A Miserable Mystery in Congo / Foreign Policy

Screen Shot 2014-03-09 at 8.11.09 AMThe men come during the night. They choose a house, smash a hole through a wall, and take a child away to do terrible things to her. They return her to her bed, or to her family’s yard, by morning. If she has survived, she’ll need to be rushed to a doctor because her organs have been shoved up deep inside of her by a penis or other objects. 

When I visited Kavumu, a poor town in eastern Congo, in 2014, I heard about these stories in whispers. Kavumu is just across Lake Kivu from Rwanda and near an office of the U.N. stabilization mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). The town’s inhabitants include a number of people from the marginalized Twa ethnic minority (known as Pygmies), individuals who have relocated from small Congolese villages in regions dominated by militias, and a sizable population of demobilized soldiers. Kavumu has a high crime rate and a low literacy level, according to human rights activists. It also has the ignominious reputation of being the site of dozens of rapes of young girls and female infants over the past two years.

Some of these victims have wound up for treatment in local clinics, where they’ve often been washed and, unfortunately, disinfected of forensic evidence before being sent on to Panzi Hospital in the nearby city of Bukavu. Panzi, led by physician Denis Mukwege, is at the forefront of treating survivors of sexualized violence. At least 35 girls from Kavumu requiring “heavy surgery” entered the hospital in the past year or so, Mukwege said during a visit to the European Parliament in March. Some of the girls, whose ages range from 6 months to 11 years, have spent months in Panzi recovering from severe trauma. One source on the ground told me about a girl who lay face down on a bed, unable to bring her legs together due to pain.

To date, no one has been able to determine who is responsible for the rapes. This is due in large part to a dysfunctional legal system. Very few of the assaults have been examined individually — only seven cases had been opened as of the end of 2014, according to Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). Experts from PHR and other human rights organizations have suggested that a formal investigation into all the rapes as part of a single mass crime is necessary, but sources on the ground say that Kavumu’s prosecutor, the town’s highest-ranking justice official, has resisted launching one for unknown reasons. The police in turn argue that they can’t begin their work without the prosecutor’s authorization. Even if the police could start, however, legal experts at MONUSCO and PHR say the police would have to close cases after 10 days unless they could produce probative evidence — a tough hurdle to pass in a place with limited investigative resources and in which law enforcement is routinely bribed to get work done. (A number of human rights and legal advocates told me the prosecutor is sometimes called “Mr. Hundred Dollar” because he’s known to drop a case for that much.)

Karen Naimer, director of PHR’s program on sexual violence in conflict zones, describes how her organization, MONUSCO, U.N. police, Panzi Hospital, and local civil society activists have offered technical assistance, such as training in collecting evidence, that could help track down the perpetrators — to no avail. “The whole arsenal has been waiting to be deployed, but nobody seems to be deploying it,” says Naimer.

On Monday, April 6, the office of Congo’s personal representative to fight sexual violence and the recruitment of children into armed groups — a presidential appointee — announced it is “working with national authorities to launch an investigation into allegations of sexual violence” in Kavumu. This is a welcome step forward, but it also remains to be seen how pledges of action will be put into practice. Many activists in Kavumu are skeptical.

Meanwhile, in the absence of legal progress, those distraught about the rapes have been left to speculate about who is behind the crimes and why. Some of the answers are stranger than one might think.

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