Negotiations between the M23 rebel group and the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo have stalled in Uganda. With neither side willing to compromise, a push for a political solution to the conflict appears doomed to fail. And as South African boots ready themselves for combat against M23, the warning of sexual violence in war – and as a tactic of war – is being brought into sharp focus. By KHADIJA PATEL.
The M23 rebel group of the Democratic Republic of Congo has continued to maintain that the South African government has ignored its struggle, one that members claim mirrors the ANC’s own struggle against the Apartheid regime. The South African government, however, is having none of it. Thousands of South African troops have been readied for combat, much to the chagrin of M23. In their vocal media campaign against the United Nations Intervention Brigade that the South African troops will be spearheading, the rebel group have also chided South Africa for actively choosing to side against the rebels and their demands.
But as those demands – which include the release of political prisoners affiliated with M23, declaring the North Kivu region a disaster area and a new round of local elections – have failed to make inroads in negotiations with the Congolese government in Kampala. While M23 have blamed the Congolese government for the stalemate, they have brought up the threat of sexual violence that they claim lies in store for UN troops if the United Nations intervention brigade does engage in conflict: “SA army (SANDF) coming to congo [sic] to fight M23 heros [sic], is full of beautiful girls, may God protect them against DRC GOV rapists army,” the rebel group tweeted over the weekend.
The Congolese army (FADRC) in particular has earned a reputation for violence against women, following its defeat at the hands of M23 in the town of Goma last November.
A young Congolese soldier recounted the crimes he and his comrades committed in the town of Minova to the Guardian. “Twenty-five of us gathered together and said we should rape 10 women each, and we did it,” he said. “I’ve raped 53 women. And children of five or six years old.
“I didn’t rape because I was angry, but because it gave us a lot of pleasure,” the soldier said. “When we arrived here we met a lot of women. We could do whatever we wanted.”
This is not the account of a rebel militia running amok. It is the statement of a member of the national army of the DRC. The United Nations Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) investigated allegations of human rights abuses during the standoff between the FADRC and M23. The UN found that 135 cases of sexual violence were perpetrated by FARDC troops in and around Minova between 20 and 30 November 2012.
At least 97 women and 33 girls (aged between 6 and 17) were raped, and a further five women were victims of attempted rape.
According to the UN report, “The violations of human rights law and international humanitarian law committed by FARDC soldiers in particular were perpetrated in a systematic manner and with extreme violence, mostly as FARDC units retreated from the frontlines and regrouped in and around the town of Minova, Kalehe territory, South Kivu province.”
“One or two of the soldiers would leave with the looted goods and at least one would stand guard as the remaining FARDC soldiers raped women and girls in the house,” the UN report says. “Victims were threatened with death if they shouted; some were raped at gunpoint. Most victims were raped by more than one soldier.”
M23 themselves have also been found guilty of rape by the same UN investigation.
The UNJHRO documented at least 59 cases of sexual violence, of which 58 were cases of rape by M23 combatants in Goma and surrounding areas. At least 49 cases of sexual violence were committed against women in the Katindo military camp in Goma, North Kivu province, by M23 combatants between 21 and 25 November 2012. The victims, said to mostly be wives of FARDC soldiers who had fled during the M23 advance, were raped, often as they returned to the camp to pick up belongings they had left behind.
“During the night of 1 – 2 December 2012, as the M23 combatants were withdrawing from Sake and the Ndosho area of Goma, some 12 combatants attacked the Mugunga III camp for internally displaced persons where they raped at least eight women,” the report says.
As far back as 31 December 2012, the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions – travel bans and asset freezes – on M23 and on individual leaders of the movement. In its justification, the Security Council said it considered M23 to be “complicit in and responsible for committing serious violations of international law involving the targeting of women and children in situations of armed conflict in the DRC including killing and maiming, sexual violence, abduction, and forced displacement”.
The scourge of sexual violence and the use of rape as a ploy in war is well known to be part to conflict in the Congo. It has long been seen as a function and tool of conflict in the DRC: in 2011, a study on rape in the Congo published in the American Journal of Public Health found that 48 women are raped every hour in the country.
In Stephanie Nolen’s 2005 article titled “Not Women Anymore”, she quotes a gynaecologist named Dr Denis Mukwege, who performed vaginal reconstructive surgeries in the eastern Congo at that time: “They rape a woman, five or six of them at a time—but that is not enough. Then they shoot a gun into her vagina,” Mukwege said. “In all my years here, I never saw anything like it… [T]o see so many raped, that shocks me, but what shocks me more is the way they are raped.”
In 2010, an Oxfam/Harvard report report tells of one ordeal in which family members were forced not only to watch each other be attacked, but to attack their own kin—or be killed:
“My husband and I were sleeping in our house. The children were sleeping in the house next door. The soldiers arrived and brought my daughter to our house where they raped her in the presence of my husband and me. Afterwards they demanded that my husband rape my daughter but he refused so they shot him. Then they went into the other house where they found my three sons. They killed all three of my boys. After killing them, two soldiers raped me one after the other.”
Laura Seay, an American academic studying state failure and conflict in the DRC, cautions that popular notions of the rape crisis in the DRC are flawed. She says, “A growing body of literature suggests that the prevailing journalistic and activist accounts of the nature of rape in the Congo are often incomplete, and, in many cases, simply wrong.”
“While no one disputes that armed men engage in rape against civilian populations, the story of who is raping whom turns out to be significantly more complicated than the popular narrative suggests,” she wrote in The Atlantic.
Alongside Seay, a growing number of activists, analysts and academics are stressing the need for a more balanced understanding of the Congo’s political, economic, and humanitarian challenges in which these incidences of rape occur.
The accounts of rape in the conflict between M23 and the FADRC feed into the stereotypes of a savage Africa at war with itself in the most brutal ways. These incidences of rape, and the movement to bring justice to the victims and to stop the scourge of rape in the Congo, must be located within the context of an on going political crisis in the DRC – a crisis to which South Africa is now irrevocably linked. DM
Photo: M23 leader Bertrand Bisimwa stands in the rebel-held town of Bunagana, North Kivu April 26, 2013. REUTERS/Jonny Hogg
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