- - Tuesday, April 26, 2011

GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO | Eleven-year-old Donata tugged at her dark leopard-print shirt, squirming after she described how she had been raped the week before.

Her 9-year-old half sister, Vestina, had been raped at the same time, but she was more forthcoming. A local cowherd had caught her and her two sisters on their way home from the market. The third sister also was hospitalized, but she ran away because she was too hungry to stay for treatment.

“She left the hospital because there is no food,” Donata said. “We only get food in the evenings.”

The girls said their attacker had gone to prison. But activists say that is unlikely.

Rape in Congo is widespread and often systematic. Despite a few high-profile prosecutions this year, activists say, impunity for rape is common and soldiers and civilians continue to rape without fear of retribution.

The United Nations Children’s Fund says it treated 16,000 rape victims in Congo last year. About half were children.

Activists say rape in Congo rips apart lives and communities, drives the people further into poverty and continues to be a weapon in the war that has claimed more than 5 million lives since it began in 1996.

Dr. Endanda Zawadi cares for Donata and Vestina in a hospital in war-torn eastern Congo, where almost all of her patients are rape victims. She said about 80 percent of her patients report that soldiers from one of the region’s many competing militias attacked them.

Sometimes the attacks are random acts of violence, Dr. Zawadi said. But often, soldiers rape dozens or even hundreds of girls and women at a time as a deliberate act of war.

“They want to humiliate local people,” the doctor said. “It’s a way to show that they are powerful and they can control the whole region.”

‘Rape Capital of the World’

Many of the militias competing for power in eastern Congo have been fighting since 1996. After the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when about 1 million ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in 100 days by Hutu extremists, refugees flooded into neighboring countries.

About 2 million ethnic Hutus fled to Congo, and refugee camps in eastern Congo became home to militiamen and unprecedented amounts of foreign aid.

Already in a conflict-ridden region, eastern Congo communities began arming themselves against the growing power of the militias. Makeshift armies sprang up, and the fighting eventually drew six neighboring countries into what became known as “Africa’s First World War.”

The war technically ended with a 2003 peace agreement, and then again in 2008, when the government and rebel forces signed a power-sharing deal. But locals say the battles have only slowed. Militias continue to raid villages and compete for what are said to be trillions of dollars of worth of mineral wealth buried in Congolese soil.

Last year, Congo became known as the “Rape Capital of the World,” after Margot Wallstrom, the U.N.’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, called for an end to impunity for rapists. “Women have no rights if those who violate their rights go unpunished,” she said, according to the U.N. website.

Several men, including a prominent officer, have been prosecuted this year. Lt. Col. Mutuare Daniel Kibibi was the first officer convicted of ordering mass rapes. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in February after he was convicted of ordering and participating in the rapes of at least 62 women in the village of Fizi on New Year’s Day.

Nadine Lusi, a humanitarian worker with the Eastern Congo Initiative, one of Goma’s many aid organizations, said half of the village of Fizi was attacked that day, devastating the victims and the community. She witnessed locals, packed into the hot Baraka courtroom for the trial, riveted.

“Everyone would stand for hours, listening in silence,” she said at her home in Goma.

When the sentence was read, villagers were livid because Kibibi did not receive the death sentence that prosecutors sought. “When the guy was sentenced, the crowd screamed,” she said.

The next month, in another much-watched case, 11 officers were convicted of ordering and carrying out the rapes of 24 women in Katasomwa. Eight of the men were tried in absentia and were given life sentences. The remaining three - the ones who appeared in court - were given 15 years in prison.

Military campaign

Activists in eastern Congo say that while these convictions mark a positive step, militias continue to attack villages, looting and raping. Victims are women, girls, boys and sometimes even babies. The convictions affect only a tiny fraction of the perpetrators.

Dr. Ange Rose Valimamdi supervises the sexual violence program at Caritas in Goma, an organization that offers medical and psychological help for rape victims. She said about 10 percent of accused rapists are convicted, and the vast majority of rapes are never reported.

In the small wooden house that serves as headquarters, she named three Congolese villages that she knows are attacked by militias on monthly, weekly or even daily basis.

“When there are attacks on the villages,” she said, “the women are massively raped.”

The attacks often are part of a military campaign, she said, but, just as frequently, soldiers grab small groups of women as they work in the fields or gather wood.

Furaha, 25, said her rapists were men in uniform, but she doesn’t think the attack was an act of war. She and a friend were planting beans last May when two soldiers approached them.

“My friend ran away,” she said. “I fell down, and that’s when they took me.”

Services are available in Congo to those who have been raped, but most women suffer in silence, Dr. Valimamdi said. She estimates that aid organizations have the capacity to meet 80 percent of reporting victims’ medical and psychological needs.

But aid organizations and the world’s largest U.N. peacekeeping mission can do little to prevent the attacks, physically or legally, she added.

“They need justice,” she said. “They want to see people committing crimes brought to justice.”

‘Virginity is a precious thing’

Dr. Valimamdi said 5,000 women were raped in her region of North Kivu last year, 25 percent more than in 2009. This figure, she adds, likely represents a quarter to a third of the actual number of attacks. Women usually seek help only when they are seriously injured, pregnant or sick.

The doctor told tale after tale of women who have come to her organization in recent weeks after being raped and then cast out or beaten by humiliated husbands. “The husband doesn’t even want to see his wife after a rape,” she said.

Children who report rapes can suffer at the hands of society for the rest of their lives, Dr. Zawadi said. She said virginity is treasured in Congolese society, and raped girls permanently lose the respect of their communities.

“Virginity is a precious thing,” she said. “If she loses it, she loses a very important part of herself.”

For some women, the physical, psychological and social traumas are only a small part of the problem. Congo is one of the world’s poorest nations and home to more than 2 million internally displaced people, according to the U.N. Many displaced families have fled their homes several times.

Chantal, a 40-year-old rape victim, said her village has been virtually abandoned after repeated raids by a local militia. Most of the women have been raped, and most homes have been looted bare. Scattered in other villages, her former neighbors are now desperately poor and have no plans to go home until the fighting slows.

“Nowadays,” she said, “it is difficult to find anyone who even owns a plate to eat on.”

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