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Rape of the Congo

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Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos
Former rebel fighters being integrated into the regular army of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bunia, eastern Congo, 2007; photograph by Susan Meiselas

As if eastern Congo had not already suffered enough, seven years ago Nature dealt it a stunning blow. The volcano whose blue-green bulk looms above the dusty, lakeside city of Goma, Mount Nyiragongo, erupted, sending a smoking river of lava several hundred yards wide through the center of town and sizzling into the waters of Lake Kivu. More than 10,000 homes were engulfed. Parts of the city, which is packed with displaced people, are still covered by a layer of purplish rock up to twelve feet thick.

Far greater destruction has come from more than a decade of a bewilderingly complex civil war in which millions have died. First, neighboring Uganda and Rwanda supported a rebel force under Laurent Kabila that overthrew longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. Soon after, Kabila fell out with his backers, and later Uganda and Rwanda fell out with each other. Before long, they and five other nearby nations had troops on Congo’s soil, in alliance either with the shaky national government in Kinshasa or with a mushrooming number of rival ethnic warlords, particularly here in the mineral-rich east. Those foreign soldiers are almost all gone now, but some fighting between the government and remaining rebel groups continues. For two weeks in June, I had the chance to observe the war’s effects, with the best of possible traveling companions: Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, whose reports have been an authoritative source of information on the country for years.

No one has been harder hit than Congo’s women, for almost all the warring factions have used rape as a calculated method of sowing terror. An hour and a half southwest of Goma on bone-jolting roads stand several low buildings of planks and adobe; small bleating goats wander about and a cooking fire burns on one dirt floor. There is no electricity. A sign reads Maison d’Écoute (Listening House). The office of the forty-two-year-old director, whom I will call Rebecca Kamate, extends from the side of one of the buildings; its other three walls are of thin green tarpaulin with a UNICEF emblem, through which daylight filters. The floor is gravel. Kamate pulls out a hand-written ledger to show to Anneke, her colleague Ida Sawyer, and me. Ruled columns spread across the page: date, name, age of the victim, and details—almost all are gang rapes, by three to five armed men. Since the center started, it has registered 5,973 cases of rape. The ages of the victims just since January range from two to sixty-five. On the ledger’s most recent page, the perpetrators listed include three different armed rebel groups—plus the Congolese national army.

What pushed me into this work,” says Kamate, speaking softly in a mixture of Swahili and hesitant French, “is that I am also one who was raped.” This happened a decade ago; the rapists were from the now-defunct militia of a local warlord backed by Uganda. “Their main purpose was to kill my husband. They took everything. They cut up his body like you would cut up meat, with knives. He was alive. They began cutting off his fingers. Then they cut off his sex. They opened his stomach and took out his intestines. When they poked his heart, he died. They were holding a gun to my head.” She fought her captors, and shows a scar across the left side of her face that was the result. “They ordered me to collect all his body parts and to lie on top of them and there they raped me—twelve soldiers. I lost consciousness. Then I heard someone cry out in the next room and I realized they were raping my daughters.”

The daughters, the two oldest of four girls, were twelve and fifteen. Kamate spent some months in the hospital and temporarily lost her short-term memory. “When I got out I found these two daughters were pregnant. Then they explained. I fainted. After this, the family [of her husband] chased me away. They sold my house and land, because I had had no male children.” From time to time Kamate stops, her wide, worn face crinkles into a sob, and she dabs her eyes with a corner of her apron.

Both girls tried to kill their children. I had to stop them. I had more difficulties. I was raped three more times when I went into the hills to look for other raped women.” Part of her work is to go to villages and talk to husbands and families, because rape survivors are so often shunned. In one recent case, for instance, a woman was kidnapped and held ten months as a sex slave by the FDLR (Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda), the Hutu perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide and their followers, long the most intransigent rebel group here. After she returned to her village with a newborn baby, her husband agreed to take her back, but only if the baby were killed. Kamate intervened, and took in the child at the Listening House. Living here now are six women and seventeen children—some of whom keep scampering up to an opening in the tarpaulin to giggle and look.

At one point Kamate has to break off because a new victim walks in off the road, a forty-seven-year-old woman raped just three days ago by three Congolese army soldiers who barged into her house after she came home from church. For twenty minutes, Kamate takes down her story and then quickly sends her to a nearby clinic: if anti- retroviral drug treatment is begun within seventy-two hours of a rape, it can usually prevent HIV/AIDS.

