Mass Rape in the Congo: A Crime Against Society

Human Rights

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."

Tens of thousands of rape victims have survived but suffer enduring symptoms of psychological trauma -- depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, despair -- and debilitating physical problems: crippled or missing limbs, blindness, damaged or destroyed internal organs and/or genitalia and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. Thousands have been left with fistula, a complaint often misrepresented by male war correspondents unfamiliar with female anatomy. Broadly, fistula refers to any perforation in the tissues separating the vaginal canal from the urinary tract and/or the rectum. There are several different types of fistula, depending on where the holes occur, but the typical result is uncontrollable leakage through the vagina of urine or feces or both. In less violent times, fistula most commonly results from prolonged labor in childbirth when the fetus presses upon maternal tissues, cuts off blood supply and creates "dead" spots that give way. The younger, and therefore smaller, the mother, the greater the likelihood of prolonged labor and fistula. When women have access to adequate maternal care, fistula is easily prevented; but in the DRC it occurs in remote areas even in the best of times.

Denis Mukwege, the Congolese obstetrician/gynecologist heralded in the international press as a "savior" of rape victims, trained in fistula surgery before the war to treat such complications of childbirth; but in the past decade, as head of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province, he has surgically repaired thousands of fistulas, most of them caused by traumatic injury -- by brutal multiple rapes or by "foreign objects." He takes heart that in the past year or so, with a decline in militia activity in South Kivu, cases of traumatic fistula have declined as well. Yet among the surgeries he now performs for obstetric fistula, one in three patients is a teenage girl, a former captive "wife" who gave birth years ago and has been living in the forest, outcast, reeking of urine and shit, unaware that she might find help. So far, Panzi's patients have come from the vicinity of Bukavu; with the addition of a mobile unit to venture farther afield, Mukwege says, "we will find many more."

It's true that long before the war Congolese men treated women as lesser creatures, forbidden to plant money-making crops such as coffee and cotton -- forbidden even to eat nourishing foods like eggs and chicken. It's true that men routinely used force if necessary to compel women's labor and sexual service. It's true that Congolese men hold notions that promote rape: that having sex makes men stronger, for example, or that having sex with a virgin immunizes against AIDS. And it's true that child rape is traditionally considered an offense only against the father whose property is "spoiled," an offense resolved by "compromise" -- that is, a man-to-man payoff from the rapist to the victim's father. But all these cultural factors are insufficient to explain the frequency and unspeakable brutality of rape in the DRC in the past decade. Look at the war in the DRC from the outside and it's hard to see it as anything but a war against women. Just a few months ago, long after the war officially ended, Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert, former deputy UN force commander in the DRC, said, "It is more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier right now in eastern DRC."

It's so dangerous that a special session of the UN Security Council in June passed Resolution 1820 to demand "the immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians." The new resolution built on another landmark, Security Council Resolution 1325, which called for women's full participation at decision-making levels in conflict resolution and peace building (since passing in 2000 with much fanfare, Resolution 1325 has been broadly ignored). Resolution 1820 makes clear that widespread rape of women in war prevents the very participation in public life that Resolution 1325 identified years ago as essential to devising durable peace.

But rape has another dimension as well. As Resolution 1820 notes, during armed conflict "women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instill fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group."

What does that mean? It's often said that raping women is intended to "humiliate" men. (One Congolese man revealed the typical male evaluation of a woman's worth when he compared raping a man's wife to using his table without his permission.) But shaming or provoking enemy men is merely the beginning of a process meant to destroy the life of a whole community and/or "cleanse" an area. In eastern Congo, the process works like this: husbands cast out raped wives to fend for themselves, with or without their children. Or raped wives with no visible injuries conceal the fact of rape from their husbands and try to carry on. In either case, women are afraid to venture out to gather firewood, or fetch water, or cultivate their fields. For a time women band together to work the fields, until soldiers abduct a group en masse. Terrified, women begin to neglect their crops, or soldiers steal the produce; and families suffer malnourishment and hunger. With no surplus produce to sell at market, women have no money. They can't pay school fees for their children. Girls are afraid to go to school; boys drop out too. Some men leave the village, shamed by a wife's rape. Some men leave to join a militia, voluntarily or by force. Some men leave to look for work and money in cities far away. Many men never come back. Some outcast women leave too, for cities or truck stops where they take up "survival sex," selling the only asset they have left: their already dirtied bodies.

