Reflections on ABA ROLI’s Efforts to Combat the Rape Crisis in War-Torn Eastern Congo

Alternative content

June 2011

by Michael Maya

Few people are aware of the suffering endured by the Congolese people over the last 100 years at the hands of a succession of rapacious rulers, and more recently, as a result of an ongoing conflict in eastern Congo that is an outgrowth of the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda. The American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative’s (ABA ROLI) efforts to address one of the most sinister features of this conflict -- the use of rape as a weapon of war—will be described below. But first, here is some brief background on Congo, the site of the single deadliest conflict since World War II.

Perhaps the most compelling book written about Congo is Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost,” which describes the king’s rule over Congo, first as his personal domain in the late 1800s/early 1900s, and later as a colony under the auspices of the Belgian government. Leopold’s reign is one of the ugliest chapters in the history of Africa’s colonization, with Hochchild marshalling credible evidence that 10 million Congolese perished as a result of disease, executions, and sheer overwork, particularly among those conscripted to work in the dreaded rubber industry. The Rwandan genocide, which claimed the lives of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus during a 100-day period in 1994, marked the beginning of another—and ongoing—tragedy in eastern Congo. Roughly 5.4 million Congolese are believed to have perished thus far as a result of conflict that erupted in the wake of that genocide. And that number continues to rise.

A main driver of the ongoing conflict is the rush to exploit eastern DRC’s vast mineral wealth (blood minerals), with various militias, rebel groups, businessmen and even the Congolese army competing for control over mines that yield huge profits. One of the most valuable minerals is coltan, which is used in an array of consumer electronics, including cell phones and laptops. Congo is thought to possess 64% to 80% of the world’s coltan reserves, much of it finding its way to electronics factories in China.

The scale of Congo’s rape epidemic is arguably without rival in modern history. The United Nations estimates that roughly 500,000 persons have been raped or subjected to sexual violence since 1996, earning Congo the unfortunate title “the most dangerous place on earth to be a woman”  Boys and men are also targeted. Regardless of the victim’s gender, rape is used as a weapon of war. It has proven to be remarkably effective, destroying not only the lives of its victims, but also their families and sometimes entire villages. Particularly in the case of girls and women, rape survivors are frequently rejected by their families and communities.

Rapes in Congo are remarkable for their brutality—even by war-time standards. Many survivors are maimed for life as a result of sadistic acts that accompany the rapes. Initially, rapes were almost entirely restricted to conflict zones and committed by armed combatants. With each passing year, however, more and more rapes are being committed by civilians, some of whom are former soldiers who continue to rape upon returning to their villages and cities as non-combatants.  Another disturbing trend is that the average age of rape victims appears to be dropping. Rapes of girls as young as two and three are not unheard of. Rapes of girls between the ages of 8 and 13 are extremely common.

The epicenter of the rape epidemic is North and South Kivu provinces. Each time I have visited eastern Congo, I have traveled by car from either Kigali, Rwanda or Bujumbura, Burundi. Almost everyone who travels either route remarks, almost sheepishly, about the breathtaking beauty of the region, and Congo in particular. On some level, people feel discomfort at deriving pleasure from being in such a magnificent and seemingly serene setting when it is well known that rapes and killings regularly occur just a few dozen kilometers from the relative safety and beauty of Goma and Bukavu, the provincial capitals of North and South Kivu. ABA ROLI maintains offices in both those and other cities, along with the United Nations and countless NGOs that provide humanitarian relief and other assistance.

The first of my four trips to Congo—a visit to ABA ROLI’s Goma office in early 2009—remains the most haunting. One of my first stops was at HEAL Africa hospital, on whose premises ABA ROLI maintains a State Department-funded legal clinic that provides legal and psychological assistance to rape victims. There, I met with several of ABA ROLI’s clients, rape survivors in their teens and 20s, but some as young as eight. Remarkably, many of these rape survivors were intent on prosecuting their assailants despite the risks and unwanted attention associated with testifying in a court case. Others looked decimated and were unable to make eye contact. I wondered if they would be willing to subject themselves to a formal court proceeding, assuming their perpetrator could be identified. In many cases, even if survivors are willing to pursue justice, their perpetrators can’t be apprehended. Many rapes are committed by combatants who enter villages either alone or in roving bands, and quickly retreat into the dense forest that covers much of eastern Congo, never to be seen again.

A visit to a refugee camp outside Goma, like my visit to HEAL Africa hospital, also left its mark on me, as did a visit to the Goma prison. At the refugee camp, thousands of people lived smashed next to each other in UN-issued tents in an area the size of a few football fields. We were told that rapes committed in this and other refugee camps were not uncommon. The only thing worse than the camps, of course, was being back in the still insecure village from which the refugees had fled.

