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August 31, 2010

Mass rapes in the Congo

Luvungi, population 2,200 is a farming town in North Kivu in eastern Congo. It lies on the road between Goma and mines which are rich in gold, coltan and cassiterite. We use the latter in our cell phones, computers and other electronic devices. Groups of armed militia have been warring for control of the mines and the wealth the mines yield continues to fund the rebels' activities. Civilians pay the ultimate price; since 1994 more than 5 million people have perished as a result of the violence. Millions more have been in flight mode since their homes and villages were attacked. The region of North Kivu in Congo has been referred to as "the rape capitol of the world".

The most dreaded of the militia is the FDLR- Hutus who were participants in the1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda.

On July 30, accompanied by the Mai Mai-a Congolese rebel group- the FDLR entered Luvung and surrounding villages. They blocked off all routes to and from the cluster. And the rampage began.

Over four unimaginable days there some 200 women and girls were gang-raped. Also four baby boys, aged one month, six months, 18 months and one year.

Some women said they were raped in their homes in front of their children and husbands by three to six men. Others were dragged into the brush.

In North Kivu I met women and little girls who described being gang raped. Some were penetrated with a bayonette and after their insides were destroyed, the rapists pounded the women's legs to pulp with their rifle butts.

The women I spoke with said the most brutal rapes had been perpetrated by the Hutu rebels (FDLR). Tutsi rebels are also a threat, and the Mai-Mai and the Congolese army. According to the UN at least 8,300 rapes were reported last year. In a region where impunity reigns, many people don’t report a rape because there is little chance that anyone will do anything about it, and because the stigma of being raped is very real (many women told me their husbands had left them after they were raped). And some women fear retaliation.

So the people in North Kivu are on the run. A group of displaced people sheltering in a UN supported camp said they had moved 6 or 8 times. They spoke urgently hoping I could do something to help them. At about 5PM they said, every evening militia came to the camp to rape them. They could only describe the rapists as "men in uniform". That same week a one year old baby had been raped. And people were getting sick; cholera had come to the camp. As we spoke, buses were pulling in near the tents, and with the help of UNHCR people were moving yet again-to an area they hoped would be safer. But the front line is also on the move and nowhere is safe in North Kivu.

I visited the UN peacekeeping base where it was wrenching to see as many as 4000 people pressed outside the gates. They had nothing, no food, shelter or water. Parents approached me, pleading with their eyes, holding out their dying children. UN agencies were struggling to meet people's needs but everyone is overwhelmed.

20,000 United Nations peacekeepers are in Congo but they have not been effective in protecting the people.

Civilians believe the peacekeepers are protecting commercial goods but not civilians, which is their primary mandate.

The Congolese government has this year demanded the withdrawal of the U.N. mission, saying it has failed in its primary mandate to protect civilians.
The peacekeeper's mandate is complicated by the fact that they are also required to lend support to the Congolese army, whose troops are often the perpetrators.

After the attack upon the women of Luvungi , communication between the Peacekeepers and the UN offices of Margot Wallstrom, U.N. envoy on sexual violence in conflict, were disgracefully slow. Wallstrom did not receive word of the atrocities until Aug. 21-22, more than a week after the U.N. peacekeeping force in the country learned about the incident and two weeks after the health organization treating the victims reported the incidents to a U.N. humanitarian liaison. That was on Aug. 6.

Six months ago the secretary-general Ban Ki Moon appointed Wallstrom to a two-year term, but insiders say she has rarely been seen at the UN and she has yet to fill four of the six positions in her offices. She is currently in Europe.

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