    The localized famine spreads. People weaken and grow ill but there is no money to pay for a visit to the hospital, and the trip may be too dangerous. (There are recorded cases of women raped on the way home from hospitals where they were treated for rape.) People begin to die of commonplace conditions like diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria, which they would have survived in better days. A study released early this year by the International Rescue Committee concluded that between August 1998 and April 2007, 5.4 million "excess deaths" occurred in the DRC, most of them from easily preventable and treatable diseases. Significantly, 2.1 million of those deaths occurred after the war formally ended in 2002.

    Cultural norms die too when women are raped in the presence of their families; when boys and men are forced to rape their own sisters, mothers or daughters, or are murdered on the spot for refusing; when boy soldiers are compelled to rape babies or grandmothers. So divisive is rape, and the shame and terror that attend it, that even in the best case the family may fall apart. The rare husband who stands by his raped wife finds that his brother's family no longer visits him, nor does his uncle's. The durability of extended family ties, the allegiance of kinfolk, the pleasant give and take of hospitality at the heart of Congolese life -- all fade and fracture. Fragments of families pack up and move to places they believe to be safer, leaving empty houses in the village, soon looted by soldiers. In this way the community falls apart. Those who leave are desperate, penniless, often ill with sexually transmitted infections. Those who stay are old, ill, infirm. Those who return find their property ransacked, their tools stolen, their crops and livestock plundered, and that their friends and neighbors have vanished. That's the result of rape as a tactic of war -- millions dead and a way of life gone. And along the roads, begging and threatening, are gangs of boys: orphans of war and unwanted offspring of rape who aspire to be soldiers.

    People like Fatuma and her family try to carry on, only to find that even when "peace" comes, sexual violence against women and girls continues. The habits of warfare carry over seamlessly into the "peace." And because rape was not acknowledged as a tactic of warfare before the passage of Resolution 1820, soldiers could (and still do) continue to rape civilians while complying with "peace accords" merely by not attacking each other. "Peace building" goes on, "power sharing" governments are formed and amnesty for ex-combatants is declared, even as the leaders in these negotiations continue to wage their shadowy war on women, the wedge of war against communities and cultures. The "durable peace" the UN seeks sinks in a slough of hypocrisy because men of affairs find misogyny so congenial and essential to the arrangements they make for the world.

    The number of men held accountable for crimes against women in the DRC is almost nil. One reckoning found that of 14,200 reported rapes between 2005 and 2007 in South Kivu province, where Fatuma's village lies, only 2 percent of rapists were "held accountable," whatever that means. A few men arrested, a few prosecuted perhaps, but those sentenced can be counted on one hand, and few actually stay in jail. A bribe does the trick. The failure to punish anyone for rape or torture gives everyone permission. In The Greatest Silence, Lisa Jackson's important film incontrovertibly documenting rape in the DRC, a soldier who laughingly admits to having raped and instigated gang rape many times (he calls it "making love") says that rape "just happens" in wartime, and that when the war is over he won't rape anymore. But why should he stop? The absence of punishment creates a culture of impunity in which those responsible for punishing crime become complicit with criminals. Many men speak of the culture of impunity not as a barbaric breakdown of justice but as today's way of life, a free pass that encourages civilians to take up practices popularized by soldiers. And as combatants are demobilized and reintegrated into civilian life, raped women meet their rapists in the street. For them the terror continues. One in ten of the patients Mukwege treats for traumatic fistula returns to Panzi Hospital, having been raped again. Fatuma's raped daughter, who married and had a child, was raped again two years ago, this time by six soldiers who beat her husband and forced him to watch.

    As for Fatuma, after her daughter was raped the first time, she went to a women's meeting called by a French humanitarian aid organization. There she learned that women could help rape survivors and fight back against the terror. She joined other local women to call a meeting in Kamanyola, and more than 1,000 women showed up. Muslim women had to drop out, grounded by their husbands, and Protestants went back to their church groups, leaving about 200 Catholic women to form the Commune des Femmes de Kamanyola (CFK), with Fatuma in the lead. GTZ, the international development arm of the German government, taught them to take rape survivors to the hospital within seventy-two hours for treatment that includes drugs to prevent STDs, HIV and pregnancy. For two years (2001-03), GTZ provided transport and medications, and CFK provided rape survivors.

