Friday, January 04, 2008

The Congo rape epidemic

The Congo has a history of over a century of misery. From King Leopold and the Belgian rubber plantations to the current chaos in central Africa, the Congolese people have been victims of those with power who simply take what they want and do as they please. There are armies from a number of different countries and private militias roving the country raping, looting, enslaving and killing with no one to stop them. The central government is so corrupt and weak it cannot protect its citizens. Conscription of children by different armed factions has become a problem. An estimated 3.9 million people have died since 1998 from war related violence, hunger and disease.

It is an impoverished country wealthy with many natural resources (much of it mined by slave labor) such as coltan, diamonds, gold and cassiterite that are exported to the world market and the revenue is used to fuel the ongoing war. (For example, according to Johann Hari, Coltan is a metal that conducts heat unusually brilliantly. It is component in our cell phones, lap-tops, and our children’s Playstations. Eighty percent of the world’s supplies can be found in the Democratic Republic of Congo and is mined by men, women and children – many of them digging with nothing more than their hands and many of them slaves.)

The four dominant groups involved in the conflict in the eastern Congo are the Congolese government forces, insurgents loyal to renegade General Laurent Nkunda, Rwandan Hutu rebels, and the Mai-Mai militias. There are no alliances with each group fighting all the others and a helpless civilian population caught in the middle.

The breakdown of the social order war brings is no more evident than in the epidemic of rape of women and girls that is occurring. According to Anna Husarska in Slate:

The invisible side of the war in northeast Congo is the most painful one: a virtual epidemic of rape, and—if it is possible—worse forms of sexual assault, such as the brutal destruction of girls' and women's organs. Hospitals here in Goma and in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu, mend the victims as best they can. These are often complicated surgical operations that may not be successful the first time around. But there is a whole other trauma: the stigma, the rejection by family, the fear—often, alas, justified—of contracting HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases.

Whether rape occurs as a weapon of war or as a common crime makes little difference to the women who are attacked. Not only are they assaulted but their government has little to offer in the way of protection from being raped again. This from Reuters:
Intense fighting between government and militia forces in eastern Congo has led to a surge in rape by fighters from all sides, women and doctors say.

Renewed hostilities between the army and troops loyal to renegade Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda have stoked a volatile crucible of violence in Congo's North Kivu province, where traditional Mai Mai fighters and Rwandan Hutu militia also roam.

"I was leaving the market and I ran into FDLR on the road. They robbed me of everything and then four men raped me," Francoise Mwamasirika, a 45-year-old mother said of Rwandan Hutu rebels who include leaders of Rwanda's 1994 genocide against Tutsis.

Mwamasirika was stunned and barely able to speak when she arrived at a hospital in the South Kivu town of Minova.

"I won't go back," she said.

Sexual violence has escalated as hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee the safety of their homes -- around 400,000 people since August, when Nkunda quit a peace deal, bringing North Kivu's displaced population to 800,000.

Congo's government has called a peace summit for Sunday, but there is little optimism the chronic fighting will end soon.

Christophe Kimona, a surgeon at Goma's Heal Africa hospital, repairs the torn and damaged genitals of rape victims. Many can no longer control urination without surgery.

"The number of women we are seeing who have been raped is going up. We see an average of three or four rapes each day," Kimona said. "Those are just the ones who arrive at the hospital, we don't know how many are too ashamed to come."

Most rape victims say their attackers were armed groups of rebels or government soldiers.But Kimona said as rape becomes so common with the conflict, more civilians are committing rapes too, and the victims are often children.

Faura Ngabu Noela holds her 11-month-old daughter Chaunce close on her lap.

Villagers found Chaunce covered in grass, dirt and blood after she was raped by a 22-year-old man in her village, Noela said.

"I took her to the local hospital for surgery to repair her torn vagina, but it became infected and I had to bring her to Goma to have another operation and to heal that infection."

Now Noela says she is eager to go home.

"I just want to return to my other children because with the war, I'm not sure they are safe," Noela said.

There are laws in place to try rapists but victims often have little faith in the judicial system, said Marie-Antoinette Okimba, a senior field officer with U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.

"Many believe there is nothing that can be done -- especially if they were raped by military," Okimba said.

Okimba says some women are raped on the outskirts of refugee camps when they go looking for firewood.

Dr. Kimona says while he can repair many of the women physically, as long as the war continues, the women have little protection.

"We take care of them, but then you have people who leave and are raped again because society is not safe," Kimona said.


Tim said...

I'm currently working on a paper about rape as a component of genocide. It's interesting to see how these large acts of violence are often carried out in such deeply personal (and disturbing) ways, and yet hardly anyone winds up writing about it.

Comrade Kevin said...

This sort of behavior is so epidemic in Africa as a whole. The sad thing about it is that many people have accepted such behavior as a course of fact, thrown up their hands, and decided to focus their attention on matters where they feel they can better effective. I wouldn't begin to know how to combat these sorts of abuses.

Dennis Argall said...

There are some of us working on positive projects of relevance.


and write to these projects if you want to act positively. Remember, actions and words speak with different volume!