Congo's Shocking Sexual Violence

In eastern Congo, more than 15,000 women were raped last year. Assaults included a four-day mass rape by rebel groups of more than 300 women.

10.17.10 10:41 PM ET

In eastern Congo, more than 15,000 women were raped last year. Assaults included a four-day mass rape of more than 300 women by rebel groups.

Even by the horrific standards of this conflict-ridden country, the number is staggering. According to U.N. officials, more than 15,000 people were raped in eastern Congo last year.

Gallery: Congo's Resilient Rape Survivors

To understand the scope and brutality of the sexual violence, consider this: Over a period of four days in August, a coalition of rebel groups systematically raped more than 300 hundred women in the remote area of Walikale—an incident that probably constitutes the largest mass rape in recent Congolese history.

“Almost all the victims were raped by the attackers in groups between two to six people,” a U.N. investigation found. “Before the sexual act, the attackers put their hands in the victims’ vaginas, purportedly looking for gold or money.”

Sadly, the attack was far from an isolated incident. Over the past years, the Congolese conflict, which for many years eluded much international attention due to its complexity and remoteness, has increasingly hit the headlines for its extreme viciousness, especially when it comes to sexual violence.

Last week, Roger Meece, the head of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo, told the U.N. that the security problem in the eastern part of the country is “enormous.” Although good data are hard to come by, a demographic survey published in August by U.S.-based researchers suggested that over a third of the women in the region may be survivors of sexual violence.

“Before the sexual act, the attackers put their hands in the victims’ vaginas, purportedly looking for gold or money.”

The numbers are mind-boggling and beg an explanation to the question: Why hasn’t the U.N., with almost 20,000 peacekeeping forces in the country, been able to stop the violence?

To answer that question, it’s important to avoid reducing the conflict to the spectacle of savage rebels and innocent victims. The violence is far from wanton and senseless but has taken place against the backdrop of a brutal civil war in the eastern Kivus region. In this context, civilians are seen as legitimate military targets.

This bloody conflict is fueled by a bitter competition between local and national elites over power and resources. A weak state and an abundance of mineral wealth compound the problem. Together, these factors have allowed over 20 different rebels groups to set up bases.

Full coverage of Congo: Stories, Pictures, and MorePerhaps the most important group is the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), Rwandan rebels numbering around 3,000 to 4,000. Last year, after over a decade of violent antagonism, the Rwandan and Congolese governments decided to patch up their differences and launch joint military operations against the FDLR. While they managed to demobilize or kill around half of the rebels, it came at the cost of displacing a million people and killing thousands.

It was in this context that the Walikale mass rape occurred. While the exact motive of the attack is not yet clear, it seems that the FDLR, together with rag-tag Congolese militias, carried out the rapes as revenge for an attack by the national army that had left several of their soldiers dead. According to the customary chiefs of the area, the FDLR wanted to humiliate the community for their “support” to the Congolese army, which had just moved one of their units out of the area.

Since the attack, the U.N. peacekeeping mission has come under fire for not having intervened. While the mission has certainly been guilty of inaction in the past, this time it appears that the peacekeepers were mostly guilty of not doing enough to find out what was going on.

The 80 Indian soldiers based nearby knew that the FDLR had entered the area and had begun pillaging, but reportedly had no idea of the scale of sexual violence. They told humanitarian workers to keep out of the area and conducted a brief patrol, but did little to investigate. The U.N.’s own report is revealing: The peacekeepers had no training in protecting civilians; they only had one interpreter and barely interacted with the locals. All of which adds up to severe negligence for sure. But not complicity in mass rape.

It is, moreover, unreasonable to think that the U.N. will ever be able to adequately intervene to protect civilians in the eastern Congo once fighting has begun. The area is as large as Florida with only a few hundred miles of passable roads. This year, the Indian government withdrew nine helicopters, which has further reduced the U.N.’s capacity to intervene in remote locations.

“Protecting civilians in imminent danger, which is our mandate, doesn’t make much military sense,” a U.N. official told me, requesting anonymity, as he was not authorized to speak to the press. “Once the fighting has started, it is usually too late and too difficult to stop it.”

The Daily Beast’s complete coverage of CongoProtecting civilians has to entail deterring violence before it has broken out. The U.N. took welcome steps in this direction when it arrested one of the Congolese commanders who had helped the FDLR carry out the rapes. Last week, the International Criminal Court ordered the arrest of the FDLR political leader Callixte Mbarushimana in Paris for his role in supporting the military operations.

It remains to be seen if these arrests will have an impact on military behavior—some diplomats have questioned whether these few arrests will really have an impact if hundreds of other perpetrators go unpunished. And little progress has been made with one of the main abusers: the Congolese army, despite years of training by American, Belgian, Angolan and Chinese officers.

Real change will only come if justice is swift and predictable, and when commanders realize that they are responsible for the acts of their men. In other words, a state and justice system has to be built where there is little sign of one. That will take years.

Jason Stearns is the former head of the United Nations Group of Experts on the Congo and has been working on the conflict for ten years. His book on the war, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters , will be published by Public Affairs in March 2011.