It was in a sickly green, fluorescent-lit meeting room in Bukavu, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, a couple of years ago that someone whispered to me that babies were being gang-raped in a nearby town. I’d been there for many hours listening to the stories of rape survivors for an unrelated article, when a researcher at an international nongovernmental organization described a few details. “They are very tiny. Maybe three and four years old,” she said. “We don’t know how the men are getting into the houses, but they take the girls and no one else wakes up.” The attacks had begun six months prior, in June 2013, and while this is a country rife with sexual violence, the cases were rattling people. These were babies.
The town where the rapes were happening, Kavumu, is devastatingly poor, even by Congolese standards. Residents live in mud-and-stick or wood-slat shacks. Children often sleep crowded into one or two beds in a single room. It is not uncommon for eight youngsters to share such a space. So when men started stealing tiny girls in the dead of night, it was a mystery how no one woke up. Rumors swirled that the attacks were related to witchcraft — that the blood of these virgin girls was being used to fortify the rapists before battle. People said the perpetrators sprinkled a kind of magic sleeping powder over the houses of their victims while they carried out the abductions.
During the next year, the number of cases increased. By the time I wrote about them for Foreign Policy in April 2015, Panzi Hospital — Bukavu’s famous center for victims of sexual violence — had done what the hospital’s medical director, Denis Mukwege, described as “heavy surgery” on 35 little girls. But still the ongoing attacks were being treated as individual cases, as though they were isolated events. As I was researching the story, I made several inquiries to top Congolese officials asking what the government planned to do to stop the crimes. Days before publication, the government hastily announced that it would launch a “national investigation” into the rapes in Kavumu. Good news, I thought — except nothing came of it for more than a year.
I tried to follow up on how this “national investigation” was going, but the government — and specifically the office of Jeanine Mabunda, the country’s special representative on sexual violence — remained tight-lipped. After six months of making inquiries, I found out through Congolese sources that a single investigator had been put on the cases, but that he had not been given funding, training, or any other resources from Kinshasa. The former head of the North Kivu Sexual Violence Unit, Police Col. David Bodeli, had been called to the capital and told to solve the crimes — but that was it.
So I decided to go back to Congo to figure out what exactly was going on. The day I arrived in Bukavu in late December, a 3-year-old girl had landed at Panzi, having been abducted and gang-raped the night before. She couldn’t walk because of the pain. In the same row of hospital beds in the sexual violence ward were two more girls who had been brought in the week before: One was five years old, and the other was six.
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