Congo's Rape Epidemic Worsens During U.S.-Backed Military Operation

A U.S.-backed Congolese military operation was supposed to save the women of eastern Congo from abusive rebels. Instead, an already staggering epidemic of rape has become markedly worse since January's deployment of Congolese soldiers. Video by Miguel Juarez/The Washington Post
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 10, 2009; 4:09 PM

LUGUNGU, Congo -- For the women of eastern Congo, a U.S.-backed Congolese military operation meant to save them from abusive rebels has turned into a nightmare of its own.

An already staggering epidemic of rape has become markedly worse since the January deployment of tens of thousands of poorly trained, poorly paid Congolese soldiers, with people in front-line villages such as this one saying the soldiers are not so much hunting rebels as hunting women.

And so as the sun dropped behind the soaring jungle here one recent day, little girls, mothers and grandmothers began heading home, some closing curtains and padlocking wooden doors. It was time, they explained, to lock themselves indoors.

"To avoid getting raped, after 6 p.m., women are not allowed to go out of the house," said Maria Bitondo, who said she was among three women attacked by a soldier last month. "With the soldiers here, no woman is safe to go out and walk. We do not even go to the bathroom at night."

On Monday, a coalition of 88 aid groups called the operation, which is supported by the United Nations, "a human tragedy" and urged Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is to visit eastern Congo on Tuesday, to push for better civilian protection. Clinton has vowed to make the prevention of sexual violence a priority in Congo, where the United States pays about a quarter of the cost of U.N. peacekeeping efforts.

"We have to speak out against the impunity of those in positions of authority who either commit these crimes or condone them," Clinton said at a town hall meeting in the capital of Kinshasa on Monday. She added, "There are even some cases of these terrible crimes committed by members of the Congolese military."

But U.S officials have also applauded the operation, calling it an important diplomatic step in mending a destructive relationship between Congo and Rwanda. The operation, which is being supported with helicopters, trucks and other logistics by U.N. peacekeepers here, is targeting Rwandan rebels including some who fled here after participating in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Although all sides in Congo's messy 15-year conflict have used rape as a weapon of war -- particularly the Rwandan rebels -- the spike since January is being widely blamed mostly on the army. The number of soldiers roaming these eastern hills has almost tripled to 60,000, and rapes have doubled or tripled in the areas they are deployed. Aid groups said the number of rapes so far this year is probably in the thousands.

Though Congolese President Joseph Kabila recently declared a policy of "zero tolerance" for sexual violence, fewer than a dozen soldiers have been convicted of rape this year. In May, the U.N. Security Council handed Kabila a list of five senior army officials, including a general, accused of rape, but so far none have been prosecuted.

"After reaching an area, the soldiers are taking everything there as the spoils of war, including the women," said Honore Bisimwa, who works with a nonprofit group, Olame Center, trying to educate soldiers about rape laws. "They take them like property."

In this jungle-matted territory, about 5,000 soldiers are on the move, including a portion of 12,000 ex-rebels and militiamen folded into the army after a recent peace deal. In February, they set up a base in the territorial capital of Shabunda, where U.N. peacekeepers also have a base, then marched by foot into smaller front-line villages along narrow dirt roads traversed daily by women heading to farms and stooped over hauling jugs of water and stacks of wood. Soon after, villagers began complaining of looting, and women began making their way to health clinics.

In less than three months, more than 100 rapes were reported in the area, said Adele Sikanabo, a local activist, adding that "there are so many we don't know about."

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company