    Then, after the peace accords were signed, came another wave of warfare -- and another wave of rape. Fatuma and the women of CFK broke the cultural silence and began to talk to survivors and their families about rape. Fatuma also began to travel to outlying communities to talk to women about how they could help survivors and hold their communities together. When the International Rescue Committee started to work in the area, in 2002, CFK applied for help. IRC specialists in gender-based violence taught them to give supportive counseling to rape survivors and told them about women's rights.

    To help Fatuma's group fund itself, IRC bought them a field and trained these experienced cultivators in some advanced farming techniques. In their first season the women produced three tons of maize. IRC bought them two more fields and taught them how to organize their activities and keep useful records. The women set up an office on the main road next door to a base of the FARDC, the national army, and began to talk to the commander about what his own soldiers were doing. They began to visit the homes of outcast rape survivors to explain to husbands and mothers-in-law why they must take raped women back. (The young husband of Fatuma's daughter, who stands by her, is an influential example for men.) They visit the fathers of raped girls and persuade them not to "compromise" with rapists but to prosecute them. They publicly denounce known rapists and help take cases to court, calling rapists and jurists to account. In a province where the justice system is a shambles, CFK has seen a few cases through to convictions. Periodically a delegation travels to the prison to make sure the convicted men are still there. Some, of course, have "escaped."

    At every step CFK runs up against old attitudes and new appetites for rape. Charlotte Siapata was tending her small field alone three years ago when two militiamen seized and raped her. Afraid to tell her husband, she turned to Fatuma for help. Fatuma sent her to the hospital and counseled her to stay in her home; and when her husband guessed the truth, Fatuma and others from CFK talked with him as well. Charlotte was now the "soldiers' wife," he said, and useless to him. He denied her money for food for herself and their two children. He refused to pay the children's fees, and they left school. He denied her clothing and shoes. He ordered her to leave the house. "After the rape," Charlotte says, "I could not greet anyone or pass before other people. I felt they could see my evil. Slowly I got over that because I learned from CFK that I was not the first. To be raped by gangs of men -- it is very normal for women. But still my husband chased me from the house and made me suffer. And the children too." At last Fatuma led a delegation from CFK and Charlotte's family to tell her husband that he had done enough; he must go to court, divorce her properly and allow her to take her children home to her parents' house. Charlotte says, "The power of CFK made him very afraid. He looked again and he could see me in a different way." Since then, the couple has reached an understanding and had another child. Charlotte believes that God worked through CFK to bring her back to life and restore her family happiness.

    Now a strong leader in CFK, Charlotte helps with the cases of young girls raped in recent weeks not by militiamen but by civilians in the community. A 12-year-old raped by her teacher. A 9-year-old raped by a young boy. A 7-year-old raped by a middle-aged man. An 11-year-old raped by her father. A 7-year-old raped by her pastor. This is something new in the community since the war, and the women of CFK struggle to understand it.

    CFK. If you pronounce the acronym in Congolese French with a slight Swahili accent, it sounds like Say-ev-ko--Save Co. Saving is what CFK does. It begins by saving rape survivors, but in effect it saves families, villages and the idea of civic life.

    But the women worry about the future. Can they sustain their work? They need maize mills to process their harvest into more profitable maize meal, yet no international NGO has funds to carry them this last step to self-sufficiency. Will the UN let them down too?

    The UN's largest peacekeeping force, MONUC, is charged with preventing armed conflict and protecting civilians in the DRC. Yet in eastern Congo its numbers are too few to patrol an area far larger than France and overrun by militias that -- despite repeated international agreements -- have never been disarmed. So it should be no surprise that war rages again just over the provincial border in North Kivu; there the national army tries to turn back the forces of Laurent Nkunda, who professes to protect Tutsis from Hutu génocidaires in a relentless reprise of the Rwandan genocide. In Rwanda 1 million people died under orders in three months in 1994; in the DRC 5 million have died in the continuation. As I write, the roads of North Kivu are filling with a quarter-million civilians in flight, with no place to go. Cholera threatens thousands camped in the rain outside the provincial capital. Reports tell of the massacre of civilian men of fighting age -- and once again the mass rape of women and girls.

    CFK is only one of many women's groups organized in the DRC, just one example of what women can do, with a little security and a little help from the international community, to counteract the centrifugal force of hundreds of thousands of "acts of sexual violence against civilians" and make way for that elusive durable peace.

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