Medical Center Offers a Glimmer of Hope in War-torn Congo

Psychotherapy Is Part of Work at Mater Misericordiae

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BUKAVU, Congo, FEB. 23, 2003 ( For four years a specialized center has been offering medical care and psychotherapy to victims of the Congolese war, hoping to bring them back to a normal life.

The Mater Misericordiae center, in the Kivu region, was founded by surgeon and psychotherapist Colette Kitoga, who studied at the Catholic University in Rome. She and her collaborators take care of victims of the conflict that has convulsed the country since 1996.

Eighty-five percent of Dr. Kitoga’s patients are children. «These are children marked by experiences such as witnessing the killing of their parents, watching people being buried alive, or themselves being raped at an early age,» she told Vatican Radio.

Child soldiers and raped women are also given care. There are «very many, because rape is used as a weapon of war,» she said. «In eastern Congo, seropositive men or those with confirmed AIDS are used. It is really regarded as a biological weapon.»

Among those responsible for this tragedy are the Congolese Democratic Coalition soldiers, who comprise Rwandans and Congolese. «They are the so-called rebels, but we don’t really know who the rebels are,» Kitoga added.

«The war transformed my society,» she stressed. «I fear that even if peace comes, there will still be vengeance.» Even now, there are still «people who prowl around tranquilly, who have killed and continue to do so,» she said.

The list of those responsible includes members of the Rwandan Tutsi army, present in Congo; the Hutu army, scattered in eastern Congolese camps; survivors of the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s army; and Congolese who rebelled after the Rwandans arrived and carried out massacres. There are also the young people who sought refuge in the forest and formed a resistance army. Delinquency is widespread too.

The Mater Misericordiae center has two consulting rooms, one for general medical care and the other for psychotherapy. «We offer care for all the usual illnesses of the areas, but we put the accent on psychotherapy,» Kitoga emphasized.

Trustworthy families take in boys in desperate need of a maternal and paternal figure for their development.

«We try to ensure that these families have some link with the boy’s own family, and, if there is no family connection, that they at least come from the same tribe, so that the child will not feel lost,» said Kitoga.

Possibilities for a complete cure are uncertain, she said. «In any case we hope that these little ones will at least be able to live an almost normal life, because after three and a half years, I already see an improvement.»

Some never used to laugh. «Now they are starting to smile. It is a good sign,» Kitoga observed.

The greatest difficulty is to win the children’s trust. In the past, «when I spoke to them, they would not look at me. It was like speaking to a wall,» the doctor recalled. «One day I caught two children by surprise who were talking to each other. They had not seen me. They said: ‘Adults are bad, they make war and kill. Then they make fun of us, saying that they love us!'»

«I gathered the children who were at the center that day and asked their forgiveness on behalf of adults. Since then, the children have begun to trust me,» she added.

Ethnic strife and civil war has battered Congo (formerly Zaire) since 1998 and cost the lives of more than 3 million people. Much of the dispute in the Great Lakes region is linked to the fight for control of natural resources.

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