I thought it must be God’s will for me to suffer.

— Lumo

“Do you know how your illness started?” Pastor Bolingo asks his question gently, phrases it euphemistically. The camera reinforces his discretion, framing him separately from Lumo Sinai, the young woman with the “illness,” their distance indicating his respect and concern. And still, the question stings. Just 20 years old when she was brutally raped, Lumo answers haltingly, sadly, and courageously.

Premiering tonight in PBS’ POV series, Lumo is a quietly and keenly observational documentary. While there’s no mistaking the case that it’s making — in favor of increased, sustained, and organized aid for rape victims in Africa, women afflicted by Lumo’s “illness” — filmmakers Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, Nelson Walker III, Louis Abelman, and Lynn True allow their subjects to tell their own stories, watching Lumo and fellow patients at the HEAL Africa hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Lumo suffers from traumatic fistula, the rupture of the wall between her uterus and her bladder, caused by violent rape. The most common implements used in such assaults are sticks, guns, and farming tools, reports Dr. Kasereka Lusi, Director of HEAL Africa, “to really make a lady suffer, the most horrible thing.” Where Lumo lives, rape is a weapon, a means to terrorize the population, leaving victims with the “double stigma of rape and of incontinence.”

The attack occurred near her village in Eastern Congo, on the Rwandan border. Her attackers were Interahamwe, she says, “soldiers from Rwanda who escaped into the Congo.” She and her sister were walking the same dirt road they had walked many times before, where they frequently saw men with guns. Asked why they might have committed this crime, Lumo says softly, “I can’t know what was in their hearts.” She does know, though, that her life is changed forever, by the soldier’s deliberate action: “They destroyed us. They left us with nothing.”

Indeed, as the film makes clear, the rape is only the start of Lumo’s ordeal. Rejected by her fiancé and her family, she recalls the difficulties at home. “My brothers and sisters wouldn’t even look at me,” she sighs. “They said Lumo better take her food away, we don’t want to eat near her. They said that I stank. I felt forgotten.” When the camera begins to follow Lumo’s struggle, she’s leaving her village on a bus, riding with a group of women similarly afflicted. They head to the HEAL Africa Hospital in Goma, on the border of Congo and Rwanda (a journey that in itself is bumpy and unpredictable, over mountain roads and into the night, in a bus with a damaged tire). Here they’re greeted by Mama Jeanne, a counselor with HEAL Africa. “Now this is your home,” she says warmly, “And you will sleep well.”

Now 22, Lumo has previously undergone operations to heal her fistula: during this trip, she will have her fifth operation and spend a year and a half at the hospital. Images from her operation are harrowing: she gasps and moans in close-up, as the doctor remains intent on his work. The filmmakers owe their extraordinary access to Lumo, who wanted her story to be visible in order to help draw attention to the ongoing trials of so many rape victims in Congo. Though the war officially ended in 2003 and the DRC government outlawed sexual violence in 2006, the terrorism continues. According to the U.N., “Extreme sexual violence against women is pervasive in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and local authorities do little to stop it or prosecute those responsible.”

Women march against sexual violence. [Photo: Louis Abelman]

While the film tells much of Lumo’s story in images — her hands wrestling with a tissue, her catheter dripping, her face drawn and sad as she watches fellow patients sing, dance, or chatter — it also features short scenes from her interview with Pastor Bolingo. His questions range from philosophical to personal, and her answers demonstrate that she’s spent her long hours of recovery thinking hard about her situation, as it reflects others’. “Have you loved a person in your life?”, he asks, and she’s embarrassed in a wholly conventional and girlish way, asserting that she and her fiancé had not been together. Asked about children, Lumo confirms that she wants them, her answer showing her acute understanding of women’s status in her world. “When you don’t have children, you are ashamed. If you get married and you don’t give birth to children, you will be rejected.”

Caught between her yearning and her fears, Lumo spends hours lying on her recovery bed, looking after an infant whose mother, Zawa, is a child herself (“You gave birth,” observes Lumo, “Now you are a woman”). She also watches other patients who are more mobile, who receive presents from home (one has an assortment of bras that inspires her roommates to ooh and ahh), and who eventually get on a bus to go back to their villages. “What do you feel when your friends leave the hospital and go back home?” asks the Pastor. “I keep hope,” she says, “that one day, even I will heal.”

Her hope is ever set against daily pain and regret. “I don’t feel that I owe thankfulness to anybody,” she says. “If I am healed, I will thank the Lord. If I am not, I will not thank him.” When the pastor asks whether she’s heard of the “sufferings of Jesus,” Lumo’s response is no-nonsense: “He died for our sins,” she recites, “But he is Jesus. I am just a human.” Lumo is most certainly that, resilient and apprehensive, desirous and levelheaded. When at last she receives her discharge ticket, she smiles broadly, even as she understands that her village, still under rebel occupation, remains unsafe. “When I return, I will go in the bush not in the village as before. If they know my village, my name, they will look for me and surely kill me.”

A HEAL Africa counselor restates Lumo’s concern in broader terms: “How will this business end?” she asks. “What will happen to these women? Will they always live a life of being raped?” working with government and international agencies and especially with the media, she says, HEAL Africa hopes to “come up with strategies to end this kind of violence against women.” While that future is yet to be realized, Lumo boards the ambulance that will bring her home.

RATING 8 / 10