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.”
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. Médecins Sans Frontières 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 assistance.
“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 point-blank 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 greed.
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 with 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 confronted 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 these abuses.”
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.