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Kinshasa’s policy of inducting thousands of rebels into the ill-equipped and poorly trained army as a way of spreading peace may be making the situation worse, said U.N. officials and other Congo specialists.

The army, known by its French acronym FARDC, has been responsible for hundreds of cases of sexual violence, according to a July report by Human Rights Watch.

“The local civilians continue to suffer from widespread instances of rape by the Congolese forces,” said the report, which analyzed human rights violations in the Kivus. Researchers say the number of rapes has doubled and sometimes even tripled across the region since military operations began in January.

The culture of impunity and cruelty also has infected U.N. peacekeepers, about 16,000 of whom are deployed in eastern Congo with a mandate to protect civilians.

Beyond the law

Soldiers and civilian workers with the peacekeeping mission, known as MONUC, have been accused of sexual exploitation and abuse, although not gang rapes, as U.N. officials are quick to point out. Among the offenses: sex with “willing” minors and prostitutes, and trading food and shelter for sex.

Commanders acknowledge the discipline problems, but U.N. rules allow them only to send misbehaving troops home to be tried by their own governments. About 100 peacekeepers have been repatriated to their home countries, officials say.

The United Nations rarely publicizes the infractions because, diplomats say, there is no point in antagonizing countries that are physically or fiscally supportive of peacekeeping.

Congolese officials, U.N. peacekeepers, politicians, international aid workers and rape victims agree that the biggest problem is the lack of punishment. Congo’s undertrained, undermanned police force cannot catch the perpetrators, nor bring them to justice. The national army has similar problems.

Evidence is rarely gathered. Judges are bought cheaply. And courts are mired in backlog. In a country where more than 80 percent live below the poverty line, many women simply cannot afford the time or $40 court fee for a trial.

On top of that, women must be able to name and identify their attackers, which is often impossible if the rapist was a soldier or rebel. Victims also risk public shaming by merely discussing sex and violence.

Meanwhile, scores of women and children gather at places of refuge such as those run by Heal Africa, a Christian group that provides medical and social rehabilitation at seven centers in eastern Congo.

Five-year-old Antoinetta is among them. Joseph Ciza, director of Heal Africa’s children’s program, said Antoinetta likely would need surgery and plenty of psychological counseling to help her grow into a secure, loving and confident adult.

Children who survive traumatic sexual experiences often become oversexed themselves, he said. Boys are far more likely to become sexual predators, while girls who have been raped may turn to prostitution even before they have grown into their adult bodies.

“Rape by one man is one thing, but seven, eight, nine - that’s quite another,” said Virginie Mumbere, an administrator at Heal Africa. “It breaks your heart to see how many need so much help.”

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