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Mass Rape in the Congo: A Crime Against Society

Mass rapes in the Congo are destroying civic life, as hundreds of thousands of rape victims are cast out from their families and communities.

Late one afternoon seven years ago, in the village of Kamanyola in eastern Congo, Fatuma Kayengela's husband sent their daughter and her cousin to the market to buy oil for the lamps. When the two 15-year-old girls turned to go back home, they found the way blocked by soldiers, who took them down the road. As darkness fell, Fatuma and her husband went in search of the girls and learned of screams and crying coming from the school. There they found the girls as the rapists had left them. They went to the police station for help, but the police said there was nothing they could do about soldiers. When Fatuma's husband grew angry, they threatened to arrest him. Thankful the girls were still alive, Fatuma took them home.

That was a brave act. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a rape survivor is an outcast, blamed and shamed by local tradition and religion for the only crime pinned squarely on the victim. She is "dirtied," but her greater crime is that in being violated she shrinks the stature of the husband or father to whom she belongs. To regain respect he must throw her out. Fatuma's husband behaved differently: he stood by the girls. Yet as Fatuma watched her daughter's continuing suffering, she felt powerless. "At that time," she says, "I didn't even know enough to take my daughter to the hospital." She determined to learn how to help her child and other survivors of sexual assault; but because rape is a crime women and girls have learned to suffer in shamed silence, she had no idea how many there were.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, there are hundreds of thousands.

The DRC began its ascent to the title of Rape Capital of the World in 1994, when masses of defeated Hutu génocidaires (Interahamwe) entered the country from Rwanda. They were followed in 1996 by invading Tutsis, the RPF forces of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who was allied with Congolese rebel Laurent Kabila against Congolese President Mobutu Sese Seko, the desiccated American creation of the cold war who had presided for decades over exploitation of Congo's rich resources and the disintegration of its flimsy colonial institutions. With an eye on those resources, neighboring countries intervened on both sides. By the time peace accords were signed in 2002, more than twenty armies and militias were battling for the DRC's gold, diamonds and coltan, and young Joseph Kabila had succeeded his assassinated father as president. His presidency was affirmed by an election held in 2006 at a cost of nearly $500 million.

Kabila heads a government fabricated (without women's participation in decision-making) to appease and include all factions (except women) among its four vice presidents and thirty-six cabinet ministers. It's one of those unwieldy governments, by now familiar in Africa, in which officials find the means to enrich themselves but nothing to support institutions or pay salaries to civil servants, teachers, doctors, soldiers or police. People in eastern Congo complain that $500 million might have been better spent, because for them, far from the government in Kinshasa, the war goes on to this day. And so does rape.

As direct targets of men at war, women and girls suffer terribly. The Interahamwe have been singled out as the worst perpetrators of atrocities, but every armed group is guilty of violating women. Men singly or in gangs rape women and girls of all ages. (Recorded victims range in age from 2 months to 83 years.) Men also cut off women's nipples or breasts, mutilate or cut off external genitalia, and eviscerate living pregnant women to remove and kill fetuses. After rape, men commonly insert foreign objects into the vagina: sticks, sand, rocks, knives, burning wood or charcoal, or molten plastic made by melting shopping bags. Killing the rape victim by firing a handgun or rifle inserted in the vagina is a common practice; some victims have survived. Rapists have blinded many women, apparently to prevent identification, and left countless others to die in the forest after chopping off their arms and/or legs. Soldiers also abduct women, and especially girls as young as 10 or 11, as captive "wives." Some escaped women and girls report being chained to trees for months, released only to be gang-raped, day after day. Many report witnessing the death of other captive women and girls, murdered as disciplinary examples or abandoned in the forest when they were no longer "serviceable."

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