Film Depicts Rape as Weapon of War

Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt is the director of "Lumo," a new documentary which shows how rape has traumatized women in Central Africa. The film follows Lumo, a woman who is brutally gang raped in the wake of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. But, despite many obstacles, she is determined to regain her health and her life.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Now, to a story of hope and healing. A new documentary shows how rape is used as a weapon of war in Central Africa.

The film follows Lumo, a woman fighting to take back control of her body and her life after a brutal gang rape.

(Soundbite of documentary show, "Lumo")

Ms. LUMO SINAI: (Foreign Language Spoken).

CHIDEYA: Lumo bands together with other rape survivors to heal. We should mention that some of the story is quite graphic and may not be suitable for young listeners.

Filmmaker Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt directed and produced the documentary "Lumo." Welcome.

Mr. BENT-JORGEN PERLMUTT (Director; Producer, "Lumo"): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So tell me about Lumo Sinai and where she is from.

Mr. PERLMUTT: Lumo is a young woman who's 22-years-old from the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. She comes from a small village where there's very little security. She currently is living in a place that's run by militia groups who were responsible for what had happened to her.

As a result of the rape and as a result of inadequate laws against rape in Congo, her family had kicked her out of her home. Her fiance has rejected her. And she suffered from this condition due to the rape or caused by the rape known as a fistula, which made her incontinent and unable to bear children.

CHIDEYA: Well, let me jump in. We have a doctor from your documentary talking about this injury.

(Soundbite of documentary show "Lumo")

Unidentified Man (Doctor): A traumatic fistula, there is nothing worse you can do to a human. You would talk about five men, about 12 men. When they tell you the details of how it happened. People haven't work(ph) to them to use material like sticks with a gun being used to really make a lady suffer is the most horrible thing.

CHIDEYA: So does this affect how her fiancee, how her family treated her?

Mr. PERLMUTT: Yes, very much so. They both blamed her for, not only being raped, but for her condition. And they blamed her because she was out late at night and it was her fault. And many women there are blamed for other reasons like the clothes they wear or the way they look at other men. And it's a serious problem now being addressed mostly through education but also through a legislative means.

CHIDEYA: In these cases of war, women can suffer some of the worst atrocities, but how did Lumo and others begin to heal both physically and emotionally from rape?

Mr. PERLMUTT: Well, Lumo is very fortunate to have been found by a network of counselors who were - who's role it is to search for rape survivors and bring them to this wonderful organization called Heal Africa, which is sort of an oasis from the horrors that these women have faced. And Lumo joined about 200 other women who have had the same thing happened to them, and together they formed this vibrant community of caring women who nurtured each other, who taught each other how to sew and knit, who really cared for one another while getting great health care treatment and also this psychosocial, spiritual support from counselors of many different denominations. To Lumo, this place was a sanctuary in many ways.

CHIDEYA: Going back to the medical issues, how many surgeries did she go through to repair her injuries, and how successful were they?

Mr. PERLMUTT: Well, most women go through one to two surgeries and there's about a 90 percent success rate. But in the case of Lumo, because it was so complicated, she had to go through five while we were at the hospital. And the last one was deemed successful, but I do have a follow-up story. We had a lot of difficulty locating Lumo after we had dropped her off in the village. And for about a year, we are trying to contact her. And so finally, last March, I was back in Congo doing some films for UNICEF, and I managed to get in touch with Lumo. And we brought her back to the hospital and sat down with her.

After we had dropped her off, her fiancée, who had rejected her from the film, had taken her back because she looked great and she was happy and her family re-embraced her, and she live a normal, happy life for a couple of months. But then the militia that was occupying her village killed her husband, and even more tragically, her fistula reopened and she had to return to the hospital while we were there as a new patient.

So even though she'd already been in the hospital for a year and a half going through five difficult operations, she was back to square one when we brought her into the hospital.

Fortunately, she has gotten the sixth operation by a world-renowned fistula expert and she is on her way to full recovery. And as a result of this film, someone has agreed to buy her a home in a much more secure area, close to her village, so she can still be near her family but at least will have a much greater sense of safety.

CHIDEYA: Tell me about mental health care, not just physical health.

Mr. PERLMUTT: The idea of mental health is different in Congo because they don't have clinically trained psychologists on staff. They have a network of women who either went through a similar trauma when they're younger or just have a strong passion for helping young women.

CHIDEYA: Tell us about the Mamas.

Mr. PERLMUTT: They're the network of counselors that I was just referring to. They're a group of women who - they work full time to help these rape survivors resume a normal life and they teach them how to read and write, and sew, and knit, and raise rabbits, and grow vegetables. And they also seek out these women, and they've created this vast network all over eastern Congo to locate women who have been raped and to bring them to the safety of this hospital where these women - if they need the operation, they can receive it.

CHIDEYA: There's a quite a lot of singing in this film. What role does that play and what is the singing about and how does it affect the women?

Mr. PERLMUTT: We shot "Lumo" over a period of about five months. And in order to get comfortable with the women and for them to get comfortable with us, we spent a lot of time teaching them how to use the cameras themselves. And the nature that allowed them to see, at least on a basic level, what we were intending to do with the film and also open them up to performing, which I never thought would be an aspect of our film.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Lumo")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. PERLMUTT: And in a lot of these cases, if you watch the movie, what they're singing about or what they're acting is - are the desires that they can't have as a result of their conditions.

So there's two scenes in which Lumo is pretending to have a baby, which she can't have because of her condition, and then another scene in which she's getting married, which she can't have because of her situation. So in many ways, it's therapeutic for them to sing and to act and to dance.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Lumo")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

CHIDEYA: Is your intention behind the scenes to have this affect public policy either into Congo or internationally or both?

Mr. PERLMUTT: Yeah. I would say both. I think out of privacy issues, we don't want to show it in the village that - where Lumo lives or in the hospital just because she was a patient and many people know her. But we have managed to show short versions in lobbying groups all over Congo and in congress because the founder of the hospital used to be a senator in Congo, and we believe it's had an effect. I mean, we're trying to work as close as possible with Heal Africa, which is the organization behind the hospital. To back up a little, there's a new constitution in Congo that was just ratified last year that explicitly states that sexual violence against women is a crime against humanity and has a certain punishment, which never existed before.

But now, the next step is to get that into the judicial system so that the courts start punishing people for raping women. And we hope that our film will be used as a lobbying tool to further this and also as an educational tool for different politicians in Congo.

And then internationally, we really hope to raise the consciousness of people outside of the Congo because 4 million people in the past 10 years have died in Congo, which is staggering and is the most amount of deaths since World War II, yet the rest of the world doesn't know about this conflict. And we hope that by showing one woman's story, it will put a personal face on this huge conflict.

CHIDEYA: Thanks for sharing with us.

Mr. PERLMUTT: Thank you.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Lumo")

Unidentified Woman (Actress): (As character) (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

CHIDEYA: Filmmaker Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt directed and produced the POV documentary "Lumo." The film airs tonight on PBS and you can read more about "Lumo" at our Web site npr.newsandnotes.org.

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