Congo's Women Treated as Spoils of War

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
Tuesday, August 11, 2009

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 frontline 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 afternoon, 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 military 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 Congo's capital, Kinshasa, on Monday. "There are even some cases of these terrible crimes committed by members of the Congolese military."

In recent weeks, U.S. officials have cast the military operation against the Rwandan rebels as an important step in mending the caustic relationship between Congo and Rwanda, which has perpetuated eastern Congo's conflict for years. In addition to financial support for the U.N. effort, Washington has sent a small military team to help root out the rebels, including some who fled here after participating in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

But the operation has posed a dilemma for U.S. policymakers: Though important politically, the effort has been disastrous on the ground, especially for women.

"The United States is deeply troubled . . . by the perpetuation of rape and gender-based violence," said Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, responding to a question about the operation's humanitarian consequences. "The U.S. is doing its best to increase the awareness on all sides of this problem . . . to ensure the government of Congo takes action against individuals in their forces who" take part in sexual violence.

Rape as a Weapon

All sides in Congo's messy 15-year conflict have used rape as a weapon of war -- particularly the Rwandan rebels -- but 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 where 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, who were accused of rape, but so far none has 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 the nonprofit Olame Center to try to educate soldiers about rape laws. "They take them like property."

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