The last time Kamate herself was raped was on January 22 of this year. The attackers, members of the CNDP (Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple), a Tutsi-led rebel group that has since been integrated into the Congolese army in a new peace deal, were four soldiers who targeted her because they knew of the work she was doing. It is for fear of this happening again that she asks me not to use her real name. “After having raped me, they spat in my sex, then shoved a shoe up my vagina. When I arrived home I cried a lot and was at the point of killing myself.”

Unimaginably horrifying as ordeals like Kamate’s are, they are all too similar to what Congolese endured a century ago. Rape was then also considered the right of armies, and then, as now, was how brutalized and exploited soldiers took out their fury on people of even lower status: women. From 1885 to 1908, this territory was the personally owned colony of King Leopold II of Belgium, who pioneered a forced-labor system that was quickly copied in French, German, and Portuguese colonies nearby. His private army of black conscript soldiers under white officers would march into a village and hold the women hostage, to force the men to go into the rain forest for weeks at a time to harvest lucrative wild rubber. “The women taken during the last raid…are causing me no end of trouble,” a Belgian officer named Georges Bricusse wrote in his diary on November 22, 1895. “All the soldiers want one. The sentries who are supposed to watch them unchain the prettiest ones and rape them.”

Forced labor also continues today. The various armed groups routinely conscript villagers to carry their ammunition, collect water and firewood, and, on occasion, dig for gold. A 2007 survey of more than 2,600 people in eastern Congo found over 50 percent saying that they had been forced to carry loads or do other work against their will in the previous decade and a half. A few miles down the road from the Listening House, I meet one such person in a camp for people who have fled the fighting; several thousand of them are living here in makeshift shelters of grass thatch, the lucky ones with a tarpaulin over the top. The man is twenty-nine, in T-shirt and sandals, and, like Kamate, doesn’t want his real name used. He arrived two days ago from Remeka, a village a few days’ walk from here, that has changed hands several times in recent fighting between the FDLR and the national army. A fresh bandage covers his left eye.

Congolese army soldiers corralled him last week to be a porter. The troops then came under fire and “I took advantage of that to flee. I spent a night in the bush, and when I came back to the village I found the army had pillaged it, and everyone had fled. Other soldiers told me again to carry supplies. When I refused they took a bayonet and jabbed me in the eye.” He can see something out of the eye, but not clearly. Doctors don’t know if its sight will return. His wife and two children, aged two and eight, fled the village and he thinks they are still in the bush.

Where does such cruelty come from? Four problems, above all, drive Congo’s unrelenting bloodshed. One is long-standing antagonism between certain ethnic groups. A second is the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the two million or so people who flowed across Congo’s porous border in its aftermath: Hutu killers, innocent Hutu who feared retribution, and a mainly Tutsi army in pursuit, bent on vengeance. The third is a vast wealth in natural resources—gold, tungsten, diamonds, coltan (a key ingredient of computer chips), copper, and more—that gives ethnic warlords and their backers, especially Rwanda and Uganda, an additional incentive to fight. And, finally, this is the largest nation on earth—more than 65 million people in an area roughly as big as the United States east of the Mississippi—that has hardly any functioning national government. After Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001, his son Joseph took power in Kinshasa, and won an election in 2006, but his corrupt and disorganized regime provides few services, especially in the more distant parts of the country, such as Goma, which is more than one thousand miles east of the capital.

Evidence of the nation’s riches is everywhere. Battered Soviet-era Antonov cargo planes continually descend into Goma airport filled with tin ore from a big mine at Walikale, in the interior, now controlled by Congolese army officers. On a country road, a truckload of timber, stacked high, passes by, heading out of the rain forest toward the Ugandan border. And then one day in Goma, while I am walking with Anneke, Ida, and another foreigner, a man approaches and asks: Would we like to buy some uranium?

He is perhaps forty, with expensive-looking walking shoes. He claims to have had clients from South Africa, Europe, and Saudi Arabia. The uranium has been tested with Geiger counters, and it’s de bonne qualité! And safely packed: two kilos inside each seventeen-kilo radiation-proof container. The price? $1.5 million per container. But this is negotiable….

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