Congo’s shame: Rape used as tool of war

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History of terror

Rape has a long and terrible history in Congo. In the 18th century, slavers used Congolese women for pleasure on the way to the slave ships. Belgian colonists continued the practice and brought other horrible punishments, such as flaying naked Congolese with leather straps, killing children before their parents’ eyes and forcing slaves to carry heavy loads until they dropped exhausted by the sides of roads.

Congo has not fared much better since independence in 1960. Longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who had the country renamed Zaire, allowed his soldiers plenty of latitude in enforcing his 32-year rule.

The aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide was particularly damaging to the country. Ethnic Tutsi and Hutu militias - members of the same ethnic groups that had violently clashed in Rwanda - crossed into North and South Kivu, eastern Congo’s lush lake region, and continued their carnage. Women again suffered as soldiers and militiamen roamed the region unchecked.

As Mobutu lay dying in 1997, Rwanda invaded to crush extremist Hutu militias. That invasion strengthened anti-Mobutu Congolese militias, who raced through the countryside like a spear through fish, taking food, women and commodities as they advanced on Kinshasa.

Meeting little resistance from Mobutu’s army, they captured the capital, installed Laurent Kabila as president and renamed the country Congo.

Congo then became a vast battlefield for a proxy war in which Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe backed Mr. Kabila, while Rwanda and Uganda backed militias that had turned against Mr. Kabila. Mr. Kabila was assassinated in 2001 and replaced by his son, Joseph. The conflict, often called Africa’s world war, resulted in 3 million deaths during a five-year period that was to have ended with a peace deal in 2003.

Today’s fighting, however, represents a continuation of that conflict, with rival militias and government troops battling for control of the mineral-rich east.

The rape epidemic has been compounded in some ways by international efforts to aid the hundreds of thousands of Congolese displaced by the fighting. Since January, 1.7 million Kivu civilians have been displaced, according to the United Nations. Many wind up in camps where the rapes continue.

Although no one knows for sure how many in this country of 67 million are rape victims, the United Nations estimates that 200,000 women have been raped in the past decade and that 40 women a day are raped in South Kivu alone.

Doctors and relief workers say the chronic need for treatment of all kinds far exceeds their capacity to help.

Victims blamed

The damage done to the victims is far more than physical. In a classic blame-the-victim syndrome, many Congolese men shun their wives for being raped, saying they are obliged to send them away because the women have been “unfaithful.” Many rape victims are afraid to return to their villages for fear of being shunned or expelled, a near death sentence in a culture that strongly favors family.

“Rape is not about sex, but power, terror. And that is exactly how it’s being used in the Congo,” said New York filmmaker Lisa F. Jackson, whose graphic and grueling 2008 documentary about Congo’s sexual violence, “The Greatest Silence,” is to be broadcast on Congolese television.

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