have suffered some form of sexual torture. These crimes go largely unpunished.

In addition to being appalled by the crimes themselves, I think I felt the weight of the numbers- the hundreds of thousands; the ninety percent. But as I delved further into the issue I learned that the numbers paint only the first part of the picture, and the violence is only the beginning of torment for these women. Disease is common (including HIV infection). So is pregnancy. And due to the brutal nature of the crimes, many suffer traumatic fistulas.

Simply put, fistulas are holes inside the body in places holes shouldn’t exist. They require surgery to be repaired. In the case of rape, fistulas develop in the bladder, vagina or rectum and lead to incontinence of urine, feces, or both. The leaking of waste is sometimes constant and impossible to hide.

Take a moment to imagine your life under these conditions.Women with fistulas are stigmatized, often abandoned by husbands and shunned by families and communities. Many become homeless with no way to care for themselves or their children.

It’s impossible for us, living in the relative safety of the United States, to fully comprehend life in a war-torn country. I won’t pretend to understand the abject horror women in the DRC face daily, what it’s like to live in a place where only the presence of a UN peacekeeping envoy provides a modicum of safety, or how it would feel to be abandoned after such a dehumanizing experience as rape. But I do know something of acts of war and survival.

When my fiancé was killed on 9/11 I fell apart in every way possible. But when I fell, a sea of hands reached out for me, held me, and when I was ready, lifted me back up to stand on my own again. In the profound darkness of those days, there was always someone near who could provide some light. Perhaps it was the knowledge that I couldn’t have made it through the darkness on my own that made me want to offer some light to these women half a world away.

In early 2008 two friends and I founded Project Resilience in order to to help support Panzi Hospital, eastern Congo’s main treatment center for rape victims (as described here by Eve Ensler in Glamour Magazine). While Panzi is a full-service hospital, sexual assault victims occupy most of its beds. Ten to twelve new patients arrive every day. The hospital is under-funded, understaffed and, at times, under the threat of violence. Still, it provides crucial medical care to the steady stream of women who line up daily outside its doors.


In 2007, the director of the hospital, Dr. Denis Mukwege, formed a partnership with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), part of the Harvard School for Public Health. In the past two years, HHI has sent teams of gynecologic surgeons to Panzi to build capacity, offer training and work alongside local physicians. It can’t be overstated what it means for these women to have their bodies repaired. Suffice it to say, they are quite literally being given back their lives.

Our goal at Project Resilience was to help fund these costly medical missions. But having no experience in fundraising or party planning, we didn’t know where to start. So we started talking- to everyone. We told anyone willing to listen about the women, the conditions in the DRC, the extraordinary hospital. Soon we had a core group of dedicated women willing to devote time, energy and any expertise they had to the cause. In June of last year, we held our first fundraising event and raised nearly $30,000 on behalf of Panzi — enough for at least two medical missions to the DRC. A band-aid on a gushing wound for sure, but a solid beginning for a group of amateurs, and undeniable proof that a small group of dedicated people can make a difference.

Lately there has been more attention paid to the dire situation in the DRC. Secretary Clinton has recently visited the region, in an effort to press President Joseph Kabila to start prosecuting the mass rapes. A positive sign indeed, but the need continues. With that in mind, Project Resilience is planning its next fundraiser for the summer of 2010.

A native of Southern California, Kristin Ladner Lim is a graduate of University of California, Irvine and New York University, and spent a decade living in Manhattan. A former English teacher, she’s now writing her first book and is co-founder of Project Resilience. She currently lives in Michigan with her husband, Dennis.

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  • Clementine May 20, 2010 at 1:58 am

    I just recently came across the amazing work at Panzi hospital after watching Women on the Frontline special on the Democratic Republic of Congo yesterday. It was hard to watch but I’m glad I did. And today on Law and Order, the episode was on rape in the eastern part of the Congo. I am a woman who is originally from the Congo and I just can’t imagine what these women have endured and continue to endure. I have been crying for the last 2 days. I have heard of the rapes but hearing personal stories just break my heart.

  • Nick Van der Graaf September 2, 2009 at 5:08 pm

    When mass murder, rape & disease occur in Africa, we can rest assured that the rest of the world will respond with a comprehensive program of handwringing and admonishments.

    Kudos to the people funding this hospital and the men & women who work in it.

  • Dennis Lim September 2, 2009 at 11:11 am

    This is beautifully written and spells out an otherwise difficult to imagine situation. It’s powerful and eye opening.