”This thing of rape,” said Colonel Edmond Ngarambe, shifting uneasily on his wooden bench high in the mountains of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, ”I can’t deny that happens. We are human beings. But it’s not just us. The Mai Mai, the government soldiers who are not paid, the Rastas do the same thing. And some people sent by our enemies do it to cause anger against us.”
The colonel’s words lay bare a brutal reality about the wretched use of rape as an instrument of war in the eastern DRC.
The growing numbers of women who arrive daily at hospitals as a fresh bout of fighting engulfs the region often have no idea whether their attackers were from the Mai Mai traditional militia, renegade Tutsi soldiers or a group of deserters from an array of armed groups who wear dreadlocks, call themselves the Rastas and specialise in particularly brutal treatment of their victims.
Ngarambe’s own men in the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which evolved out of the army and militia that fled into the DRC after leading the 1994 genocide of Rwanda’s Tutsis, have been named by human rights groups as among the worst offenders in the onslaught against women, hundreds of thousands of whom have been raped over the past decade of conflict.
Rape has been used to terrorise and punish civilians in the DRC who support the ”wrong side”, and it is perhaps no coincidence that it was also a tool of genocide in the mass murder of the Tutsis. Sexual violence is now so widespread that the medical aid charity MÃ©decins sans FrontiÃƒÂ¨res (MSF) says that 75% of all the rape cases it deals with worldwide are in the eastern DRC. Darfur is a distant second.
”The two places don’t compare,” said Augustin Augier, the MSF administrator at Rutshuru hospital, who was previously posted to Darfur. ”There you have a lot of people in camps but here the insecurity is so much worse.”
The numbers of women seeking treatment for rape at the hospital has risen as a conflict that has already left four million dead over the past decade has reignited.
Human rights groups describe gang rapes as commonplace and often accompanied by ”barbaric” acts of torture, with victims beaten with clubs, cut with knives or sexually assaulted with guns. Many young women have been abducted into sexual slavery.
The largest United Nations peacekeeping force in the world of more than 17Ã‚Â 000 troops has done little to stop it. Instead, the primary attempt to discourage sexual violence appears on hand-painted murals on walls across the region telling men that it is not manly to rape.
Some of the victims make their way to Rutshuru hospital where they are met by Esparance Kiakimwa (29), a nurse in its sexual violence unit.
”We treat women and children from many places, sometimes very far. Many others can’t get the courage to walk, so far so those who arrive often tell us that all the women in the village were raped but they are the only ones to make it to the hospital. The numbers that make it are only a small part of the total,” she said.
”They arrive on the back of motorbikes and in cars but sometimes on foot, walking for days because they don’t have any money for transport. They have all kinds of injuries like knife cuts and damage to the vagina. It’s worse for the young girls. We have to take them immediately to surgery.”
Many of the women do not make it to hospital within the 72 hours after the rape in which antiretroviral drugs to reduce the possibility of contracting HIV are most effective. Four percent of those who seek treatment are men.
One woman who sought treatment at the hospital tells how she hasn’t dared sleep in her own home for months. ”Every woman in the village leaves at night to sleep in the bush because of the raping. They still loot, but if they can’t find us they can’t rape us,” she said.
Augier said that women in many villages dare not sleep in their own homes. Others are too afraid even to go to the outskirts of their communities to tend to crops because so many women have been seized in the fields, contributing to the rise in malnutrition and disease that has claimed so many lives.
”People live in fear, so they live in the bush. They expose themselves to diseases: malaria, gastro-enteritis. It’s cold at night. All of this claims lives,” he said.
Human Rights Watch said in a recent report that some armed groups appear to regard rape as a battle tactic aimed at breaking civilian support for rivals or as a means of punishing other ethnic groups.
”In some cases soldiers or combatants raped women and girls as young as five years old as part of a more general attack in which they killed and injured civilians and looted and destroyed property. Their intent was to terrorise communities into accepting their control or to punish them for real or supposed links to opposing forces,” it said.
The FDLR is among the primary culprits. But the forces of Laurent Nkunda, a renegade Tutsi general who broke away from the Congolese army to fight the FDLR, have also been accused of systematic rape of Hutu women. So too have the Mai Mai.
Immaculee Birhaheka, head of a women’s rights group in Goma, Paif, said those women who make it to hospital are just a fraction of those attacked. She gave as an example what happened in villages along the road south from Goma toward Bukavu.
”The women who come from there tell us that every woman in every village has been raped over the years. There is not one who was not attacked they told us,” she said. ”Some of them were captured and taken into the forest for months, even two years. When they are released some are in such bad condition that they die.” — Guardian Unlimited Ã‚