Goma’s desperately overcrowded prison had a menacing look to it from a distance, with its façade blackened by a recent, fiery riot. The warden invited me and my Goma-based colleague, a Cameroonian country director who helped launch our program in 2008, to visit the quarters that housed roughly 25 female prisoners. They ranged in age from about 14 to 60 years. The youngest explained she was there for stealing. The oldest stated she had murdered her husband. As we were exiting the prison, we walked by a large enclosed courtyard filled with hooting and hollering young boys and men. They insisted that we come into their quarters for a visit. The warden could not assure our safety and we declined the invitation. A few weeks after our prison visit, another riot erupted. The male inmates burst into the women’s section of the prison and reportedly raped all of the female prisoners with whom we had met.

Despair is understandably rampant in eastern Congo after years of seemingly never-ending conflict and unimaginable levels of sexual and gender-based violence. In 2008, the number of prosecutions of combatants or civilians who committed rape was inconsequential. In fact, it was understood by victims, rapists and would-be rapists alike that there were effectively no consequences for committing acts of sexual violence. Further, there was no meaningful plan in place to bring an end to impunity. When ABA ROLI initially met with the judges, prosecutors, and police to discuss possible collaboration, over and over again they told us the same thing, such as “until the war, rape was not part of our culture” or “rape is not part of who were are and it must stop.” We were left with little doubt about whether there was sufficient will to tackle the rape epidemic.

Since 2008, ROLI has worked hand in hand with Congolese justice sector actors and NGOs to mount a successful campaign against impunity for rape. Working with partner NGOs and the legal community, ABA ROLI’s staff in Goma and Butembo in North Kivu, in Bukavu in South Kivu and in five cities throughout neighboring Maniema province have helped file over 2,800 complaints with the police for rape. Of these, 645 have thus far gone to trial, resulting in 434 convictions. Prison sentences have ranged from 5–20 years.  

Through radio programs, public service announcements, billboards, word of mouth, and ABA ROLI’s travels to remote villages, large numbers of Congolese, including would-be rapists, now understand that there are consequences for rape. Further, these same channels of communication have also educated people about the fact that ABA ROLI provides psychological counseling to rape survivors and their families, part of its multi-disciplinary approach to the rape crisis. Without such counseling, many survivors have remarked that they would not have been able or willing to testify against their perpetrator in open court.

One of the most effective aspects of ABA ROLI’s efforts to combat impunity has been its “mobile court” program in South Kivu and Maniema provinces. Because much of eastern Congo lacks roads and adequate transportation, it is almost always impracticable and sometimes impossible for a rape survivor to travel for days to attend a trial in one of the few cities with a courthouse. Congolese law allows for teams of justice sector actors to travel to remote villages and establish temporary courts, often for two weeks. Mobile court trials are typically held outdoors, under a tent, often with hundreds of onlookers from surrounding villages.

Although mobile courts that ABA ROLI has facilitated handle both rape and non-rape cases, preference is given to rape cases. In May 2010, a team of us observed a military mobile court trial in Idgwi, a small island in Lake Kivu that had never before seen a judicial proceeding. I was accompanied by ABA ROLI colleagues from our Bukavu office and representatives from Soros’ Open Society Justice Initiative (New York) and the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa (Johannesburg), which funds ABA ROLI’s mobile court project in South Kivu. Despite the heat, villagers stood attentively for hours under the hot sun while lawyers and prosecutors presented their cases and rape survivors, defendants and witnesses provided testimony. One case involved the rape of a three-year old girl. The girl stood, distracted, by her mother’s side as she made an impassioned plea to the court that it find the defendant, a member of the Congolese army, guilty of raping her daughter. The court sentenced him to 15 years in prison.

In February 2011, a mobile court that ABA ROLI facilitated along with the United Nations and other partners convicted several members of the Congolese army for raping over 50 girls and women in the village of Fizi during a New Year’s Day rampage. What made this mobile court remarkable was that four high level officers, including Lt. Colonel Kibibi Mutware, were among those convicted. They received 20 year sentences, while soldiers who reported to them received 10–15 year sentences. Word spread quickly about these unprecedented convictions throughout eastern Congo and, as a result of robust media coverage, internationally as well; this time, it wasn’t only the “small fish” who were made to answer for their horrible acts.

In conclusion, there is reason to be hopeful that the tide is turning with regard to impunity for rape in eastern Congo. There is little doubt that the decision to invest in the justice sector in eastern Congo as a means of combating impunity has been a very sound one. A more robust commitment by donors and implementers alike will be needed in order to provide the training and resources needed to make impunity a thing of the past. Continued leadership by U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallstrom, will also be critical to ensuring that Congo’s rape crisis and the broader conflict get the attention a tragedy of this magnitude deserves.

Finally, ABA ROLI wishes to acknowledge the following donors, all of whom currently support ABA ROLI’s rape prosecution efforts in eastern Congo:  Dutch Government, MacArthur Foundation, Norwegian Government, Open Society Justice Initiative for Southern Africa, The U.S. Department of State (its Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement and its Bureau of Democracy, Rights and Labor), and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Their commitment to ending Congo’s rape crisis and their generosity have made an incalculable impact, empowering ABA ROLI’s Congolese partners to combat the rape epidemic this conflict has spawned.

Michael Maya, ABA ROLI Deputy Director since 2007, also directed ABA ROLI’s programs in Africa from July 2007 to February 2011.

Advertisement