- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2010

An ongoing cycle of rape and exploitation has left in tatters the social fabric in Sierra Leone and Liberia and threatens to do the same in other parts of Africa, according to social workers based in the continent.

In an interview with The Washington Times on Monday, members of the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), a Minneapolis-based nonprofit, said such acts of aggression, besides traumatizing the victims, also have led to a spread in HIV/AIDS, fistula and unwanted babies.

Maki Katoh, CVT’s country director for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said drawn-out wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia and the accompanying abuse of human rights had caused the disintegration of the social fabric in those countries and it was likely that Congo would suffer a similar fate.

“The traditional support mechanism in Africa is that the extended family members are family members, the community is a community and once that breaks up it is very difficult to re-establish,” she said.

In Sierra Leone and Liberia, Ms. Katoh said, the people are hesitant to rely on their extended families, neighbors or communities to care for their children, as they did in the past.

“If the family continues to disintegrate, we won’t have a support system that would serve as a safety net for youngsters who are coming out of traumatic events,” she said.

Ms. Katoh and her colleagues — Simone van der Kaaden, CVT’s country director in Sierra Leone; and Alieu Sannoh, a former CVT country director in Congo — painted a grim picture of the state of human rights in Congo and Sierra Leone.

Ms. van der Kaaden said the 11-year war in Sierra Leone had taken a toll on the people’s trust in their families and community. “A huge percentage of Sierra Leone’s population doesn’t know what trust is,” she said.

The planned departure of a U.N. peacekeeping force from Congo has caused unease among social workers, who worry that the situation in that country could worsen.

Last week, members of the U.N. Security Council wrapped up a listening tour in Congo to examine options for the U.N. mission, whose mandate expires at the end of this month. United Nations Organization Mission in DR Congo (MONUC) was first deployed in 1999.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recommended in a recent report that the 20,000-strong MONUC force begin a drawdown of troops by June 30. The Congolese government has proposed a total withdrawal by Aug. 30, 2011.

Mr. Sannoh noted that, despite MONUC’s presence, the level of violence had not declined. “What about when they leave? What is going to happen?” he said.

Mr. Sannoh said the Congolese government must first improve the judicial system so perpetrators of crimes can be held accountable. “Until these measures are put in place, I don’t see any reason for MONUC to come out,” he added.

Ms. Katoh said her group had expressed these concerns to U.N. agencies in the hope that this will be raised at an appropriate level.

“[The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees] as well as other humanitarian organizations are leaving … at the moment the need … is enormous. There continues to be many, many traumatized [people] and yet attention is leaving as well,” Ms. Katoh said.

Ms. van der Kaaden said her group deals with victims of trafficking in Sierra Leone.

During the war, “many people were trafficked, they were forced into labor, many women were forced to become the wives of rebels or forced to become combatants,” she said.

Ms. van der Kaaden said many of these trafficked people were brought to Freetown from other parts of the country and now have no way to go home.

Many victims were children when they were first exploited and do not know who their parents are or where their homes were.

Ms. van der Kaaden said the families of these children are often too poor to afford other members and that the traumatic experiences of the survivors make it hard to have successful reunifications.

Many girls end up as commercial sex workers. “They see that as their only option,” said Ms. van der Kaaden.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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