- - Wednesday, June 1, 2011

GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO — In early April, when 14-year-old Amina said her rapist had been arrested and would stand trial, the reporter interviewing her kept silent.

Congolese journalist Jack Kahorha later explained: Someone must have lied to Amina to make her feel safe. When rapists are arrested, he said, they usually get out of jail within a few days.

Almost two months after the interview, Amina sat on a metal cot with her 3-day-old son, wincing in pain after giving birth by caesarean section. Lawyers have visited her, and she expects to testify at the trial of the man who impregnated her in August when he took her virginity.

“I cannot be afraid again,” she said.

In a country known as the “rape capital of the world,” Amina is not alone wanting justice. Although a study shows staggering amounts of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, many locals say stepped-up efforts to prosecute and prevent rape slowly are starting to make a difference.

However, they add, as long as warring militias remain outside the law and families do not report rape at home, Congolese women, children and men will continue to be victims of sexual violence.

Gilbert Kasereka, a Congolese lawyer and victims rights advocate, said high-profile convictions and educational programs for judges have made the first few months of 2011 a turning point in the fight against sexual violence. Until recently, he said, rapists almost always went unpunished.

A study published in the June issue of the American Journal of Public Health shows that in 2007, almost 2 million women reported being raped during their lifetimes, a rate of 48 per hour.

“There has been an evolution,” Mr. Kasereka said. “Judges are realizing that rapists are destroying communities.”

Other activists are less optimistic.

Jason Luneno, president of the civil society in the eastern province of North Kivu, said little has been done to enforce a 2006 law that sentences rapists to up to 20 years in prison.

“The government doesn’t control the whole country,” he said. “There is no government and no administration, so sexual violence has become normal.”

Even in government-controlled areas, Mr. Kasereka said, many judges assume that rape victims are liars and the vast majority of cases do not go to trial.

In regions such as remote, mineral-rich and war-torn Walikale, he added, victims must pay for air transportation to attend court proceedings and to testify. Most victims from Walikale cannot afford to make the trip. In a country where 80 percent of the people live on less than $2 a day, Mr. Kasereka said, requiring a victim to have cash to seek justice fosters an atmosphere of hopelessness.

“Victims say, ‘Let’s just die here. The government has accepted that we will die in the countryside,’ ” he said.

Soldiers facing trial

A few well-publicized cases this year, however, may have inspired more victims to come forward and deterred potential rapists, said Dr. Guylain Mvuama, who heads a Goma hospital that specializes in treating victims of sexual violence. He said it could be a coincidence, but his hospital is receiving 50 percent fewer rape victims a month than this time last year.

In February, Lt. Col. Mutuare Daniel Kibibi was the first Congolese army officer convicted of ordering and participating in mass rapes. He and three other officers were sentenced to 20 years in prison in February after they were found guilty of ordering and participating in the rapes of at least 62 women in the village of Fizi on New Year’s Day.

In March, 11 others were convicted of mass rape. Three officers were sentenced to 20 years in prison each, while eight soldiers were tried in absentia and sentenced to life in prison on charges that included rape, looting and burning homes.

“This sends a strong signal to all perpetrators of acts of sexual violence that no military commander is beyond the law, including members of a national army,” said Margot Wallstrom, the U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict regions.

Many soldiers in Congo, however, are not a part of the regular army and live outside the law. Rebel groups and other armed militias control 80 percent of the valuable, remote mining areas in North Kivu in Eastern Congo, army Col. Christophe Mputu Mpende said.

While the trials have reduced rape involving the national army, the courts have had little effect on the behavior of militias and rebel groups that operate from deep within the Congolese jungle.

“Most rapes are committed far from towns or villages,” he said in his Goma office. “They cannot get exact statistics.”

The colonel also said more than half of all rapes in Congo are committed by civilians. Last year, a study commissioned by the international aid organization Oxfam showed that rapes committed by civilians increased by 17 times from 2004 to 2008, making it clear that the problem is not just a byproduct of the ongoing conflict.

A never-ending conflict

Eastern Congo has been unofficially or officially at war since the late 1990s, when civil war and genocide forced millions of people to flee neighboring Rwanda. About 2 million people relocated to Congo - then called Zaire - and many formed armed groups to retake power in Rwanda.

Militias soon sprang from villages. When six other nations joined, the conflict exploded into the bloodiest war since World War II. Almost 5.5 million people were killed, and millions were displaced from 1998 to 2008 when the conflict officially ended with a power-sharing agreement. But the fighting has never stopped.

Mawazo, a 50-year-old mother of 10, said villagers will never be safe as long as the fighting continues, despite efforts to educate people about the importance of reporting rapes and seeking treatment.

About a year ago, while searching for food in the forest, rebel soldiers attacked Mawazo. They raped her and left her alone in the woods. Rebel soldiers, she said, have no reason to care about Congolese laws.

“I won’t go back to my village,” she said in a Goma hospital operated by HEAL Africa, one of the city’s many aid organizations. “The rebels are still in the village. If they meet me again in the field, this time maybe they will kill me.”

Human rights workers have long railed against the “atmosphere of impunity” in Congo that continues to allow most rapists to avoid prosecution or jail time. The vast majority of cases are never reported because women are ashamed about being raped or fear being cast aside by angry husbands. About 90 percent of rape suspects go free even when charges are filed, activists say.

However, Antoine Sole Chizungu, a defense lawyer who represents men accused of rape, insisted that the crime has always been a serious offense in Congo. He said the massive rape rate is a result of poverty, war, ignorance and fear.

Some of his clients, he added, did not know what they were doing was wrong. Raised in remote villages, some defendants were told that raping a virgin could clean their blood of diseases such as AIDS. Impoverished patients find no help at clinics, if they have access to modern medicine at all, he said.

“Most of the people who abuse babies or teenagers sexually believe that if they do this, their blood will be clean like [the victims’ blood],” he said.

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