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Helene Is a Survivor, Not a Victim

24 August 2011 One Comment

Marie Targonski-0'Brien

Marie Targonski-O’Brien
United States/Democratic Republic of Congo

“…how can I possibly refer to someone like Helene as a victim when the only way I see her is as a survivor?”


In The Democratic Republic of Congo, the voice of a woman is seldom heard. While the torment of rape and sexual violence ripples throughout a country stricken with conflict, victims, especially women, are left without the opportunity or resources to heal physically or mentally. Due to the sensitivity of the issue, and the complexities surrounding the politics of Congo, most people are hesitant to talk about the sexual violence occurring there. However, when we approach the subject from the perspective of the victims, we clearly see the need for action.

Helene Wamuzila is such a victim. In 2006 Helene was a patient at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, a town located in Eastern Congo not far from the border of Rwanda. The hospital serves as a rehabilitative medical center, providing general health care to the community and specializing in fistula repair for victims of rape. Helene had been at the hospital for about two years. During that time she underwent nine surgeries. She was only fourteen when she was raped. Not even a woman yet, Helene was forced to deal with one of the most horrific crimes against a woman, against any person, when she was still too young to understand what it meant.

As a long-term patient at Panzi Hospital, Helene had a habit of befriending new patients, welcoming them into their new surroundings with laughter and a warmth that emanated from her smile. She took young girls under her wing and was a leader among her peers. Those who knew her said she was the type of woman who glowed.

Helene Wamuzila along the road to Kaziba

She had a maternal nature despite the fact that her attacks had left her unable to bear children. Instead, Helene treated the women at the hospital as sisters and daughters. When she offered advice, the other women and girls listened, not just out of respect but because what she said was so lively. Her words seemed to dance out of her mouth and her humor was a light in the darkness that surrounded the circumstances of the hospital. When she listened to others speak, she had a strong silence that made them believe she was really listening and truly feeling every aspect of what was being said and even those things that went beyond words.

To people who did not know her, Helene seemed like a normal young woman. She enjoyed what most other girls her age enjoy: socializing with the other women, laughing, playing cards and other games. She was not rich nor was she formally educated, so she didn’t hold any significant role in society. She seemed like an ordinary Congolese woman. In many ways this view of Helene was correct. She was an ordinary young woman but maybe that is what makes her story so significant. Unfortunately, Helene’s story is not unique, and the violence she had experienced is not uncommon to most women and girls of Congo.

In that same year, 2006, some 400,000 rapes were confirmed in Congo. Many more went unrecognized. During Helene’s stay at the hospital, three Americans traveled to Bukavu, where they met the women at Panzi Hospital. During their stay, they filmed the recovery of rape victims at the hospital.  Their footage sparked the idea of Women In War Zones, a grassroots movement advocating for the women in the United States. It was also the beginnings of The Wamu Project, named after Helene Wamuzilla to empower, educate, and counsel victims. WWZ was able to partner with Panzi Hospital to develop opportunity for girls and women to free themselves of the stigmas surrounding rape.


With no relation to Congo, or Africa, here I am, writing what should be Helene’s piece, her story, of what is happening in Congo, her story of survival to promote peace.

Unfortunately, I never knew Helene, and the only way I can feel her warmth is through watching her on film. This is the connection I have with her and with Congo – solidarity with fellow human beings suffering.  Tragically, Helene passed away from HIV/AIDS shortly after the filming of the Women In War Zones’ documentary. Still, she has impacted me in such a tremendous way, and I wish she could be in my place with the means to finally speak out. Even though I will never get to meet Helene, I feel close to her through my work with Women In War Zones. My own traumas will never remotely echo the violent experiences of Helene or any of the other women who live in Congo. The constant threat that surrounds their everyday life is truly too much to imagine. Yet, somehow they keep their grace. They keep smiles on their faces, and laughter fills their hospital rooms. So how can I possibly refer to someone like Helene as a victim, when the only way I see her is as a survivor?

When we take time to hear the story of Helene and the other survivors in Congo, the urgent need to facilitate aid to survivors of sexual violence is evident. Regardless of the social discomfort the conversation may bring on, no matter the inappropriateness of our topic, your discomfort is nowhere near what Helene felt on a day-to-day basis. Please continue Helene’s legacy of graceful survival to promote peace and empower the women of Congo. The work of Women In War Zones begins with storytelling, but it moves forward with action.

Visit to see how you can join the movement and help women like Helene.

The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.

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One Comments to “Helene Is a Survivor, Not a Victim”
  1. patricia smith says:

    Thank you, Marie, for telling us Helene’s story. You made her real to us, a neighbor, a friend.

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