“Like Rwanda, but Worse” – Rape as a Weapon of War in the Congo [Part 1: History of the Conflict]

Women in the People’s Democratic of Congo have been enduring barbaric sexual atrocities duringCongo2 the country’s violent civil unrest for more than a decade. Yet the western world seems to hardly have noticed. This is the first in an ongoing series documenting the situation in a country where women and children are inhumanly brutalized, where even the most unimaginable forms of rape have become common weapons of war.

Many are questioning how this level of sexual violence grew to such dramatic proportions. Although atrocities and rape in wartime are common, U.N. leaders consider the intensity and prevalence of horrors in the Congo to be “the worst in the world.”

It’s interesting to note that, according to a recent NY Times article

Many Congolese aid workers denied that the problem was cultural and insisted that the widespread rapes were not the product of something ingrained in the way men treated women in Congolese society. “If that were the case, this would have showed up long ago,” said Wilhelmine Ntakebuka, who coordinates a sexual violence program in Bukavu.

Contrarily, an Amnesty International report asserts that it is precisely women’s lower societal status that allows for this type of targeting in wartime.

“When you lift the stone of sexual violence, you will find another stone of the treatment of women more generally, which is effectively slavery. Women do everything: they walk miles for food or water, they care for the children, they cook, they clean, they cultivate the land and they earn the family income… That is the female condition in the Congo. “

— Expatriate woman psychologist working in DRC, interviewed by AI

In the very least, Congolese law leaves nowhere for these women to turn as crimes of rape, torture, mutilation, kidnapping, and sexual slavery are committed with nearly 100% impunity.

A 2002 HRW report summarizes women’s status in Congolese society.

Even before the war in Congo, women and girls were second class citizens. The law as well as social norms defined the role of women and girls as subordinate to men. Although women are often a major-if not the major-source of support for the family, the Congolese Family Code requires them to obey their husbands who are recognized as the head of the household.

Women and girls are also subordinate by custom and practice. A woman’s status depends on being married and girls tend to marry at a young age. It is generally considered more important to educate boys than girls[…] Literacy statistics for Congo (also) show gender-specific discrimination.

Male household heads often settle violent crimes against women and girls outside the courts. Some have “resolved” rape cases by accepting a money payment from the perpetrator or his family or by arranging to have the perpetrator marry the victim. […]

Women and girls who are raped suffer significant loss of social status[…] In cases of the death of women and girls by murder or negligence, the family of the victim sometimes agrees to accept the equivalent of a woman’s bride price as compensation and does not pursue the case further.

Congolese views about women and the issue of sexual violence were clearly demonstrated in 2005 when UNICEF spearheaded the first march against sexual violence in the boarder city of Goma. Hundreds of brutalized women donned black head scarves and nervously took to the streets. In a PBS interview, American filmmaker Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt describes the event:

…the march ended up being more chaotic than we imagined because every one of the bystanders, male or female, heckled the women marching. Their position was, “Why are you doing this? This is stupid. What is sexual violence?” On an official level, there aren’t any adequate laws against rape, and no one has been convicted of rape in 40 years, other than three or four people who were not soldiers.

Let’s take a quick look at how the climate in the Congo escalated to create an atmosphere conducive to these horrors.

Rwandan Atrocities Bleed Across Boarders

The Democratic Republic of Congo has been torn by conflict almost since its origins. Although women have long suffered pervasive injustice in this climate, sexual violence crescendoed to horrific levels and epidemic proportions in the wake of civil violence that was instigated by the atrocities in neighboring Rwanda.

(If you need a refresher on the Rwandan genocide, go here, here, or here. Read this. Watch this.)

For three months in the spring and summer of 1994, a rush of Rwandan Tutsi refugees fled to Zaire to escape mass genocide at the hands of the Rwandan Hutus. Under government directive the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) slaughtered over 800,000 Tutsi men, women, and children before being overthrown by the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPP). By 1996, a large number of RPF members, (known also as Interahamwe) fled the new government and crossed the boarder as well. Human Rights Watch summarizes:

The government responsible for the genocide then led more than a million Hutu into exile in Congo, then Zaire, where civilian refugees and the military together established themselves in camps along the border. Under the direction of the defeated political and military leaders, soldiers and militia reorganized and rearmed within the refugee population, preparing for new attacks on Rwanda.

In late 1996 the Rwandan government sent its troops into the Congo, asserting the need to impede preparations for attacks on Rwanda as well as any obligation to protect the Banyamulenge, Congolese of the Tutsi ethnic group, who were being threatened by local and national Congolese political authorities.

The Rwandan soldiers together with combatants of the Allied Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo…a hastily organized coalition of Congolese forces, attacked the camps and killed tens of thousands of Rwandans, many of them unarmed civilian refugees. Hundreds of thousands of refugees then returned to Rwanda, some of them voluntarily, some of them forced to do so by Rwandan government troops. Some two hundred thousand Rwandans fled westward through the forests.

Many of the civilians were massacred in the following months by RPA or AFDL troops but several thousand ex-FAR and militia members regrouped to resume fighting the Rwandan government forces in Congo and later in Rwanda.

During this time, the Zairian government was toppled by a rebellion and a man named Kabila came to power and reinstated the country’s former name – the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the instability following the coup, Kabila began to lose favor and troops from neighboring Zimbabwe, Angola, Chad, and the Sudan quickly became involved in an effort to encourage stability.

As of 2004 nearly four million people perished in the conflict and a 2006 Economist article considers this period to be “the bloodiest since World War II.”

In 2001 Kabila was assassinated and replaced in power by his son. Since then there have been two rounds of general elections, but little has been done to stabilize the country’s rampant and savage violence. Varying factions fight each other and the government, and ethnic contentions conflate the violence.

Congolese citizens are left trying to survive amid a state of near constant destruction and uncertainty. Rebels take control of villages, or simply destroy them by killing the men, raping or kidnapping the women, and burning the village to the ground.

Over one million Congolese are displaced, especially in the eastern part of the country where the Interahamwe militant faction “Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda” is particularly active. Starvation and disease are rampant.

In this environment of political and economic struggle, racial hatred, and lawlessness, one across-the-board “enemy” stands above them all – women.

Next: Rape as a Weapon of War in the Congo [Part 2 – The Savagery]


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