Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
The torrid air in the makeshift courtroom was heavy with heat and hate as, one by one, the rape survivors confronted their attackers and relived their New Year’s Day horrors before a panel of judges. The anger and fear from both sides of the room was palpable – with only a few metres separating the rapists from their victims as they testified. One young woman, a newly married bride, threw her bloodied and torn clothing onto the floor as evidence of her ordeal. A 29-year-old mother of five said she was trying to flee into the forest when four soldiers caught up with her. “They tore my child from my arms and flung him on the ground. Then they tore off my pants and raped me, with my baby screaming all the time.” A middle-aged mother of six dropped to her knees and raised her arms to heaven, begging God and the military judges to bring her some peace. (Read the full article here or download it below)
Seven weeks after the soldiers’ rampage of rape and looting, she got – if not peace – then at least some justice when Lt. Colonel Mutuare Daniel Kibibi was sentenced to 20 years in prison for crimes against humanity for ordering his troops to attack her and so many others in the eastern Congolese town of Fizi. “He did not prevent his soldiers from carrying out these acts so in consideration of the treaty of Rome and the Congolese military penal code, Colonel Kibibi and all the other soldiers have committed crimes against humanity by rape, by terrorism and by inhuman acts,” said the presiding judge, Colonel Freddy Mukendi. Three of Kibibi’s officers were also sentenced to 20 years in jail with hard labour. Five other soldiers got lesser sentences, while one was acquitted and another was found to be only 16-years-old so he was remanded for trial in a juvenile court.
It was a landmark case since Kibibi was the highest-ranking Congolese army officer ever to be brought to trial for such a crime. And it was also a landmark verdict for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – a war-shattered nation where unknown thousands are raped each year by soldiers, militias and rebels who usually escape unpunished. Therese Kulungu, the lawyer who represented the victims, said the case – the highest profile rape trial ever held in Congo – was an important step. “The untouchable has been touched,” she said. The United Nations Special Envoy on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallstrom, said such trials “send a strong signal to all perpetrators of acts of sexual violence that no military commander is beyond the law, including members of the national army.”
But until recently, they were. However, slowly the situation is changing due to the work of the military judicial authorities and the success of an innovative initiative – the mobile gender court project.
For the Fizi trial, Congolese judges, lawyers, court reporters, police and translators were transported on helicopters provided by the UN peacekeeping mission so that the case could be heard in a mobile court in the nearby town of Baraka. The only other option – as this reporter and many others discovered – was a nine-hour, bone-shattering drive from the provincial capital, Bukavu. So why not simply hold the trial in Bukavu or the second largest town, Uvira? Because it is crucial to conduct cases as close as possible to the scene of the crimes in order to show remote communities justice in action. And so that the traumatised victims only needed to brave the short, rutted and winding dirt road down from their hilltop homes if they wanted to testify.
Remarkably, 49 women did decide to give evidence. For three days, the court sat in closed session to hear the testimony of these survivors – called simply Female 1 to Female 49 to hide their identities for fear of reprisals and to help prevent them suffering from the stigma attached to rape in Congo. The women sat on the left of the stiflingly hot room, many nursing babes-in-arms. On the right sat the accused, wearing olive green military uniforms, the officers in black boots and the soldiers in rubber flip flops. One young soldier smirked as a grey-haired woman described being raped by six men. Perhaps it was just a nervous reaction, but it drew a sharp reprimand from Judge Mukendi. Meanwhile, Kibibi’s second-in-command glared blatantly at the witnesses, trying to intimidate them even in front of the judges.
Once the women had told their harrowing tales, the court moved to an open-air stand where hundreds gathered to hear the additional evidence and to listen to the accused soldiers defend themselves against the charge that they had participated in the barbaric attack on New Year’s Day. The fuse was apparently a fight that broke out on New Year’s Eve in Fizi between two men – a soldier and a villager – over a woman. Others were drawn in. As the soldier reached for his weapon, villagers attacked, swiftly stoning him to death. When the news reached Kibibi, the colonel led his men in a vicious, vengeful attack. According to testimony from several witnesses, the soldiers descended in a fury on the village. They smashed down doors and went house-to-house in a punitive raid that lasted more than 12 hours from 6pm until 7am – pillaging, beating and raping. One woman said Kibibi raped her for 40 minutes. She said she knew the colonel because he often bought food from her. The military prosecutor, Laurent Mutata Luaba, demanded the death sentence for the five accused officers. He said that they “behaved like wild beasts”, terrorising and attacking unarmed civilians who they were deployed to protect. Mutata also said the court should hold Kibibi responsible for the crimes committed by his troops under the Statute of Rome that sets the criteria for crimes against humanity.
