Silence = Rape
While the world looks the
sexual violence spreads in the Congo.
by Jan Goodwin
The Nation magazine, March
Last May, 6-year-old Shashir was playing
outside her home near Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the
Congo (DRC), when armed militia appeared. The terrified child
was carried kicking and screaming into the bush. There, she was
pinned down and gangraped. Sexually savaged and bleeding from
multiple wounds, she lay there after the attack, how long no one
knows, but she was close to starving when finally found. Her attackers,
who'd disappeared back into the bush, wiped out her village as
effectively as a biblical plague of locusts.
"This little girl couldn't walk,
couldn't talk when she arrived here. Shashir had to be surgically
repaired. I don't know if she can be mentally repaired,"
says Faida Veronique, a 47-year-old cook at Doctors on Call for
Service (DOCS), a tented hospital in the eastern city of Goma,
who took in the brutalized child.
"Why do they rape a child?"
asks Marie-Madeleine Kisoni, a Congolese counselor who works with
raped women and children. "We don't understand. There's a
spirit of bestiality here now. I've seen 2- and 3-year-olds raped.
The rebels want to kill us, but it's more painful to kill the
In the Congo today, age is clearly no
protection from rape. A woman named Maria was 70 when the Interahamwe,
the Hutu militia that led Rwanda's 1994 genocide and now number
between 20,000 and, 30,000 of the estimated 140,000 rebels in
the DRC, came to her home. "They grabbed me, tied my legs
apart like a goat before slaughter, and then raped me, one after
the other," she told me. "Then they stuck sticks inside
me until I fainted." During the attack Maria's entire family-five
sons, three daughters and her husband-were murdered. "War
came. I just saw smoke and fire. Then my life and my health were
taken away," she says. The tiny septuagenarian with the sunken
eyes was left with a massive fistula where her bladder was torn,
causing permanent incontinence. She hid in the bush for three
years out of fear that the rebels might return, and out of shame
over her constantly soiled clothes. Yet Maria was one of the more
fortunate ones. She'd finally made it to a hospital. Two months
before we met; she had undergone reconstructive surgery. The outcome
is uncertain, however, and she still requires a catheter.
Rape has become a defining characteristic
of the five-year war in the DRC, says Anneke Van Woudenberg, the
Congo specialist for Human Rights Watch. So, too, has mutilation
of the victims. "Last year, I was stunned when a 30-year-old
woman in North Kivu had her lips and ears cut off and eyes gouged
after she was raped, so she couldn't identify
or testify against her attackers. Now, we are seeing more and
more such cases," she says. As the rebels constantly seek
new ways to terrorize, their barbarity becomes more frenzied.
I, too, was sickened by what I saw and
heard. In three decades of covering war, I had never before come
across the cases described to me by Congolese doctors, such as
gang-rape victims having their labia pierced and then padlocked.
"They usually die of massive infection," I was told.
Based on personal testimonies collected
by Human Rights Watch, it is estimated that as many as 30 percent
of rape victims are sexually tortured and mutilated during the
assaults, usually with spears, machetes, sticks or gun barrels
their vaginas. Increasingly, the trigger
is being pulled. About 40 percent of rape victims, usually the
younger ones, aged 8 to 19, are abducted and forced to become
sex slaves. "The country is in an utter state of lawlessness;
it's complete anarchy," says Woudenberg. "In this culture
of impunity, people know they can get away with anything. Every
armed group is equally culpable."
In the Congo, rape is a cheaper weapon
of war than bullets. Experts estimate that some 60 percent of
all combatants in the DRC are infected with HIV/AIDS. As women
rarely have access to expensive antiretroviral drugs, sexual assaults
all too often become automatic death sentences. Medecins Sans
Frontieres operates five health clinics offering antiretrovirals
in the conflict zone of northeastern DRC, but many women don't
know about the drugs and cannot travel safely to the centers.
Moreover, according to Helen O'Neill, a nurse who set up MSF's
sexual violence treatment program, such drugs must be taken within
forty-eight to seventy-two hours of the rape to prevent infection.
If a woman has been exposed to the virus, the treatment is 80
percent effective. But in the Congo, rape victims who are not
captive sex slaves must walk for days or weeks, often with massive
injuries, and risk new capture by roving rebel bands, before reaching
"So far, 30 percent of rape victims
being treated at our hospital are infected with HIV/AIDS,"
says Dr. Denis Mukwege, the French-trained medical director of
the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu. "And nearly 50 percent are
infected with venereal diseases like syphilis that greatly increase
their chances of contracting HIV."
Rape as a weapon of war is as old as war
itself. What has changed recently is that sexual violence is no
longer considered just a byproduct of conflict but is being viewed
as a war crime, says Jessica Neuwirth, president of Equality Now,
a New York-based international women's human rights organization.
