13 Jun 2006
Some women of the Democratic Republic Of Congo have been subjected to some of the most despicable forms of sexual violence in human history. The (sexual violence) news that has been coming out of Congo for a couple of years has been unbelievably shocking. It makes anybody reporting on the topic to tend to exercise some restrain and self-censorship out of respect for the dignity of the human body. Congo has been soaked in a bloody civil conflict that has claimed between 2million and 4million lives and has created a fertile ground for rape crimes to be committed. .
I think the easiest way to begin appreciating the pervasive nature of the problem is by sampling some individual stories.
“The attack happened at night and we were forced to flee into the bush. Four men took me. They all raped me. At that time I was nine months pregnant. They gang-raped me and pushed sticks up my vagina- that’s when my baby died- they said it was better than killing me.” A victim narrated this to Jackie Martens in a story published by the BBC in January 2004.
“The story of Henriette Nyota, 28, goes back three years, (writes Jeff Koinange of CNN) when she was gang raped and her husband and four children were forced to watch. The soldiers then disemboweled her spouse and raped her again, along with her 8- and 10-year-old daughters- - for three days”.
Jan Goodwin of The Nation used the case of a 70-year woman to illustrate that “age is no protection from rape” in the Congo. The victim narrated her experience in the hands of the Hutu militias that fled Rwanda into Congo after the genocide in that county. “They grabbed me, tied my legs apart like a goat before slaughter and then raped me one after another. Then they stuck sticks into me until I fainted”. During that time, her entire family comprising 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 added.
These are samples of more than 50,000 chilling individual stories that can be recounted by women that have suffered from extreme violence and unimaginable humiliation in the hands of all the armed groups that have turned Eastern Congo into a lawless hell. In October 2004, Amnesty International had reported that fighters in DR Congo have raped at least 40.000 women in the past 6years. In DR Congo, rape is employed as a weapon of war. The brutality, the pervasiveness and the systematic nature of the crimes seem to have no parallel in human history. Husbands are tied and their wives and children are gang-raped in front of the whole family. Sharp objects are sometimes inserted into their vagina. In extreme cases guns are fired into the vagina.
Many of the rape victims suffer from vesicovaginal fistula (a condition in which urine continually leaks from the bladder into the vagina) as a result of injury sustained during rape or due to the insertion of objects into the vagina. Some of the lucky victims that manage to see a doctor may be treated by surgical procedure. The others have to endure pain and shame as they move about with the stench of leaking urine. Seeing a doctor in a country where many qualified health workers have fled from war and poverty to foreign lands is not an easy matter. The rape victims that do not suffer from vesicovaginal fistula have other worries to occupy them. Unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and rejection by the community are just some of the problems they face. Between May and October 2003, 24% of the rape victims treated by Dr Ahuka (surgeon in Goma, Eastern DR Congo) were HIV positive. CNN reported the case of 19-year old Nzigire that was used by soldiers as a sex slave. She reacted to her plight and that of her baby (product of rape) like this; “I sometimes feel like killing myself and my daughter. I look at her and all I see is hate. I look at myself and all I see is misery”. The women that suffer most are those rape victims that have been rejected by their spouses and in some cases ostracized by their communities. It is a cultural taboo in some communities for a married woman to have sex with someone other than her husband even if she was forced to do so.
The annoying aspect of these crimes is that more than 99% of these murderous rapists have never been held accountable for their heinous deeds. The other issue is the involvement of members of the Congolese National Army (FARDC) in the crimes. On June 9, the UN News service reported that 6 soldiers of the FARDC have been sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labor for rape. When those that are to protect the citizens instead use their guns to prey on the very people they are supposed to protect, it becomes clear that the situation DR Congo is really dire.
The origin of the mess in Congo can be traced to two events. After the 1994 massacre of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in neighboring Rwanda, hundreds of thousands of Hutus fled into eastern Congo for fear of reprisals from the victorious Tutsis. Shortly afterwards, Desire Kabila (late father of current Congolese president) invaded DR Congo with the aid of Rwandan Tutsis and swept away the tottering regime of dictator Sesse Seko Mobutu. An attempt by the Rwandans to use Kabila as a puppet to control DR Congo fell apart in acrimony. The Rwandans were ordered out of Congo but they decided to hole up in Eastern Congo where they ‘created’ their own puppet rebel groups and also aided former Mobutu loyalists wishing to settle scores with Kabila. The civil war that broke out expanded to involve soldiers from at least five countries including Uganda, Burundi, Zimbabwe. Most of these soldiers came in to profit from the spoils of war as eastern Congo is very rich in mineral resources. Desire Kabila was assassinated and his son (current president) Joseph Kabila inherited a large inefficient country with an army that lacks discipline. Congo, thus had a plethora of armed groups roaming the eastern part of the country killing, burning houses, stealing minerals and preying on women.
Officially the civil war came to an end in 2003 and a transitional government was put in place but the raping of women is still ongoing. By the end of July a political process involving elections will commence with the hope that a government that can protect the citizens and ensure the rule of law will emerge. The only way that the suffering women of Congo cannot be forgotten is by constantly reminding those seeking political office in that country that they have and obligation to find and prosecute all those responsible for their plight if and when they become legitimate leaders.
Njei Moses Timah