As Marc-André Lagrange, (international crisis group member/DRC senior analyst/expert in African conflicts) responds to questions about the current state of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) he exclaims, “you cannot have peace without justice”. I began to question what “justice” actually would look like for a country with such intertwined, multilayered disparities? Who would justice be for? Who would it be against? After so many years of war and conflict was peace obtainable?
In the DRC more than 400,000 women are raped each year according to the 2011 study done by, The American Journal of Public Health. According to the United Nation figures, this statistic makes the DRC the rape capitol of the world with also 1 in 3 Congolese men having admitted to committing sexual assault and/or rape. In Gloria Steinem’s show WOMEN, a docuseries premiering with the issues occurring in the DRC, Steinem states that, to date 1.8 million people have been targeted of brutal sexual assault in the eastern region of the DRC and now that boundary of sexualized violence is leaking into further areas outside the considered combat zone carrying with its migration the implications of impunity. More than 20 years ago Rwanda invaded the DRC, battling for power over the mineral rich resources in the eastern region that include coltan, the mineral responsible for making your laptops, tablets, and cell phones. Ranking among the top 5 producers of coltan in the world the DRC is considered highly viable in the global economy.
The late Maskia Katsuva who passed away suddenly in 2016 due to malaria complications was an activist working in the village of Buganga. The village of Buganga acts as a shelter for women and children who have been rape or victims of various forms of sexualized violence like Katsuva herself, and her two daughters who were attacked at twelve and fourteen years of age. While listening to Gorgeta a woman who recently made it to Buganga after a horrific gang rape where she was awoken during the night. She was cut and burned while 20 men raped her over her dead husband’s body then the assailants proceeded to kill her children in front of her. Gorgeta explains they did this because her husband was apart of an opposing militia. It is clear the devastating long lasting effects sexualized violence causes to not only women but to the whole of a society. Gorgeta is quoted saying she “lost her mind” after two days waiting for help, unable to move from the attack. Many people are cited as saying they lost their minds during the horrific experiences they endured. Over the 15 years Katsuva worked in Buganga she personally saw 10,123 women all affected by brutal sexualized violence. Issues also included the contraction of HIV and AIDS, which were cause of death for many if initial injuries did not kill the victim first. Ferole Mac a rebel who was a farmer, now a head of a local militia exclaims quiet simply “its either I die today or my child dies tomorrow”. He believes the rebel groups like M23 and the Tutsis (Rwandans) aim to provoke them to fight through the rape of their women and children with the land being the ultimate goal.
Justice begins with immediate action for the women of the DRC. It begins with increased protection at the ground level from allies who have voiced their support but have not back it by action. These women after being abandoned and shunned from their communities due to the stigma of rape, find work digging for minerals but are left in the open, unable to defend themselves from possible attacks. Marie-Roger Biloa, (editor of Africa International/President Club Millennium/Political Commentator) emphasizes the importance of recognizing the psychological severity that is impacting the victims in the DRC. I agree with her criticisms that although the UN and other smaller organizations have expressed effort in helping the Congolese government it has not been enough. The rate of sexualized violence continues to increase in practice while decreasing the age of who is at risk. She exclaims that we do not see the larger effort and implementation that a situation like this demands for from the developed countries who possess resources that can control the rebel groups such as M23 where its apparent the Congolese government is struggling. The mentality of the government through statements given to troops explaining, “you have a gun you don’t need a paycheck” must be stopped, this is where power and committing violence are being interlaced as one. As an example to her claim, in 2012 in the city of Minova troops swarmed in and raped well over a hundred women and girls. According to the survivors the attacks were not from militia or opposing forces but the DRC’s own troops. The government made an usual move and held a trial where 39 soldiers including 5 high ranking officials were included but resulted in just 2 junior solider convictions. In the eyes of the North Kivu Vice governor, Feller Lutaichirwa this was a great success. Biola’s concerns are made valid, she explains that what we are getting wrong here is the thinking that there is a current Congolese government who is even capable in the reform of justice or military reform at this present time.
In Bukavu city in the South Kivu Province, Dr. Denis Mukwege a Noble Peace Prize Nominee, has worked at the cities hospital for 32 years. He deals with the most severe and brutal rape cases in the region. He explains throughout his years that currently he is seeing the highest occurring, most serve levels of child sexualized violence in his experience as a doctor. During Vice reporter Isobel Yeung’s visit, Mukwege explained, while simultaneously comforting a distressed mother before inspecting her child who at only 6 years of age had been confirmed as a victim of rape, that this phenomenon is rising and must be paid attention to. Lagrange explains that long standing policies of militia integration into the countries army to accentually buy peace from the militias is causing the degradation of the countries military. Military and governmental reform must be prioritized. Ida Sawyer (DRC researcher HRW/documented atrocities in the DRC/human right’s advocate) states the UN’s key role in working with the Congolese government however late it may be, must commit to punishing senior officials for the sexual violence being committed. Taking away wealth and benefits given to “leaders” can be one way to hopefully sway the appeal of violence. Putting pressure on Rwanda as well Sawyer states is crucial in alleviating the eastern region of the high levels of violence.
Sawyer and Lagrange both heavily focus on the need to indict more senior high-ranking officials. Jason Stearns (Rift Valley Institute Director – leading think tanks of Sub-Saharan Africa) agrees with this sentiment explaining the competing narrative the UN is currently in. Part of the UN mandate explains that they will support the Congolese effort contingent upon the factor of human rights infringements. Stearns explains that to cut off support by which groups are committing crimes would be impossible. By sanctioning head authority figures the UN and supporting groups can provide more of an incentive against this behavior. Lastly the condemning of rapists is not enough. There must be a rehabilitative aspect. Due to the decades of war and sexualized violence, extreme psychological problems as Mukwege noted are rampant. Once soldiers were unarmed after the “end” of the war there was no psychological support. These psychological issues the men carried/carry with them act as a virus toward society. Where rape culture exists, rape babies will grow up to know nothing better than the violence and suffering they have been created by and experienced since they day they were born.
*Full episode on Viceland online