"Rape as a violation of war was codified in the Geneva Convention,
but only now is it being taken seriously. But it is still not
effectively prosecuted' not proportional to the extent that sexual
violence takes place," she says. Armed forces now have a
legal obligation to stop rape and hold the offenders accountable.
"This is a major shift in consciousness. But it needs to
be followed by a major shift in conduct," says Neuwirth.
In the DRC, rape is used to terrorize,
humiliate and punish the enemy. Frequently husbands, fathers and
children are forced to watch and even participate. Women sexually
assaulted by members of one rebel organization are accused of
being the wives of that group and raped again as punishment when
a new militia takes over the area. "It's happened repeatedly
to the women of Shabunda in the far east of the Congo, every time
the region has changed hands," says Woudenberg.
Even the camps for internally displaced
people are not safe. The barbed-wire encampment in Bunia is home
to more than 14,000 people, but enemy militia infiltrate at night.
Shortly before I arrived, an 11 -year-old girl was dragged off
and gang-raped, a not uncommon occurrence. There are more than
3 million internally displaced people made homeless by the war,
many of whom have been forced to flee over and over again. UN
officers admit they have nowhere near the numbers they need to
be effective, or even to stay safe themselves.
The rebels are all around us here. We
don't feel secure and we've seen what these guys do to people,
especially to women and girls. Our own people have been killed,
after they were horribly tortured," a European UN major told
me. "The DRC is the size of Western Europe. We're supposed
to have 8,500 troops here, but we've only got 5,000! I was in
Bosnia, which is a fraction of the size of the Congo, and we had
68,000 NATO troops, and even that wasn't enough." Patrols
of MONUC, the UN's peacekeeping force in the DRC, have refused
to pick up wounded rape victims and escort them to medical care
when they were afraid they would be outnumbered by nearby rebels.
"People denounce the rapes but do
nothing to bring the rebels to justice," says Woudenberg.
"There isn't the political will, domestically or internationally,
to make it happen. I've never seen anything like this, when war
has become this horrible, and human life so undervalued."
Trevor Lowe, spokesperson for the UN World
Food Program, echoes this view. "The nature of sexual violence
in the DRC conflict is grotesque, completely abnormal," he
says. "Babies, children, women-nobody is being spared. For
every woman speaking out, there are hundreds who've not yet emerged
from the hell. Rape is so stigmatized in the DRC, and people are
afraid of reprisals from rebels. It's a complete and utter breakdown
of norms. Like Rwanda, only worse." Adds his colleague Christiane
Berthiaume, "Never before have we found as many victims of
rape in conflict situations as we are discovering in the DRC."
Yet where is the international media coverage?
The outrage? The demand for justice?
During the Rwanda genocide, rape as a
war crime received extensive international media coverage. Despite
initial reports of 250,000 women being sexually assaulted (a third
more than there were Tutsi women living in the country at the
time), evidence later suggested the total number was closer to
one-fifth of that.
In Bosnia, where the European Community
Investigative Mission concluded there were some 20,000 victims,
reports of systematic rape by the Serbs first made international
headlines one year into the war, and remained a major news focus
for the remaining three years of the conflict. It was only after
the Bosnia war, at the International Criminal Tribunal for the
former Yugoslavia in The Hague in 1997, that rape was first prosecuted
as a crime against humanity. A year later, at the Rwanda tribunal,
rape was found to be a form of genocide.
Everyone I spoke with in the DRC and in
the international UN, NGO and human rights community said they
believe the incidence of rape there greatly exceeds that in both
Bosnia and Rwanda, although it will be years before precise figures
are available. The systematic nature of the assaults has been
amply documented by the UN, humanitarian agencies and human rights
organizations. Yet for the most part the media look the other
way. As one editor of a national newspaper told me, "It's
just another horror in the horror that is Africa." One has
to ask, Does this kind of cynicism merely reflect public opinion
or help create it?
Says Lowe, "Look at the square footage
of Bosnia, a country that is dwarfed by the Congo, and look at
the enormous number of reporters who covered Bosnia compared to
the DRC. Clearly, Africa doesn't get the same coverage as Europe.
The reasons are racial, geopolitical interests, ease of access,
etc. The DRC conflict is an extremely dangerous one, which is
one reason the press is not there. Selling Africa, and being part
of an agency that does it all the time, is difficult. Africa is
clearly not a place where the major powers have a lot of interest.
The Congo is not on the geopolitical map. And the major-league
press follows that geopolitical map." There is also media
faddishness, what Lowe refers to as the CNN factor. "If CNN
shows up, then other reporters become interested," he says.
