By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 9, 2007
NAIROBI, Sept. 8 -- The prevalence and intensity of sexual violence against women in eastern Congo are "almost unimaginable," the top U.N. humanitarian official said Saturday after visiting the country's most fragile region, where militia groups have preyed on the civilian population for years.
John Holmes, who coordinates U.N. emergency relief operations, said 4,500 cases of sexual violence have been reported in just one eastern province since January, though the actual number is surely much higher. Rape has become "almost a cultural phenomenon," he said.
"Violence and rape at the hands of these armed groups has become all too common," said Holmes, who spent four days in eastern Congo. "The intensity and frequency is worse than anywhere else in the world."
The chronic sexual violence is just one facet of a broader environment of insecurity that still defines eastern Congo after a decade-long war that killed an estimated 4 million people, mostly from hunger and other effects of being driven from their homes.
Tensions have risen in the east following recent clashes between government soldiers and forces loyal to a renegade general, Laurent Nkunda. Nearly 300,000 people have been displaced since December, including tens of thousands in the past several weeks, according to the United Nations.
Nkunda says he is protecting eastern Congo's Tutsi minority from Hutu militias that fled Rwanda after committing the genocide there in 1994. The Hutu militias -- along with others, including Nkunda's -- have never been disarmed and have menaced the civilian population for years.
With camps for displaced people sprawling across the east, Holmes said, basic humanitarian needs such as food and clean water are "enormous." Donor nations are providing only about half the needed funding, he said.
Holmes emphasized the need for a political solution to the underlying problems left over from the Rwandan genocide: namely, the Hutu militias.
Their continued presence in the forests of eastern Congo is a point of tension between the Congolese government and Rwanda, which says Congo has not done enough to disarm them. The Hutu militias also provide Nkunda with a reason to fight, contributing to overall insecurity, Holmes said.
"There needs to be a political solution to the problems there, which are connected to the past, to the genocide in Rwanda," he said. "There needs to be a major political effort locally, regionally and internationally."
Holmes spoke at length about the stories he heard from women who had been raped by members of various armed groups, including the Congolese army. The degree of the brutality and humiliation involved -- women being gang-raped in front of crowds including their husbands, for instance -- were particularly disturbing, Holmes said.
"It's the scale and brutality of it," he said, grasping for words. "It's the use of it as a weapon of terror. It's the way it's done publicly, for maximum humiliation. It's hard to understand."