The rebel militias that have swept through eastern Congo in recent years have grandiose names and abbreviations and political demands.
Solange, a 35-year-old woman from a farm near Goma, doesn’t know the names of the militias. She doesn’t even call them rebels. In her soft, hesitant voice, she uses a word that has entered the Swahili language: “bandits.”
First the M23 rebels stole food from her farm. Then they forced her to flee to the city for refuge. And then, one night, five rebels grabbed her on the street and gang-raped her at gunpoint.
One of them held a gun to her head, she says, while the other four raped her. “Let her die, let her die,” they shouted as they attacked her. “If she cries, I will shoot her.”
She was far from the only victim. In the first 10 days after the rebels captured Goma last month, 18 rape victims were treated at the HEAL Africa hospital in the city. All had been raped by armed men in uniforms – at a time when the M23 rebels were the only armed men in the city.
Sexual violence has been endemic in eastern Congo for many years, and the rebellions and wars are merely the latest contributors to the crisis. There is no monopoly on the rapes. The perpetrators are government soldiers, rebels, militia members and ordinary civilians. It is more than just a weapon of war – it is routine behaviour for many men in an impoverished and chaotic region.
A survey in the Goma region, released last week, found that 37 per cent of men interviewed admitted that they had raped a woman. During the latest wars, 22 per cent of women and 9 per cent of men were victims of sexual violence, according to the survey, which was conducted by a Brazilian-based organization, Promundo, and a South African-based group, Sonke Gender Justice Network.
At the HEAL Africa hospital, most of the cases before the rebel takeover were perpetrated by civilians. After the takeover, the rapists were armed men. But the scale of the problem did not change.
“There are cases every day,” said Bienvenue Kamanga, a doctor at the hospital’s unit for sexual-vioence victims. “Sometimes there are 50 or 60 cases in a month.”
Margot Wallstrom, the Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict for the United Nations, stirred controversy in 2010 when she described Congo as “the rape capital of the world.” One study last year estimated that 48 women are raped every hour in Congo.
Some researchers have suggested that this is exaggerated. A recent study by scholars at Simon Fraser University challenged the standard belief that rape is primarily a weapon of war, and that the number of rapes is rising.
But whether the number is increasing or not, the reality is that rape has remained disturbingly common this year in eastern Congo, and it is often linked to the armed fighters who seize control of towns and villages. Women and children who are forced to flee their homes because of the fighting are among the most frequent victims.
A report by UN investigators found that nearly 1,700 rapes were perpetrated by armed men in Congo’s eastern provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu in the first half of this year. At least four different rebel groups have committed mass rapes this year, the report said.
The trend has worsened since then. In the village of Minova, where Congolese soldiers went on a furious rampage after retreating from Goma, at least 26 cases of rape were registered in a single day, and at least 70 rapes have been reported so far.
The rapes continued when the rebels withdrew from Goma. Just hours after their departure, at least 12 women were raped by unknown armed men who invaded a camp near Goma where 30,000 displaced people had sought shelter.
Solange, like many women in eastern Congo, was vulnerable to sexual violence because of her economic desperation, which drove her onto the streets at night. Forced to support 15 people in her extended family, she sometimes went to bars to prostitute herself. The five rebel men attacked her when she was walking home after a night at a bar.
She wants the rapists to face justice, but she doesn’t trust Goma’s police to investigate the attack. “I don’t know where to go,” she says. “I don’t know what’s in their hearts.”