Survivors

Survivors

Arlette Bashizi, 2024 Finalist

"Survivors" is a project about the resilient struggle of women living in conflict zones in Africa, from Ethiopia to the Democratic Republic of Congo. "Survivors" documents personal stories of survivors of sexual violence during the civil war that erupted in the Tigray region of Ethiopia and the ongoing war in the North Kivu province in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo and their resilience in rebuilding their lives despite all the stigma surrounding them.

Shila sits with others in the IDP site where she has taken refuge with her family in the town of Mekele, Tigray region, northern Ethiopia, November 04, 2023. During Ethiopia's two-year civil war, tens of thousands of women were raped. Fighting began in 2020 in the northern region of Tigray, but eventually spread to the entire north, and this civil war was characterized by extreme sexual violence.

A survivor of sexual violence, 28, poses for a portrait in the cooking training center of the Daughters of Charity in the town of Mekele, Tigray region, northern Ethiopia, November 02, 2023. This 28 years old woman was raped by two Eritrean soldiers and an old Muslim man who tried to intervene was killed. Her brother-in-law witnessed the attack and took her for treatment afterwards but was later killed in the war. She was grateful for his help but had lived in fear that he might tell her husband, she said. She has nightmares and often screams in her sleep, she said, so she waits each night until everyone else has gone to bed to sleep because she is terrified that she will say something that will allow her relatives to guess that she has been raped.

Shila takes part in a cooking class with other women at the Daughters of Charity training center in the town of Mekele, Tigray region, northern Ethiopia, November 02, 2023. Shila survived three months of sexual exploitation, while her 13-year-old daughter was also raped during Ethiopia's civil war.

Shila speaks with Abel Gebreyohannes, a psychologist, during a counseling session at the Daughters of Charity Center in Mekele town, Tigray region, northern Ethiopia, November 02, 2023.

Shila  walks with her son through the corridors of Ayder Hospital during his medical appointment, in the town of Mekele, Tigray region, northern Ethiopia, November 01, 2023.Shila survived three months of sexual exploitation, while her 13-year-old daughter was also raped during Ethiopia's civil war, she had a child from this rape whom she found hard to accept and beat until a few months ago.

A survivor of sexual violence, 25, poses for a portrait in the cooking training center of the Daughters of Charity in the town of Mekele, Tigray region, northern Ethiopia, November 02, 2023. This 25-year-old was raped by Eritrean and Amhara forces in the southern region of Raya for three days, after they took her baby and would not return it. She's so ashamed of the attack that she has not even told her mother, although she knows her mother was also gang-raped. When she goes home to visit her family, she hides her face and does not walk in public. She said she often beat her children after the rape, but she is learning to try to control her pain and rage through counseling.

Bedla Salomon, a cooking instructor, shows students how to make pizza during a culinary class session at the Charity Daughters Training Center in the town of Mekele, Tigray region, northern Ethiopia, November 02, 2023. The organization provides survivors of sexual violence with vocational training and psychological support.

A survivor of sexual violence waits for transportation with her baby by the roadside in the town of Mekele, Tigray region, northern Ethiopia, November 04, 2023. After being gang-raped, this young woman became pregnant. Her son is 2-years-old now. Her parents rejected their grandson because he was born of a gang-rape, and kept her five-year-old daughter, born of her husband, away from her. She wants to take the girl, but has no food to give her.

Shila does her evening prayer in front of an Orthodox church in Mekele, Tigray region, northern Ethiopia, November 02, 2023. Shila, a mother of three, ran a hairdressing salon before Eritrean soldiers invaded their border town. She was held captive and repeatedly raped for three months; her daughter, then aged 13, was so severely assaulted that she had to undergo several operations to recover. Shila gave birth to a son as a result of the rapes, but her daughter - who was detained separately - does not know that her mother was also attacked. Shila doesn't know if she'll ever have the strength to tell her daughter the truth.

Photographer's Statement: 

“Survivors” is a long-term project that document stories of women living in conflict zone areas in Africa, their personal stories after surviving to sexual violence, the stigma and rejection they face in society and the struggle they go through to rebuild their lives after being rejected by their family and community.

In Ethiopia, more than 100,000 women may have been raped during the two years of civil war in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region, according to the most comprehensive study to date of these attacks, conducted by Columbia University biostatistician Kiros Berhane. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the ongoing war in the Eastern region between the M23 rebels and the Congolese army has caused more than 18,000 cases of rape since 2021, according to a Doctors Without Borders report.  This number is still increasing as the war in the North Kivu continues in the east region. According to the last report published by Doctors Without Borders in 2023, 70 women are registered daily in displacements camp as survivors of sexual violence.  And countless women who have given birth as a result are struggling with hidden agony, often rejected even by their families either in Tigray or North-Kivu region.

After speaking with women while on my journey to Ethiopia for the first part of this story,  I felt the same way as when I was talking to a survivor who live in my hometown, Goma. I could feel their pain and their struggle and that’s the aim of this project: to raise the voice of all of these women. As a woman born, raised and living in a conflict zone area, Im connected to the women I’m photographing because Im one of them: Im part of this community where rape is used as a weapon of war. Reports and statistics are published every year about cases of sexual abuses, but personal stories of each woman should be documented so that we understand what it means to be a woman living in a war zone.  

Apart from documenting what the women have gone through, this project also sheds light and focuses on their efforts to rebuild their lives despite all the prejudice and stigmatization they face every day in the community, alongside the work that local NGOs are doing to help the survivors with professional trainings and psychological support to allow the women to overcome their trauma.  We can hope to see change only if we keep raising their voice and telling their stories.

Arlette Bashizi
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Arlette
Bashizi

Arlette Bashizi is a documentary photographer and photojournalist born and currently based in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. She focuses on topics related to health, environment and culture, by keeping human being especially women and youth at the center of her stories. Over the past years she has been covering issues as varied as the mining of rare minerals to feed the West's thirst for electric vehicles to the impact of the conflict in Congo DRC and Tigray, Ethiopia, as well as the destructive nature of climate change in different countries of Africa.

She contributed to the collaborative project "Congo in Conversation,” of Finbarr O'Reilly, winner of the 11th Carmignac Photojournalism Award dedicated to the DRC, a project that marked the beginning of her professional career in 2020. Since then, she currently work for newspapers such as the NewYork Times, the Washington Post, The New Humanitarian, and others.  She is a contributor to the news agency Reuters and work also as a consultant with international organizations as well as UN agencies.

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