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Battle for land fought over women's bodies

[DRC] "The day before yesterday I was raped in Goma."
The true cost of democracy (Georgina Cranston/IRIN)

Margaret Sichei*, 37, discovered she was HIV positive during a routine antenatal check-up. The pregnancy, as well as the HIV infection, was the product of a gang rape deep in the forests of Mount Elgon in western Kenya, perpetrated by members of a self-styled militia calling themselves the Sabaot Land Defence Force (SDLF).

She talked about her ordeal while waiting to pick up her supply of antiretroviral (ARV)drugs at the district hospital in the town of Kitale, near Mount Elgon, where she tested positive two years ago.

"I had just prepared supper for my family and we were seated in our house. Suddenly the dogs of our neighbour started barking viciously; we heard footsteps, and before we could even realise anything, our door was kicked open by men in huge boots, and carrying all manner of weapons.

"They accused my husband of being a traitor, and they dragged the two of us out of the house. They then took us to the forest and raped me for days, taking it in turns and saying that I would pay the price on behalf of my husband, forgetting that they had already killed him. He was beheaded as I watched, and they buried him," said Sichei, tears rolling down her face.

She eventually escaped while pretending to fetch firewood to make food for her captors and fled to the nearby town of Bungoma, only returning to her home after the army had flushed the militia out of the area.

The SDLF began their insurgency in 2006 in response to alleged injustices committed during a land distribution scheme. Some of the area's residents initially supported them in the belief that they were fighting to reclaim land belonging to them, but before long they started paying the price.

In a report released in July 2008, Human Rights Watch, an international watchdog, estimated that the SLDF had killed more than 600 people and kidnapped, tortured and raped many more.

Lillian Kirei, 20, also contracted HIV after first being raped by militia members and then later by members of the Kenyan security forces sent to Mount Elgon in March 2008 to quell the insurgency. Her 45-year-old mother was also raped but did not survive the ordeal.

"We were three girls and we were coming from the market in the evening when the militia abducted us," she told IRIN/PlusNews. "One of us who tried to scream was beaten senseless and raped with leaves stuffed in her mouth. We are all HIV positive now.

"When the army came, I went through the same ordeal. I do not know for sure where I contacted the virus but I now take ARVs, and whoever gave me the virus is for God to punish," she said.

''At the time you do things that haunt you later in life. I am now HIV positive, yet at that time we thought it was cool to rape women''

Erick Wanyama, a clinical officer at the hospital in Kitale, noted that many women who had experienced similar ordeals were now HIV positive. "There are some who are dying silently due to the stigma associated with rape and HIV - it is a double blow to women and girls," he said.

According to Dr. Charles Onudi, medical officer for Kenya's Western Province, out of 100 pregnant women and girls from the Mount Elgon region who said they had been raped, 35 have so far tested positive for HIV.

He added that the actual number of women who had contracted HIV during the insurgency was probably much higher, but that most women were reluctant to admit they had been raped.

In its report, All the Men Have Gone, Human Rights Watch accused both the SLDF and the Kenyan army of committing war crimes and blatant human rights abuses. Medical charity, Médecins sans Frontières have made similar claims.

John Kirui*, a former militia member who is HIV positive, said he now regretted raping dozens of women and girls during the time he served in the rebel outfit.

"At the time you do things that haunt you later in life. I am now HIV positive, yet at that time we thought it was cool to rape women," he said.

Read more:
 Land dispute spawns violence, displacement
 MSF highlights 'forgotten crisis' in Mt Elgon
 Security improves in Mt Elgon but fear remains

Jane Kibiwott, 18, was raped for two days by a group of young men belonging to the SLDF; she and her four-month old baby are both HIV positive. "I can say he is twice unlucky," she said, breast-feeding her son.

"First, he is a child of rape, and now he is HIV positive and being cared for by an equally positive mother. Cruel things happen at times, especially for us, the poor."

*Not their real names


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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