War is officially over in eastern Congo, but the violence continues. 23 year old Amani can tell you. She was raped last year in the forests of North-Kivu by men she refers to as “rebels,” and has since given birth to a baby girl. Then there’s 15 year old Neema who was held and repeatedly raped for a week last July outside Goma by an “older man” after being lured to his house by a classmate. She too will give birth soon. “I want him to be imprisoned for life,” said Neema of her rapist. “He destroyed my life and I don’t study anymore.”
|Cameraman Justin Purefoy filming displaced Congolese in Eastern Congo. Pictures © James Martone.|
I met Amani and Neema at the Heal Africa Hospital and other sites in Eastern Congo as part of a WDR 2011 research mission in February. The team was looking into the causes and consequences of this conflict that has been going on for over 15 years and killed an estimated 3.5 million people. I was there with cameraman Justin Purefoy to film people affected by the conflict and document their stories. The effect of massive sexual violence and overall lack of security were two of the issues we were exploring on video. The films and interviews will be published as part of the Bank’s upcoming 2011 World Development Report.
Sexual Violence without Punishment
30-year old Georgine Kalvira is a trauma counselor at the Heal Africa Hospital in Goma where Amani and Neema are being treated for their physical and emotional wounds. She said that the men doing the raping often go free, if they are caught at all, and that the victims are in many cases rejected by their families. Georgine confirmed what many scholars are saying: there is no way of knowing how many have been attacked: “You have visited here at Heal Africa, and you’ve seen all the victims. And that is only here! Go to other centers, they are full of victims, and imagine women in their homes. The homes are full of rape victims who hide themselves.”
Doctors, NGO’s and Human rights activists we met in the region say sexual violence is being carried out by armed men and civilians alike, and is indicative of a post-conflict society which isn’t getting better as fast as it should. Rape is a constant threat to women in this part of Congo and somehow it has almost become accepted as a part of life.
“There is little justice,” said Hermeline Kahambu who represents 27 Congolese NGOs working to promote women’s welfare in North-Kivu. “When the man is arrested for rape, he corrupts justice, and the next day you see him in the street again, and the man says to himself ‘if I rape, they are going to arrest me today but release me in a few hours!’”
|At Heal Africa children of rape survivors can stay with their mothers.|
In addition to the problem of impunity, the people I spoke with also complained of corruption and in many areas a total lack of security. All of this seems connected in a large lawless mess, where most civilians are on the losing side, particularly the women and girls. Several armed factions are roaming the forests in Eastern Congo, with little respect for civilians and their safety. Some are fighting a war over murky causes. Others are bandits turning the muddy roads into traps. And winning often just means inflicting terror on the people they come across.
There are hundreds of NGOs working in Eastern Congo and it has the UN’s largest peace keeping mission watching over a fragile ceasefire. But even with all this help, recovery seems a long way off. Back at Heal Africa, Neema told me she’s hoping she can stay on at the hospital even after she gives birth. She said everyone in her family except her mother doesn’t want her to return.