Congo: The War Against Women
Right now there's a war taking place in the heart of Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and more people have died there than in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Darfur combined; more than four million people, and the numbers keep rising...the most frequent targets of this hidden war are women. It is, in fact, a war against women, and the weapon used to destroy them, their families and whole communities, is rape.
January 13, 2008
CBS: 60 Minutes
Congo: War Against Women
Produced by Michael Gavshon and Drew Magratten
(CBS) Right now there's a war taking place in the heart of Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and more people have died there than in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Darfur combined.
You probably haven't heard much about it, but as CNN's Anderson Cooper reports, it's the deadliest conflict since World War II. Within the last ten years, more than four million people have died and the numbers keep rising.
As Cooper and a 60 Minutes team found when they went there a few months ago, the most frequent targets of this hidden war are women. It is, in fact, a war against women, and the weapon used to destroy them, their families and whole communities, is rape.
Dr. Denis Mukwege is the director of Panzi Hospital in Eastern Congo. In this war against women, his hospital is the frontline. One of the latest victims he’s treating is Sifa M'Kitambala. She was raped just two days before the team arrived by soldiers who raided her village.
"They just cut her at many places," Dr. Mukwege explains.
Sifa was pregnant, but that didn't stop her rapists. Armed with a machete, they even cut at her genitals.
In the last ten years in Congo, hundreds of thousands of women have been raped, most of them gang raped. Panzi Hospital is full of them.
"All these women have been raped?" Cooper asked Dr. Mukwege, standing near a very large group of women waiting.
All the women, the doctor says, have been patients of his.
Within a week, Dr. Mukwege says this room will be filled with new faces, new victims.
"You know, they're in deep pain. But it's not just physical pain. It's psychological pain that you can see. Here at the hospital, we've seen women who've stopped living," Dr. Mukwege explains.
And not all the people the hospital treats are adults. "There are children. I think the youngest was three years old," Mukwege says. "And the oldest was 75."
To understand what is happening here, you have to go back more than a decade, when the genocide that claimed nearly a million lives in neighboring Rwanda spilled over into Congo. Since then, the Congolese army, foreign-backed rebels, and home-grown militias have been fighting each other over power and this land, which has some of the world's biggest deposits of gold, copper, diamonds, and tin. The United Nations was called in and today their mission is the largest peacekeeping operation in history.
Since 2005, some 17,000 UN troops and personnel have cobbled together a fragile peace. Last year they oversaw the first democratic election in this country in 40 years. But now all they have accomplished is at risk. Fighting has broken out once again in Eastern Congo and the region threatens to slip into all out war.
Each new battle is followed by pillaging and rape; entire communities are terrorized. Forced to flee their homes, people take whatever they can, and walk for miles in the desperate hope of finding food and shelter. Over the last year, more than 500,000 people have been uprooted. A fraction of them make it to cramped camps, where they depend on UN aid to survive.
One camp Cooper visited sprang up just two months before. It was already overcrowded, but more people kept arriving. They would go there seeking refuge, a safe haven, but the truth is in Congo, for women, there’s no such thing. Even in these supposedly protected camps, women are raped every single day.
"Has rape almost become the norm here?" Cooper asks Anneka Van Woudenberg, who is the senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"I think because of the widespread nature of the war, because there has been so much violence, rape is now on a daily basis - rape is the norm," Van Woudenberg replies.
"Women get raped in wars all the time. How is it different here?" Cooper asks.
"I think what's different in Congo is the scale and the systematic nature of it, indeed, as well, the brutality. This is not rape because soldiers have got bored and have nothing to do. It is a way to ensure that communities accept the power and authority of that particular armed group. This is about showing terror. This is about using it as a weapon of war," she explains.
It's hard to imagine this war happening in the midst of such breathtaking natural beauty and abundance. But after decades of dictatorship and corruption, the country is broken. Most of the fighting and the raping takes place in remote areas difficult to get to.
Cooper and the team headed to an isolated village in the mountains in Eastern Congo called Walungu. For years there's been armed groups fighting in this region; thousands of men emerge from the forest to terrorise villages and steal women. Congo’s government seems unable or unwilling to stop them.
(CBS) In the week before they arrived there were three attacks in which women were raped. The youngest victim was just six years old.
In some villages as many as 90 percent of the women have been raped; men in the villages are usually unarmed, and incapable of fighting back. In Walungu the team found 24-year-old Lucienne M’Maroyhi. She was at home one night with her two children and her younger brother, when six soldiers broke in. They tied her up and began to rape her, one by one.
"I was lying on the ground, and they gave a flashlight to my younger brother so that he could see them raping me," she recalls.
"They were telling your brother to hold the flashlight?" Cooper asks.
"Yes," she says. "They raped me like they were animals, one after another. When the first one finished, they washed me out with water, told me to stand up, so the next man could rape me."
She was convinced they'd kill her, just as soldiers had murdered her parents the year before. Instead, they turned to her brother. "They wanted him to rape me but he refused, and told them, 'I cannot do such a thing. I cannot rape my sister.' So they took out their knives and stabbed him to death in front of me," she recalls.
Lucienne was then dragged through the forest to the soldier's camp. She was forced to become their slave and was raped every day for eight months. All the while, she had no idea where her children were.
