- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 8, 2010

JOHANNESBURG | Congolese community leaders said they begged local U.N. officials and army commanders to protect villagers days before rebels gang-raped scores of people, from a month-old baby boy to a 110-year-old great-great-grandmother.

The rapes occurred in and around Luvungi, a village of about 2,200 people that is a half-hour drive from a U.N. peacekeepers’ camp and a 90-minute ride from Walikale, a major mining center and base for hundreds of Congolese troops.

The number of people treated for rape in the July 30 to Aug. 4 attacks now stands at 242 — a high number even for eastern Congo, where rape has become a daily hazard. The rebels occupied the area for more than four days until they withdrew voluntarily.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has declared his outrage — survivors say they were attacked by between two and six fighters and raped in front of their husbands and children. Mr. Ban has sent his assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping, Atul Khare, to investigate the alleged lack of action from the U.N. mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Many question why the peacekeepers are not fulfilling their primary mandate, the strongest yet given to any U.N. force, which allows them to use force to protect civilians, and especially women and children. The U.N. says it passed through Luvungi, but villagers did not say anything about the rebels.

Charles Masudi Kisa said his Walikale Civil Association first sounded the alarm on July 25, meeting with Congolese army and local authorities to say that the withdrawal of soldiers from several outposts was putting people in danger of attacks from rebels.

The military had abandoned every post from Luvungi to just outside Walikale, for reasons that were not clear, he said.

Mr. Masudi said that on July 29, acting on information from motorcycle taxi drivers, he warned the U.N. civil affairs bureau in Walikale, the army and the local administration that rebels were moving in on Luvungi.

“Again, we begged them to secure the population of Luvungi and told them that these people were in danger,” he said.

Freddy Zanga, secretary of the association Mr. Masudi leads, confirmed his account.

When Luvungi was occupied on July 30, Mr. Masudi heard from truck drivers forced to turn back and passed information on to officials in the same offices. That same day, the United Nations sent text and e-mail messages to aid workers warning them to be aware that armed perpetrators were in the area, much of it dense forest that provides convenient cover for fighters.

On Aug. 1, Mr. Masudi said, his group heard from some raped women who had escaped and reported that scores of rebels had overrun the area.

Roger Meece, the U.N. mission chief in Congo, says a Congolese army patrol moved through the area on Aug. 2, apparently removed a rebel roadblock, exchanged fire with some fighters, and got information suggesting “a dramatic decrease” in rebel and militia activity.

In fact, between 200 and 400 rebels were thought to be occupying villages alongside the road and into the interior, according to reports from survivors. The U.N. says there are 80 peacekeepers at its Kibua camp near Luvungi.

Also on Aug. 2, Indian peacekeepers accompanied some commercial vehicles to protect them from the rebel roadblock and stopped in Luvungi.

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