The worst victims of the seemingly unending violence in Congo seem to be women. If the United Nations estimates that 200,000 women and girls have been the victims of sexual violence worldwide since 1998, nearly 16,000 rapes were reported in Congo last year alone.
The UN reports that the Congo War is the most lethal war in the world today, with the highest death toll since World War II,
AdvertisementSix million have died, according to widely acknowledged sources including the International Relief Commission and the U.N. Forty-five thousand Congolese continue to die every month, with no end in sight; many die in refugee camps of starvation and easily curable disease, and one third of these are children.
While the war formally ended six years ago, fighting persists in eastern Congo. It is being fought to secure, above all, the "geo-strategic" cobalt reserves in the Katanga Copper Belt in southeast. While neighbouring nations and rebel militias are all involved in the war, so is the US, it is claimed.
Whatever the truth of such allegations, the fact remains it is the women who are paying a heavy price, says the Human Rights Watch, a noted nonprofit. Its researchers relentlessly expose sexual violence in Congo, documenting rape, working with women's rights activists to organize advocacy efforts, lobbying judicial officials on cases, and urging journalists to cover the issue.
"One of the other sad realities is that the majority of those who are raped are adolescent girls, 12-year-olds, 13-year-olds, 14-year-olds. Their lives are often ruined by this. And I think we've got to take more seriously -- protection of civilians is not just protecting them from death. It's protecting them from rape," researcher Anneke Van Woudenberg, told CNN.
Raped girls don't seem to elicit much sympathy in their own community. One of them was told by her family that she could come home - but without her baby.
Despite growing awareness of the massive scale of sexual violence in Congo, rape is not decreasing. Very few soldiers had been prosecuted for rape, leave alone any higher-level commanders.
Congo has indeed taken some measures to try to curb the sexual violence. In 2006, its parliament passed a law criminalizing rape, with penalties ranging from five to 20 years. Penalties are doubled under certain circumstances, including gang-rape and if the perpetrator is a public official.
President Joseph Kabila's wife, Olive Lemba Kabila, has launched a public campaign speaking out against rapes of the nation's women and girls.
The army says it has started a zero-tolerance campaign in which commanders have emphasized to troops that they must respect human rights and protect civilians from harm, still there is a long way to go.
The record of the 14th brigade of the Congolese Army, for instance, illustrates some of the broader problems contributing to sexual violence: internal divisions, chaotic chain of command, impunity, and poor living conditions for soldiers.
In July, just before the organization's most recent report on sexual violence was published, its executive director, Kenneth Roth, and senior researcher Van Woudenberg, met with President Kabila in a tent on the shores of Lake Kivu. "We made the greatest progress on an anti-rape strategy," Roth says.
Human Rights Watch then held a press conference in Goma where they loudly criticized the brutal abuses by all belligerents to the conflict, including the widespread rape by government soldiers.
Since July, several rape trials have been opened, one leading to the conviction of two high-level officers. Another officer has recently been arrested, accused of raping a 28-year-old woman and persuading three other soldiers to rape her too. Four other high-level officers are under investigation for related charges.
"We have seen progress in the prosecution of ordinary soldiers for sexual violence," said Juliane Kippenberg, researcher with the Human Rights Watch's Children's Rights Division. "But senior army officers continue to be untouched. Their own crimes and their command responsibility for the crimes of their soldiers must be investigated and held to account."
In May, the United Nations handed over the names of five top military officers accused of rape. Two of the senior officers are being detained in the capital of Kinshasa and the three others must report to authorities under close observation. They are awaiting trial.
Still more must be done, aid groups say, starting with the establishment of a special court made up of Congolese and international judges and prosecutors to investigate rape allegations.
"What needs to be done is to have a state in Congo that can control its territory and that has the confidence of the people," Jean-Marie Guehenno, the former head of U.N. peacekeeping said.
"The violence in the Kivu, the violence in Ituri, it is the result of a vacuum, the fact that there is no administration, there is no credible state, there is no justice. And so that vacuum is being occupied by various militias.
"And, unfortunately, when the Congolese army integrates a militia without sorting between the killers and those who could be integrated, it just adds to the problem," Guehenno added.