Congo wars: where rape became a weapon of war

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The land of the Congo is full of diamonds, gold, copper and the blood of the victims of their decades-long civil war. It was not only that of those who died but also those of women who were victims of mass rape, so endemic that the United Nations considered it a weapon and not a side effect of war.

Congo Wars

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has experienced two civil wars beginning in 1993. Years of internal conflict, dictatorship and economic decline posed a threat to the country, but the turning point came in 1994 when armed militias massacred members of Tutsi, Hutu and Twa. for about 100 days. It was called the Rwandan genocide – estimates of the dead range from around 500,000 to 800,000. There were also issues of corruption, infighting between militias, warlords, rebel groups and of chaotic military powers. Then-president Mobutu Sese Seko fell ill and his once strong anti-communist stance was no longer sufficient. Its governance was seen as politically and financially bankrupt. Due to these weaknesses, Rwanda invaded the Congo in 1996, and soon enough other states like Uganda, Burundi, Angola and Eritrea joined the chaos. If that wasn’t enough, anti-Mobutu rebel groups also rallied. Mobutu’s regime put up resistance with the help of its allied militias, but they eventually collapsed. Laurent Kabila became the next president and renamed Zaire the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Laurent Désiré Kabila, President of the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Etienne Scholasse, European CommunitiesAttribution, via Wikimedia Commons)

The First Congo War ended in 1997, and soon after more than a year, the Second Congo War followed. The root was pretty much the same as the first war. The tension began when Kabila fired his Rwandan chief of staff and replaced him with a native Congolese. Two weeks later, he ordered all Rwandan and Ugandan military forces to leave the country. In August 1998, with the support of Rwanda, the Banyamulenge of Goma broke out in rebellion. Together they formed a party called the Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie and they took control of the towns of Bukavu and Uvira in the Kivus. Predictably, President Kabila retaliated and urged the public to form a resistance against the Tutsis.

“Rape Capital of the World”

If the leader of your country encourages you to “bring a machete, a spear, an arrow, a hoe, spades, rakes, nails, truncheons, electric irons, barbed wire, stones, etc. brutal violence is expected to prevail throughout the war. Not only does this mean people were killed, but just like famine and fear, rape was rampant during the Congo war. Indeed, according to the study carried out by the American Public Health Association in 2011 entitled “Estimates and determinants of sexual violence against women in the Democratic Republic of Congo”,

Approximately 1.69 to 1.80 million women reported having been raped in their lifetime (with 407,397 to 433,785 women reporting being raped in the previous 12 months), and approximately 3.07 to 3.37 million women reported having experienced intimate partner sexual violence. Reports of sexual violence were largely independent of contextual factors at the individual level. However, compared to women in Kinshasa, women in North Kivu were significantly more likely to report all types of sexual violence.

Rape victims who have been successfully reintegrated into their communities gather at a ‘peace hut’ near Walungu, South Kivu in the DRC. (US governmentpublic domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Maybe it was to destroy the community or try to destroy their families, or maybe it was to instill fear to encourage them to leave their properties. Yet whatever the purpose of using this type of violence against women, there was no doubt that he was horribly evil. And no one was exempt because the victims could be aged from 8 months to 80 years old. The American Journal of Public Health also wrote that “sexual violence is widespread and includes gang rape, abduction for the purpose of sexual slavery, forced participation of family members in rape, and mutilation of genitals. women with knives and guns, among other atrocities”. Mass rapes were so widespread that women expected to be raped, not once, not even once. Some who refused were stabbed, burned, mutilated or shot in the genitals.

Not only was this traumatic for the victims, but they also suffered physically from torture, disfigured fistulas and sexually transmitted diseases. It is apart of the burden of those who became pregnant from the men (usually soldiers in uniform) who abused them.

The story of Rebecca Masika Katsuva, one of thousands

Rebecca Masika Katsuva. (Wikipedia)

One story among thousands of rape stories was that of Rebecca Masika Katsuva. Her story was hard to read, even harder to imagine that something so horrible had happened.

She was raped four times in her life. In 1999, her husband was killed in front of her before she was raped next to her husband’s corpse. Her two daughters, aged 13 and 14, were also raped and both became pregnant. Disowned by her husband’s family, they were forced to leave their home. Despite all these things, Rebecca did not back down and instead founded a shelter where she adopted female rape victims and the children they had. She received many threats from the soldiers for denouncing their crime.

Rapes of men have also been reported, although the numbers are unknown. One of the male victim stories in Human Rights Watch recounted how he and his father were raped after being captured by the Union of Congolese Patriots after assuming they were against them.

The end of the war was not the end

Several years and 5 million casualties later, the war ended in 2013 with a 2013 United Nations peace treaty. Only a handful of 39 men stood trial on counts of rape in Moniva. A thousand victims spoke and testified in the case, but only two men were ultimately convicted.

It wasn’t the end. In September 2020, fifty-six inmates were repeatedly raped at Kasapa central prison in Lubumbashi by several detainees. Ten were sentenced to 15 years in prison after the investigation.

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