Friday, June 13, 2014

Rape: The "Weapon of War" in the DRC

By Aarshi Tirkey 

22 November 2012, Minova, DR Congo. 

Image from here
After losing a battle with rebel M23 fighters in Goma - the main city in eastern Congo - thousands of Congolese soldiers descended on the small village of Minova, located some 30 miles from Goma. The soldiers were drunk, angry, violent and out of control; their commanders had disappeared and the battalion and regiment structures had disintegrated. In the two days that followed, these soldiers raped, pillaged, looted and murdered the locals of the village. The damage suffered by the villagers was massive, and the statistics were staggering. According to a UN Report, in the small village comprising of a few hundred of people, at least 102 women and 33 girls (some girls as young as 6 years old) were victims of rape or other acts of sexual violence by government troops. In one night, the soldiers killed 79 women and children, and this number doubled in the following days.

The Minova incident was widely publicized in international media. Subsequently, British filmmaker Fiona Lloyd-Davies travelled to Congo and interviewed the victims and the government soldiers who participated in the mass rapes. Lloyd-Davies released certain footage from her documentary, Seeds of Hope, which brought forth chilling accounts of soldiers who had been a part of the Minova incident. A few excerpts from these footages are given below:

"It’s true that we raped here. We found women because they can’t escape. You see her, you catch her, you take her away and you have your way with her.
“Sometimes you kill her. When you finish raping then you kill her child. When we rape, we feel free.”
“We met other people, and we killed just for the sake of it.”
 “We raped, we destroyed everything. Everything that was in our path.”
 “I raped because my Commander started to rape first.[1]

Following international pressure, a mass trial of 39 soldiers was held by a court in DR Congo, however only 2 were sentenced to life imprisonment for rape, another 24 were sentenced between 10 to 20 years in prison for looting and disobeying orders, while the remaining 13 senior officials were acquitted due to lack of evidence. The United Nations has expressed its disappointed over the verdict, and the lawyers of the victims have said that this judgment will discourage victims of sexual violence from approaching the courts in the future.

Lloyd-Davies’ interviews with the victims further revealed the horror, humiliation and derogation suffered by these women – they were raped in front of their children and the members of their communities, thus resulting in far-reaching consequences, such as ostracism and boycott. Her documentary was unveiled at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, held in London from 10-12 June, 2014, and co-chaired by Foreign Secretary William Hague and Special Envoy Angelina Jolie. The key demand raised in the London summit was to end impunity and increase prosecutions for sexual violence in conflict.

DR Congo has long been known for its endemic sexual violence, Research from the American Journal of Public Health says that in the DR Congo, 1,152 women are raped every day, or 48 women every hour. Despite the Congo’s conflict officially ending in 2003, fighting has never stopped, claiming more than five million lives since the war started nearly two decades ago. Throughout, sexual violence has continued. A total of 12 per cent of the female population of the DRC have been raped at least once.[2] And now the soldiers of DR Congo are employing rape as a lethal weapon of war.

The London Summit has been successful in attracting international attention towards issue, but how effectively can the demands of the summit be enforced in DR Congo? Swift international action is necessary, not only to bring an end to impunity, but to support the survivors of rape and help erase its stigma, and further to ensure that children born of rape are not neglected by society, but are given proper education. And lastly, to bring an end to conflict itself in DR Congo, and pave the way for peace.