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DR-CONGO: Mass Gang Rape Exposes Systematic Sexual Violence

Aprille Muscara

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 24 2010 (IPS) - A U.N. human rights investigation mission will be launched in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) Wednesday, U.N. officials announced Tuesday, after gruesome reports surfaced in the media of the systematic gang rape of nearly 200 women in a 21km stretch of 15 villages.

A joint U.N. human rights team verified the perpetrators as Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda and Mai Mai Cheka rebel groups. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesperson Martin Nesirky said in a briefing that the victims of the raid are currently receiving medical and psycho-social care.

“This is another example of both the level of sexual violence and the insecurity that continue to plague the DRC,” Nesirky said in a statement.

According to Will F. Cragin of the International Medical Corps, between Jul. 30 and Aug. 3, an estimated 200 to 400 armed men descended on the town of Luvungi in the North Kivu province of the DRC, a mineral-rich area plagued by rebel groups who routinely loot and pillage villages and terrorise the population.

Most women were raped by two to six men, and in front of their families in their homes, Cragin said. But the brutality of this occurrence is all too common: According to a joint Oxfam and Harvard Humanitarian Initiative report released in April, 60 percent of rape victims in the DRC were gang raped, mostly by soldiers, and mostly at home.

Margot Wallstrom, Ban’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence and Conflict, has previously referred to the DRC as the “rape capital” of the world. Over 200,000 women have been raped in the Central African nation over the last 14 years of conflict – a statistic Wallstrom said was “certainly an underestimate” in an interview with IPS last month.


Wallstrom will be leading the U.N.’s response and follow-up to the mass rapes, Nesirky announced today. In addition, the secretary-general is dispatching Assistant Secretary-General Atul Khare of the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations to the DRC.

“The sexual violence in Congo is the result of the war between the many armed groups. To put women in the front line has become a part of modern warfare,” Wallstrom told IPS last month. “In addition, there is almost total impunity for rape in the Congo.”

In separate statements Tuesday, Wallstrom and Ban condemned the raid in the strongest terms possible. “This terrible incident confirms my general findings during my recent visit to the DRC of the widespread and systematic nature of rape and other human rights violations,” Wallstrom said.

Meanwhile, U.N. peacekeepers maintain a presence in the area through its mission, MONUSCO, which the Security Council in May voted to draw down by 2,000 troops in the western part of the country.

The U.N. says that last year, 8,000 cases of rape were reported in the DRC – an undoubtedly low estimate, given the number of incidents that go unreported.

Aware of the DRC’s reputation for cases of sexual violence against women, U.N. peacekeepers in the country had adjusted their operations in an attempt to prevent sexual violence, Wallstrom told IPS, such as through special patrols and the escort of women to health clinics and markets. However, these escort patrols, Nesirky explained, were not routine, but only took place if requested.

The town of Luvungi is just 16 kilometres away from the nearest U.N. military camp, according to Cragin. Bunangiri, another town affected by the four-day raid, is 30 kilometres away from a MONUSCO operating base, which Nesirky said was never informed of the incident by either the population or the local authorities.

Nesirky added that the rebel groups had blocked the main road in an effort to prevent villagers from reaching the nearest communication point to the base.

However, the Associated Press reported that 25 U.N. peacekeepers were present in the community during the raid, but failed to prevent it.

“When the peacekeepers approached a village, the rebels would run into the forest, but then the Blue Helmets had to move on to another area, and the rebels would just return,” said Charles Masudi Kisa, a civil society leader.

Nesirky told IPS that the U.N. was aware of these media reports, and stressed that investigations into the incident were still ongoing.

He said that the MONUSCO office in North Kivu received reports of the raid from an international medical NGO on Aug. 12. The following day, a joint protection team was deployed to the area for four days. On Aug. 14, the North Kivu MONUSCO brigade launched a fact-finding mission. A fully-fledged humanitarian investigation mission will be launched Wednesday.

“Clearly, if the U.N. mission on the ground becomes aware of an incident of this nature it will want to move very quickly to help those who have suffered, and also to investigate exactly what happened,” Nesirky told IPS. “There is, if you like, a twin track to help those who have been subjected to this incident, raped, and also to track down – with the help of the legitimate armed forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo – the perpetrators.”

 
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