Kibibi was commander of the 43rd sector of the army operation against rebel groups called Amani Leo – Swahili for Peace Today. But many of the soldiers deployed to hunt down rebels and militias under Amani Leo have instead been accused of brutalising civilians. “Where is the peace we were promised?” one rape victim cried in the court. “Amani Leo has only brought us more suffering.”
The true numbers of victims in the Fizi raid will never be known. Within a week of the attack, the hospital treated 62 raped women. But many remained in hiding in the dense tropical forest around the village. One elderly woman emerged only the day before the trial ended, her face still swollen and bruised seven weeks after the horrors. While 49 women did testify, many others suffered in silence – fearing that they would be ostracised by their communities and deserted by their husbands. As Atul Khare, the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping, said rape is the only violation for which communities tend to stigmatise the victim rather than prosecute the perpetrators.
But there is now at least a chance that soldiers – and civilians – responsible for rape and other sexual violence in South Kivu Province will face justice. By the time Kibibi found himself in the dock, more than 150 people had already been prosecuted since late 2009 in mobile gender courts, which operate under Congolese law and are staffed solely by Congolese officials. Clearly mobile gender courts are only part of the solution to the massive sexual violence in eastern Congo. But the project has helped the authorities to begin to tackle the impunity that has reigned for so long.
In particular, soldiers in Congo’s army – a mish-mash of numerous rebel groups, some of which received formal training, others none – have long acted with total disregard for the law. Ill-paid or occasionally not paid at all, they are sometimes abandoned without even rations. So they often prey on the population as do the various rebel groups and militias, although soldiers are generally believed to have committed the majority of rapes. The army also includes senior officers who have been accused of massive human rights violations. Among them is Kibibi’s overall commander, General Bosco Ntaganda, a former rebel leader who was integrated into the army in 2009 at the same time as Kibibi, despite the fact that he is the subject of an International Criminal Court arrest warrant. Ntaganda is wanted for war crimes committed in northern Ituri Province from 2000-2006. More recently, he is alleged to have been involved in the massacre of 150 people in the eastern town of Kiwanja during a 2008 rebellion. The government has refused to hand him over, arguing that his cooperation in sustaining the fragile peace in eastern Congo is more important.
Government officials also claim that reports of army abuses are greatly exaggerated. The UN Special Investigator on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Philip Alston, said it is always “a very bad sign” when a government is in “a total state of denial”. Still the trial at Baraka is seen as an encouraging sign that the authorities, when they are given help, are willing to punish some of the perpetrators. Whether they are willing to accept Judge Mukendi’s finding that “overall responsibility” for the Fizi crimes lies with the government for recruiting people who were “untrained and uneducated” remains to be seen. Mukendi added that the victims must be compensated for the “humiliation, degradation of their health, social stigmatisation, risk of divorce and the possibility of HIV infection” and ordered the government to pay up to US$10,000 to each of the women who testified – double the amount stipulated for victims in previous cases.
This sizeable compensation would be a small fortune for the victims – most of whom scrape a living by selling eggs and vegetables. One said she was a seamstress who had saved US$300 over nearly two years – all of which was stolen by her rapists. But the women were not excited by the promise of compensation. Two said they knew of other rape victims who had been waiting for two-years for their court-ordered compensation. A lawyer working for the American Bar Association in Congo, Mohamedoun Ag Mohamed, added that he did not know of a single case, among scores, when the government has paid compensation to rape victims. In March, the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Navi Pillay, even recommended that the world body set up a fund to pay reparations to Congo’s rape victims, because of the small number of claims reaching the courts, because victims frequently cannot identify their attackers, and because “even the few victims who have secured a conviction have not been paid the damages awarded by the courts.”
