In wartime, the crime of rape is not a new phenomenon; but the situation in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo has no comparison. Many reports have been written calling with urgency for national and international action to end the rape pandemic in eastern Congo, but the fact is that the situation continues to worsen. Jeffery Gettleman in his article Rape Epidemic Raises Trauma of Congo War in New York Times October 7, 2007 reports that “Every day, 10 new women and girls who have been raped show up at his hospital (refereeing to Panzi hospital in Bukavu). Many have been sadistically attacked from the inside out, butchered by bayonets and assaulted with chunks of woods, that their reproductive and genital systems are beyond repair.” Pretending to listen is not listening at all. How much evidence does the world need for immediate, imperative and unconditional action?
The victims are many
Since the war began in 1996, no one knows the exact number of rape cases in the DRC. Often, they are underreported either for lack of accurate reporting or for embarrassment of the victims who do not wish to have their story known. Because of the worsening situation in eastern DRC, we are now hearing the stories of some survivors who have come forward, but we do not know the stories of those who were killed after being raped, those who are silent because they have no one to turn to, those who are afraid of rejection or retaliation by their victimizers, those who are silenced for reasons that they only know, or those who are still being held hostage. In the DRC, the United Nations reported 27,000 cases of rape in 2006 and UNICEF reported 12,867 between May 2006-May 2007. Many of the victims test positive for sexually transmitted diseases, among them HIV/AIDS.
Who are the offenders?
The offenders are the Congolese army, internal militia groups (which, as of today are about 47 in the north and south Kivu provinces) and foreign rebel groups operating on Congolese territory. For the residents of Rugari, Rumangabo Ntamugenga, and the surrounding areas it is not the first time women have had to face the Congolese army on rape issues. In 1985, the former president Mobutu Sesse-Seko sent many soldiers to the Rumangabo military base who had just came from the war in Chad. Women were not safe anywhere until the men and women, young and old, rose as one in different communities and took justice into their hands to resist an army that had become a gang of bandits. While this solution tends to perpetuate the cycle of violence, it was all the community could do at the time to stop the offenders.
Among the foreign rebel groups, lets take the example of the Hutu of the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR). They kidnap women not only for their sexual desires, but also because they want to have children who will continue the long war against the Tutsi regime of Rwanda – to whom they lost military and political power in 1994. Children are often used as spies or sent to markets in addition to teaching them the methods of war. This is the reason why, even if a woman with their child escapes, the Rwandan Hutu rebels want at least the child back. Consequently, the woman and the child have to live in hiding which sometimes results in retaliation against the families or the village where the woman was kidnapped.
A social challenge.
Reports of rape in eastern Congo have raised questions as to why some victims are abandoned by their families, isolated in the village, or neglected after they are raped. In a society where a child out of wedlock is a disgrace, it is difficult to face the reality of women bearing children of their enemies. What has not been mentioned in reports is that the whole society is an indirect victim of rape and needs also to recover, heal and most importantly find ways to address this new challenge. The presence of a child of the enemy is a constant reminder to the women of the long hours, days, weeks or months of being gang raped and it is a reminder to the whole society of the many people their enemies killed, the things they looted and the continuous struggle to defeat them. The Congolese people have tried to protect their mothers, wives, sons and daughters, but those who rape them have circumvented that protection. Many have been martyrs, believing that no one should rape their loved ones. We rarely take ‘no’ as an answer in fighting for the things we believe in, but when it happens, we are hurt, enraged and ready to fight back. But at the local, provincial and national government levels, the issue of rape has not been effectively addressed. There is neither a plan for healthcare nor a justice system to prosecute, protect, and pave the way for social reconciliation.
Rape no more
Rape is never acceptable, but in times of war it is a particularly vicious act, used as a weapon by the perpetrators. We learn about women who delivered sex services to Japanese soldiers in World War II, wartime rape in Berlin in 1945, in Yugoslavia in 1992-1993, in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1994, in the Balkans in 1993, in Rwanda in 1994, in Sudan/Darfur and Congo to this day, and the list continues. We must stand up and say: rape no more, at any time. AFJN believes it is time to come together to take action for an immediate solution. Please visit the AFJN website and sign our petition to the US government to do more for the peace process in the D.R. Congo. Peace will not only mitigate the instances of rape in Congo, but will also allow the recovery and healing process from all war trauma to begin.
By Bahati Ntama Jacques