Currently at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, "Ruined," by Lynn Nottage, is a powerful play about a subject that is profoundly unsettling: rape as an instrument of war.

While the play breaks an unconscionable silence about the calamity still unfolding in the Congo's eastern region, a different work will have to ask the fundamental and wrenching question: Why? How can his be? And why has the world community not acted to prevent the rape of a region and its people, more specifically the women and children of the Congo?

Since 1998, some 5.4 million people have died from poverty, disease and violence as a result of the civil war still being waged in Eastern Congo, a war between the seated government and the rebel militias. The war is a self-perpetuating horror.

Some 30,000 people die monthly. Half of all deaths, it is estimated, have been children, and more than 200,000 women have been raped since the war began. By some estimates, 75 percent of all rapes worldwide today take place in the Congo. Darfur is a distant second.

It is more dangerous to be a woman in Eastern Congo than it is to be a soldier fighting for the government or the militias. Women, fearing attack, are afraid to sleep inside their homes at night, so they sleep in the bush. Women are afraid to harvest their fields, fearful of abduction and violation, so their crops wilt or the fields lay fallow resulting in chronic privation and malnutrition.

There's more.

Rape, when used as an instrument of war, is systematically employed for a variety of reasons. At its root, in part, is the belief that women are property and this objectification gives the rapists permission to treat them without regard to their humanity. Others opine that rape is a form of ultimate intimidation and humiliation resulting in political terror or ethnic cleansing. And there's the causative suggestion that women are the caretakers of a nation, the ultimate transmitters of culture, and if the intent is to destroy a people or a region, then stigmatize and impregnate and brutalize its women.

And know that these rapes are carried out in the most horrific ways. Guns and knives are shoved into a woman's vagina, often so deep that they create traumatic fistulas, causing holes between the vagina and the rectum or the bladder, resulting in the woman being unable to control the flow of her urine and or her feces. While such wounding can be repaired by a skilled surgeon, if any is available, it is not uncommon for the damage to be permanent leaving the woman scarred and debilitated for life. There are gang rapes, rapes of small children, rapes in front of family members.

The trauma is so extensive, so damaging, that for many of the women there is no way back. Some become pregnant; others contract HIV; many are rejected by their families and ostracized from their communities. For these innocents, the trauma of rape is a long and dark journey.

As reported by CNN, life for Henriette Nyota, 28 years old, will, forever more, be seen through the darkest prism. Her spirit has been broken. At a hospital in Bukuvu, she tells her story, describing a brutal assault by men in uniforms. They gang raped her, forcing her four children and husband to watch. They then raped her two oldest daughters, 10 and 8, and disemboweled her husband. This lasted for three days. "I wish they'd killed me right there with my husband," she said. "What use am I now?" It is a heartbreaking lament to which there is no complete answer.

Women. They are our mothers, our wives, our sisters. They are the world's caregivers, and represent an unprecedented force for maternal good in the world. They are an unbroken chain of nurturing since the dawn of time.

And yet the world watches, passively, as millions die and hundreds of thousands of women are emotionally and physically eviscerated. The Congo remains, still, a killing field, the dark side of the moon, a land of astonishing cruelty, and a window into the most desiccated parts of the human soul.

In the play, "Ruined," a young woman, Salima, who had been "ruined," delivers an eloquent soliloquy, describing the devastating rape she experienced and its impact on her life. Abducted and held for five months, she was handed from soldier to soldier, used as if she were disposable. Her shame and despair are palpable, her tears shed for herself and for all women. It is a wrenching moment.

And for the women of Eastern Congo, as well as those around the world, it is not over. The nightmare continues. If we are silent, are we complicit? The Congo is Rwanda and Darfur and hundreds of other places, past and present, where the world watched and in the end did nothing.

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland and writes opinion columns for the Daily Tidings. He can be reached at honore305@yahoo.com.

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