Victims' Rights Caucus

Articles

Congo faces rape epidemic--worst sexual assault rate in the world.


October 7, 2007

Rape Epidemic Raises Trauma of CongoWar

By Jeffrey Gettleman

BUKAVU,CongoDenis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist, cannot bear to listen to the stories his patients tell him anymore.

Every day, 10 new women and girls who have been raped show up at his hospital. Many have been so sadistically attacked from the inside out, butchered by bayonets and assaulted with chunks of wood, that their reproductive and digestive systems are beyond repair.

We dont know why these rapes are happening, but one thing is clear, said Dr. Mukwege, who works inSouthKivuProvince, the epicenter ofCongos rape epidemic. They are done to destroy women.

Eastern Congois going through another one of its convulsions of violence, and this time it seems that women are being systematically attacked on a scale never before seen here. According to the United Nations, 27,000 sexual assaults were reported in 2006 inSouthKivuProvincealone, and that may be just a fraction of the total number across the country.

The sexual violence inCongois the worst in the world, said John Holmes, the United Nations under secretary general for humanitarian affairs. The sheer numbers, the wholesale brutality, the culture of impunity its appalling.

The days of chaos inCongowere supposed to be over. Last year, this country of 66 million people held a historic election that cost $500 million and was intended to end Congos various wars and rebellions and its tradition of epically bad government.

But the elections have not unified the country or significantly strengthened the Congolese governments hand to deal with renegade forces, many of them from outside the country. The justice system and the military still barely function, and United Nations officials say Congolese government troops are among the worst offenders when it comes to rape. Large swaths of the country, especially in the east, remain authority-free zones where civilians are at the mercy of heavily armed groups who have made warfare a livelihood and survive by raiding villages and abducting women for ransom.

According to victims, one of the newest groups to emerge is called the Rastas, a mysterious gang of dreadlocked fugitives who live deep in the forest, wear shiny tracksuits and Los Angeles Lakers jerseys and are notorious for burning babies, kidnapping women and literally chopping up anybody who gets in their way.

United Nations officials said the so-called Rastas were once part of the Hutu militias who fledRwandaafter committing genocide there in 1994, but now it seems they have split off on their own and specialize in freelance cruelty.

Honorata Barinjibanwa, an 18-year-old woman with high cheekbones and downcast eyes, said she was kidnapped from a village that the Rastas raided in April and kept as a sex slave until August. Most of that time she was tied to a tree, and she still has rope marks ringing her delicate neck. The men would untie her for a few hours each day to gang-rape her, she said.

Im weak, Im angry, and I dont know how to restart my life, she said fromPanziHospitalin Bukavu, where she was taken after her captors freed her.

She is also pregnant.

While rape has always been a weapon of war, researchers say they fear thatCongos problem has metastasized into a wider social phenomenon.

Its gone beyond the conflict, said Alexandra Bilak, who has studied various armed groups around Bukavu, on the shores ofLake Kivu. She said that the number of women abused and even killed by their husbands seemed to be going up and that brutality toward women had become almost normal.

Malteser International, a European aid organization that runs health clinics in easternCongo, estimates that it will treat 8,000 sexual violence cases this year, compared with 6,338 last year. The organization said that in one tow