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 gang-raped. 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 spirit instead.”
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 out 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 thrust into 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.”