Another factor is the complexity of the
Congo conflict. In Rwanda, the media were able to present the
issues as clear-cut, with the good guys and the bad clearly defined.
"People consider the Congo conflict confusing; they label
it tribal or ethnic, which is totally wrong," says Woudenberg.
"The war in the DRC has been an international war, involving
a number of different countries."
Conduct a straw poll among Americans who
are usually well informed and few know of the vicious campaign
of sexual violence against women in the DRC. Many are even unaware
that the country is six years into a brutal conflict, in which
up to 4.7 million people have died-the highest number of fatalities
in any conflict since World War II. Or that six countries-Rwanda,
Burundi, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia-have been fighting
proxy wars in the DRC, and helping to plunder the country's tremendous
mineral wealth to fill their coffers.
The indifference, according to Woudenberg,
extends to the arms of government that should be most deeply concerned
with the DRC's crisis. "In November I tried to raise the
issue with the US Mission to the UN in New York, and they told
me fairly pointblank that they were aware rape was going on in
the Congo, and it was just not high on their priorities,"
she says. "I had a similar response from the US State Department."
Meanwhile, a UN Security Council panel
has cited eighty-five multinational corporations, including some
of the largest US companies in their fields, for their involvement
in the illegal exploitation of natural resources from the DRC.
The commerce in these "blood" minerals, such as coltan,
used in cell phones and laptops, cobalt, copper, gold, diamonds
and uranium (Congolese uranium was used in the atomic bombs dropped
on Hiroshima and Nagasaki), drives the conflict. The brutality
of the militias-the sexual slavery, transmission of HIV/ AIDS
through rape, cannibalism, slaughter and starvation, forced recruitment
of child soldiers-has routinely been employed to secure access
to mining sites or insure a supply of captive labor.
If that isn't enough to awaken the international
community's interest, one would think it would be of concern that
"blood" business practices also fund terrorism. Lebanese
diamond traders benefiting from illegal concessions in the Congo
have been tied to the Islamic extremist groups Amal and Hezbollah.
According to a UN report, the Lebanese traders, who operate licensed
diamond businesses in Antwerp, purchased diamonds from the DRC
worth $150 million in 2001 alone. Such linkage between African
rebel groups and global terrorist movements is not new. Sierra
Leone's Revolutionary United Front reportedly sold diamonds to
Al Qaeda, thus helping to finance both organizations.
The lobbies of the two luxury hotels in
Kinshasa, the DRC's capital, are full of elegant, $5,000-a-day
corporate lawyers from New York, London and Geneva, and scruffier
diamond dealers from Tel Aviv and Antwerp, as they while away
the hours waiting for government ministers and senior representatives
of armed groups to smooth their way. These institutional fortune-makers
are 1,800 miles away from the nightmares of northeastern Congo.
Yet they are not so far removed from the atrocities perpetrated
there. Rape is a crime of the war they are fueling with their
Today's conflict profiteers are not the
first to sponsor a campaign to ransack, rape, pillage and plunder
in the Congo. A century ago, Belgium's King Leopold II amassed
a fabulous fortune this way. During the monarch's genocidal reign
of terror, when villagers couldn't meet his impossibly high quotas
harvesting rubber or mining ore, their hands were amputated and
women were taken as slaves. By the time he was finished, an estimated
10 million Congolese, half the population, were dead.
Kinshasa's policy-makers, who serve in
a government wit] four vice presidents in a misguided attempt
to appease various, factions, now claim a new political beginning
after the so-called peace accord last year. But there is a "huge
and dangerous gap' between what is happening in Kinshasa and what
is going on in the northeast, says Irene Khan, Amnesty International's
secretary general. "In Kinshasa there is talk of peace and
political progress of regional harmony and democratic elections.
But while the newly appointed members of government are wrangling
for power and privilege in Kinshasa, in the Kivus and Ituri people
are con fronted daily with death, plunder and carnage. Mutilations
and massacres continue. Rape of women and girls has become a standard
tactic of warfare. It is absolutely outrageous that many of the
senior members of the government and the political parties they
represent are closely linked to the armed groups who are committing
At the time of King Leopold's predatory
rule, an international] Congo reform movement was formed with
the support of Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle and Joseph Conrad.
It was Conrad who described what was being done as "the vilest
scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience."
He would recognize what is happening now.
For the sake of 6-year-old Shashir and
tens of thousands of girls and women who have been infected with
HIV/AIDS, forcibly impregnated or so badly damaged internally
they will never be able to have children, and who are so psychologically
traumatized they may never recover, we can only hope that a similarly
prominent group of today's social commentators will find its conscience
and its voice soon.
Jan Goodwin, author of Price of Honor
(Plume), an analysis of how Islamic extremism is affecting the
lives of Muslim women, frequently writes about war and human rights.