Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo — Some of the fifteen women huddled under a tree overlooking the lakeside town of Bukavu in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are so anxious they vomit.

For 20-year-old Agnes, the child kicking inside her belly is a dull reminder of thenight when armed men burst into her home, beat her family, tied her up and raped heruntil she lost consciousness. Local laws prevent her from having an abortion.

“It is a child of evil, but it is also partly my blood, so I don’t know what to do.It torments me,” she says in a whisper, explaining she was a virgin before theattack.

Consolate, a 40-year-old mother of eight was raped on three separate occasions overthe past two months, most recently by five armed militiamen who stole what littleher family had, including four goats and a pig.

“Men who do this are not normal. If I could kill them I would, but it’s impossibleto catch them,” she says through a translator. “They took everything, even my clothes.”

Their stories are all too common in eastern Congo, where many rural families nolonger spend nights at home, opting instead to sleep in groups in the bush “with ourears open” for fear of attacks from the brutal militias and rival rebel soldiers whoroam the lawless mountains and forests of the former Zaire with impunity. The women are some of the forgotten victims on the remote battleground of Africa’sbiggest war where more than two million people have died and where the scale ofsystematic mass rape and torture is only beginning to be understood.

Thousands of women have endured dehumanizing treatment during Congo’s four-year warinvolving six national armies, several rebel movements and countless bandit gangsall fighting for control over the central African country’s vast supply of naturalresources, including gold, diamonds and timber.

“Sexual violence has been used as a weapon of war by most of the forces involved inthis conflict. Soldiers and combatants rape and otherwise abuse women and girls aspart of their effort to win and maintain control over civilians and the territorythey inhabit,” said a recent Human Rights Watch report.

The conflict has created the worst and most ignored humanitarian crisis on theplanet, observers say.

“I can’t think of anywhere else where the situation is as bad as it is here. ForgetAfghanistan under the Taliban, eastern Congo is probably the worst place in theworld to be a woman. And the thing is, very little is being done to change that,”said one foreign aid worker requesting anonymity.

The region was plunged into anarchy when thousands of Hutu extremists known as“Interahamwe” fled into Congo’s wilds after committing the 1994 Rwandan genocide.Rwanda and an allied Congolese rebel army pursued them, triggering a messy war thathas seen Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia support Kinshasa’s central government.

The civilian population is caught ina circle of violence that includes traditional Mai-Mai warriors who, like theInterahamwe, have links to the government and mostly fight the Rwandans and theirrebel allies, the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD), who loosely control a vastswath of Africa’s third largest nation.

“Rape is frequently used [by the RCD] as a weapon against women to punish husbandssuspected of collaborating with the Mai-Mai. Some combatants are said to haveboasted about having infected women they raped with AIDS,” said a report publishedthis month by the Canadian human rights organization Rights & Democracy.

Experts estimate that up to sixty per cent of soldiers and militias in Congo are HIV positive.With the massive scale of rape, the long-term consequences for the country arelikely to be catastrophic. In some villages such as the remote gold-mining town ofShabunda, up to eighty per cent of women have been raped, witnesses say.

Local gynecologists in Bukavu say women have had their genitals mutilated withsticks, knives, razor blades and guns. Several women have been shot and killed after being raped by RCD soldiers, according to Human Rights Watch.

The hunters follow a pattern, attacking at night or targeting women collecting food,water or firewood from fields. Women and girls are frequently abducted and forced to cook, do laundry and transport looted goods for their captors.

Those who survive abduction or attack are marked for life.

“For many it means death from disease and infection or insanity from the trauma. Andbecause rape is socially unacceptable, women are often shunned by their husbands,families and communities,” says Mathilde Muhindo, a nun who runs Bukavu’s OlameCentre, where the fifteen women under the tree arrived on a recent morning.

The centre, which has seen a sharp increase in arrivals recently, providesrape victims with shelter and basic medical care. But with limited means, it canonly offer a meal, a hospital visit and a night’s accommodation before the victimsmust return to the hills where attackers wait to strike again.

“I have to go back because where can I flee to? If I’m going to die, I will die athome. The entire population is suffering and so am I,” says Janine, a 15-year-oldgirl who was forced by nine Interahamwe armed with machetes and guns to carry goodslooted from her village 30 kilometers outside Bukavu. Three men raped her before sheescaped when they got drunk.

Less than ten per cent of women raped in Congo admit to it because of the social stigmaattached, experts say. The extent of the problem is only now surfacing because womenhave long suffered in silence.

“Finally, they are coming and talking because they realize they have nothing leftto lose,” said a worker from Doctors Without Borders, one of the few foreignagencies helping victims.

“I am the object of mockery in my community. It’s a double insult because I’mpregnant and I have no hope of getting a husband or reclaiming my dignity. But it’snot my fault,” says Agnes, who has lost four members of her family to the war.