"Did you know if they were alive or dead?" Cooper asks.
"I was thinking that they had killed. I didn’t think I would find them alive," she replies.
Finally, Lucienne escaped. Back in her village she found her two little girls were alive. But she also learned that she was pregnant. She was carrying the child of one of her rapists. Lucienne's husband abandoned her. That happens to rape survivors all over Congo.
"I used to think that when men fled they were irresponsible, but now I understand things differently,” Dr. Mukwege tells Cooper. “They haven't fled because their wives have been raped, but because they feel they've been raped. They have been traumatized…humiliated…because they weren’t able to do anything to protect their wives and children."
"When a woman is raped, it's not just her that's raped. It's the entire community that's destroyed," says Judithe Registre, who is with an organization called "Women for Women." They run support groups for survivors of rape.
"When they take a woman to rape her, they'll line up the family, they'll line up other members of the communities to actually witness that," Registre says. "They make them watch. And so, what that means for that particular woman when it's all over, is that total shame, personally, to have been witnessed by so many people as she's being violated."
Many of the women in Dr. Mukwege’s hospital are not only blamed for what happened to them, they are shunned because of fears they’ve contracted HIV and shunned because their rapes were so violent they can no longer control their bodily functions.
Dr. Mukwege says he's doing about five surgeries a day.
His patients often have had objects inserted into their vaginas, like broken bottles, bayonets. Some women have even been shot between the legs by their rapists.
"Why would somebody do that? Why would somebody shoot a woman inside?" Cooper asks.
"In the beginning I was asking myself the same question. This is a show of force, of power, it's done to destroy the person," Dr. Mukwege says. "Sex is being used to commit evil. People flee. They become refugees. They can't get help, they become malnourished and it's disease which finishes them off."
(CBS) For these women, Dr. Mukwege is both healer and counselor. Dunia Karani is an orphan. She has polio, and can’t walk, but that didn’t stop soldiers from raping her. Now she’s pregnant and has no idea how she’ll cope.
Asked what he can tell a young girl about her future, Dr. Mukwege says, "The most difficult thing is when there is nothing I can do. When I see a 16-year-old, a pretty 16-year-old who's had everything destroyed, and I tell her that I have to give her a colostomy bag…that is difficult."
Despite those difficulties, more often than not, Dr. Mukwege is able to repair the damage to these women’s bodies. They see him as a miracle worker, one of the only men they can trust.
While Dr. Mukwege gives Cooper a tour of the hospital wards, one of his patients gives him the thumbs up.
"And now she's very happy," he says, "Very happy."
That reaction not only gives him hope, he says, but also the strength to continue his work.
Strength is something that few women in Congo lack. They bear the burdens, farm the fields, and hold the families together, yet nothing it seems is being done to protect them.
The war is so widespread that rapes are increasingly being committed by civilians. A few washed out billboards tell men that rape is wrong, but there’s little evidence Congolese officials take the problem seriously.
In the prosecutor's office, the complaints pile up. We were told a $10 bribe could get a rape accusation investigated, but few cases ever go to court.
We asked the prosecutor to show us the prison, to see how many rapists were actually behind bars, but when we got there, we were in for a surprise. The prison had no fences, and the guards had been kicked out. The inmates had taken over the asylum.
"The fact is the justice system is on its knees in Congo," says Van Woudenberg, the human rights investigator. "I can count on one hand the number of cases that we're aware of that have been brought to trial. Literally here people get away with rape, they get away with murder. The chances of being arrested are nil."
There may be no justice in Congo, but there are organisations trying to help rape survivors get back on their feet. "Women For Women" teaches survivors how to make soap, how to cook - skills they can use to earn money. They also learn how to read and write. It is the first time many of these women have ever been in a classroom - it is their chance for a whole new life.
Remember Lucienne M’Maroyhi? She’s jumped at that chance. She hopes to start her own business one day.
She is also now the mother of a little baby girl, born a year ago. The father is one of her rapists, one of the men who killed Lucienne's brother. She named the girl "Luck."
"I named her Luck because I went through many hardships," she explains. "I could have been killed in the forest. But I got my life back. I have hope."
Hope is not something you’d expect Congo’s rape survivors to still cling to. But they do.
Each morning in Panzi hospital they gather to raise their voices, singing at a religious service. Our sufferings on earth, they sing, will be relieved in heaven.
Relief in Congo, it seems, is just too much to ask for. 1 2 3
Anderson Cooper: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/01/11/60minutes/main3701249_page3.shtml
Why should you care? http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/01/11/60minutes/main3701249_page3.shtml
[ . . . the Democratic Republic of Congo (70% Christian) . . . has received a fraction of the media attention devoted to Darfur.
The UN estimates that 3 million to 4 million Congolese have been killed, compared with the estimated 200,000 civilian deaths in Darfur. A peace deal agreed in December 2002 has never been adhered to, and atrocities have been particularly well documented in the province of Kivu - carried out by paramilitary organisations with strong governmental links. In the last month alone, thousands of civilians have been killed in heavy fighting between rebel and government forces vying for control of an area north of Goma, and the UN reckons that another 50,000 have been made refugees.--Roger Howard, "Where anti-Arab prejudice and oil make the difference," Guardian, May 16, 2007]