But for the raped women of Fizi, compensation was not the main topic of discussion. Gathered together in a safe-house, known as the ‘House of Silence’, which was hidden along a goat track behind the hospital, the women felt free enough to discuss their trauma and the fallout, and to try and give each other hope for the future. Several had been kicked out by their husbands, left homeless and separated from their children. Two said their husbands had deserted them, leaving them with homes but as the sole providers for their children. One young woman said her fiancé had broken off their engagement, saying her body was defiled and dirty after she was raped by four soldiers who destroyed her virginity. “He’s right,” she said, looking down at the hands she was wringing. “I keep washing. I walk so many times to the river to get water. Sometimes I scrub my skin raw with a stone, but I just don’t ever feel clean anymore.”
All the women said the sentences given out were not sufficiently heavy – a view echoed by many of the mainly male spectators around the ‘courtroom’ who said that they had hoped for the death sentence. But even so, the guilty verdicts gave them the chance to air their grievances towards the soldiers who had preyed on their communities for so long. As the convicted rapists were led away in handcuffs, the crowd, which had swelled to nearly 2,000, booed and jeered and shook their fists. “You thought you could get away with this!” one man shouted. “You must pay for your crimes!”
Trying and convicting a colonel and other senior officers was a major step forward for justice in eastern Congo but the scale of the problem still beggars belief. UN Women, the agency for empowering women, estimates that more than 200,000 Congolese women were raped in the decade up to 2009. Tens of thousands more have been attacked since then. Most are gang-raped, and many have been raped multiple times over the years. “It is essential that the perpetrators of this heinous crime are swiftly apprehended and brought to justice,” Khare said after the mass rape of over 380 people in Luvungi in August 2010. “Rapid and exemplary punishment would deter others.”
In a report on the anniversary of the Luvungi rapes, Pillay said the attacks could be classified as war crimes and crimes against humanity. She lamented the lack of progress in investigations and said the delays in legal action posed ‘a severe obstacle’ to deterring future violations. Pillay said the military prosecutor had conducted more than 150 interviews with victims and witnesses but had suspended these over concerns about their protection after some of those who co- operated suffered reprisals. Some rape victims have reported being raped again by the same men after they escaped from prison. Such jail breaks, sometimes facilitated by corrupt prison officials, are common in Congo. “The government should pursue its efforts to bring perpetrators to justice and ensure that victims and witnesses are protected, given the high risk of reprisals,” Pillay said.
When the military court in Baraka completed its work, the court officials made a hasty exit, leaving the women who had testified before their attackers with no long-term protection. The rape survivors had repeatedly begged the judges to force the government to remove the entire contingent of soldiers from Fizi. They said that most were Rwandan, pointing to their use of Kinyarwanda, and traditional enemies of the people in that area. Many Congolese Tutsis also speak Kinyarwanda, and some of the Tutsi rebels integrated into the army belonged to a group that had terrorized the Fizi district in the past. The women feared more attacks from some of the dozens of soldiers involved in the New Year horrors who had not been tried because witnesses could not identify them.
“Most of the rapists are still right here in our village,” one victim said as she nursed her baby. “If we go to the river for water, we get raped. If we go to the fields for food, we get raped. If we go to the market to sell our goods, we get raped. Our lives are filled with danger. There is no peace,” she said. Four months later, aid workers reported that more than 100 women had been sexually assaulted and many more wounded in a mass rape just 40 kilometres from Fizi – this time in an attack committed by Rwandan-led rebels.
But despite the discouraging statistics, there are glimmers of hope. In an article for the Washington Times, journalist Heather Murdock wrote that the few well-publicised rape cases may have deterred potential rapists and inspired more victims to come forward. She quoted Dr. Guylain Mvuama, who operates a hospital specialising in treating victims of sexual violence in Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province. He said that it could be a coincidence, but he believed he should credit the trials for his hospital receiving 50 percent fewer rape victims than at the same stage last year.
Back in Baraka, one of the Fizi rape victims, now confronting an uncertain future, wished she had not testified. But she was hushed by the other women in the group, who said that despite all their fears, if they were asked to do it again, they would testify for the satisfaction of seeing at least some of their torturers punished. “We women have to do it,” said a middle- aged mother of five, who has been abandoned by her husband. “If we don’t come forward and get all these tragedies out in the open, it will just go on and on.”