By Mary Beth Sheridan and Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
GOMA, Congo, Aug. 11 -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday called for the prosecution of Congolese soldiers and militiamen involved in a staggering epidemic of rape in eastern Congo and said the world must take stronger action to end the suffering brought on by a military operation that began in January.
Clinton reiterated U.S. support for the U.N.-backed operation targeting Rwandan rebels, some of whom fled here after participating in the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda. But she said, "We believe there can be more done to protect civilians while you are trying to kill and capture the insurgents."
Since the start of the operation, rebels have killed at least 600 people in retaliatory attacks and more than 800,000 people have fled their homes. At the same time, incidents of rape and other brutalities have surged in areas where Congo's army is deployed. Human rights groups blame the spike on soldiers.
"The United States condemns these attacks and all those who commit them and abet them," Clinton, her voice breaking, said after a private meeting with two rape victims at a hospital in this provincial capital.
One of the women told Clinton that she was eight months pregnant when she was attacked and that she lost her baby. Villagers cut out the dead fetus with a razor because there was no hospital nearby, the woman said, according to Clinton.
"I was just overwhelmed by what I saw," Clinton told reporters as she departed Goma.
Eastern Congo has been in various states of conflict since the Rwandan genocide sent a flood of militiamen into the mineral-rich region. In recent years, more than a dozen militia and rebel groups have settled into what has almost become a way of life -- fighting for control over territory and mines and preying on Congolese villagers. By some estimates, the conflict has left more than 5 million people dead, mostly from disease and other consequences of fleeing their homes.
The fighting has also spawned an epidemic of sexual violence, with the Rwandan rebels, Congolese soldiers and other militias using rape to punish villages deemed to support the wrong side or taking women as the spoils of war. The military operation has only worsened the crisis.
More than 4,000 rapes have been reported in the east this year, but fewer than a dozen soldiers have been convicted of sexual assault.
Clinton, who has vowed to make women's rights a priority in U.S. foreign policy, said she told Congolese President Joseph Kabila earlier Tuesday that prosecuting rapes is especially important "when those who commit such acts are in a position of authority, particularly the Congolese military."
She announced $17 million in new aid to provide medical help for victims of sexual violence and improve security in the region.
Clinton had insisted on visiting Goma despite security concerns, and on Tuesday her convoy of shiny sport-utility vehicles zoomed through the city of wooden shacks and iron-sheet roofs as people paused from selling bananas and flour to watch.
Clinton met with Kabila at the lakeside villa of the provincial governor, a sprawl of manicured gardens, then headed to a camp packed with 18,000 displaced people now living in banana-leaf huts covered with dusty tarps.
She met a mother and her listless 4-year-old son, who is being treated for malnutrition, then walked down a path deeper into the camp. In an apparently unplanned moment, she walked over to Babuse Tshombe, 49, whose leg was shot off as he fled from rebels last year.
He hobbled out of his hut to see what was going on, then shook Clinton's hand.
"I heard on the radio that she's a minister from America," Tshombe said later. "I told her that we want to go home."