KIWANJA, Congo | Rape has been a tool of war throughout human history, but rarely in modern times have its practitioners been so cruel, indiscriminate or pervasive.
In eastern Congo, victims as young as 3 and as old as 67 are turning up in clinics with similar injuries from brutal sexual assaults.
“They dragged two of us into the bush,” 5-year-old Antoinetta Borauzema said in the softest of whispers as she recalled her recent abduction and rape by an armed man. Peeking out at visitors to a local shelter from behind her hands, she said, “He lay on top of me. It hurt.”
Doctors say girls and boys have survived horrific violence, attacks that will affect them physically and psychologically for the rest of their lives. Some rebel groups seek out children, raping them when they are alone in the fields or even snatching them from the arms of screaming parents, who are helpless to defend them.
The Washington Times spent six weeks in Congo earlier this year to investigate the causes of this epidemic, a human rights atrocity so grave that Hillary Rodham Clinton made Congo a major stop last month on her first trip to Africa as secretary of state.
In a country plagued by violence for decades - about 5 million people have died since 1998 from civil war or poverty-related diseases - rape has little to do with sexual pleasure and everything to do with power.
Gang rape has replaced looting and pillaging as the chosen weapon of social terror because it is more effective in destroying families, villages and tribes. Worse, the practice is spreading among demobilized soldiers and civilian men.
“It is more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier here,” said Christine Deschryver, Congo coordinator for V-Day, a U.S.-based campaign against sexual violence. “It is the impunity of soldiers and former soldiers who know they will not be punished.”
In this mineral-rich country - a former Belgian colony that has rarely known peace - the central government in Kinshasa rules in many places in name only. Congo’s eastern provinces have been particularly lawless, overrun by fighters who surged into the country as neighboring Rwanda’s genocide ended more than a decade ago.
Government forces have made a concerted effort in the past year to regain control of the east, but this has had the perverse effect of escalating the internal displacement of people and making them more vulnerable to rape and other violence.
Throughout the area, women are now afraid to work in the fields or gather firewood from the jungle - even in a group. Women and girls have been carried away to be used as sex slaves by soldiers or forced to be “bush wives” for officers.
Ugenimana Dometile, 65, has rheumy eyes and a deeply wrinkled face. In a country where life expectancy is just 48, she should be commanding respect in her community. Instead, she was raped by two militiamen and left for dead. “They broke into our house and looted everything. I tried to run away, but I fell and so they caught me,” she said. She looked away and shrugged her bony shoulders ever so slowly.
Interviewed at a shelter where she has come to regain her strength and undergo surgery, she mostly sits on the front porch or looks after abandoned children who are the unwanted results of rapes.