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African view: Guinea's rape horror

6 November 09 09:19

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, commentator and National Public Radio correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reflects on her conversations with survivors of a brutal crackdown on opposition supporters in Guinea.

Some reporting assignments stay with you. You just cannot shake them off, even when you think perhaps you have.

That has been the case with Guinea this time round.

The date, 28 September, was repeated by just about everyone I spoke with there - women and men - etched in their memories as if they had been branded.

It is etched in mine too - and yet I was not at the main stadium in Conakry on that day.

I did not witness the shooting of pro-democracy protesters or the public rape and sexual violence of women in and around the stadium. But I witnessed the fall-out.

Rape is surely horrific, but becomes even more so when the images of alleged crimes are recorded on cell phones, because the alleged rapes happened in the middle of the day, in public.

Wailing outrage

The sometimes grotesque photos are then splashed on the internet, a record of the humiliation and shaming of women, making the violations even more painful.

We are told it was mainly the "berets rouges", Guinea's presidential guard - with still unconfirmed reports that they were aided by hired guns, mercenaries from neighbouring Liberia - who committed the atrocities, targeting with their weapons the thousands who had gathered to hear opposition leaders denounce Guinea's military regime.

First came the killings - then the brutal sexual assaults.

Witnesses and survivors say the troops forced themselves on women of all ages in and around the stadium - students, professionals, market women, opposition campaigners - even grandmothers.

Guns, bayonets, knives and other weapons were used to rip off their brightly coloured boubous (traditional West African gowns) - even their trousers.

And some of those weapons were used to sexually violate them.

I had a sorrowful and emotional meeting with some of these women who said they had been subjected to all manner of abuse - and others who said they had been forced to witness men and women being shot and assaulted.

You would think that the women might have been too frightened to talk in these circumstances, fearing retribution from their tormentors.

A lucky escape

They all kept saying, "C'est du jamais vu, c'est du jamais vu," meaning: "We've never before in our lives witnessed such a thing in Guinea."

Guinean women have a robust reputation and a history of challenging the successive authoritarian regimes and poisonous military governments that have dominated the country's 51 years since independence from France.

And the women I met wanted to talk.

Some wept openly, wailing even, as they retold their experiences. Others were quietly determined.

Without exception, the women all told me that, this time, there must be no impunity; that the soldiers who violated their dignity, so publicly, must be punished.

One woman was so angry, so outraged, so shamed - as she said herself - that her legs began trembling and then her whole body, as she recalled what she called a lucky escape - "by the grace of God".

She said she managed to get out of the stadium, but was followed to her hiding place by a group of men in uniform.

"At that moment, I said a final prayer," she confessed, "because I believed my last hour had come."

But one soldier said, "Forget it, leave her alone," and they took off.

She said she was shaking, wearing only an underskirt because her wraparound cloth had been torn off her.

She managed to flag down a taxi, but began trembling all over again when she saw a soldier board the same vehicle.

She said she prayed that he would not recognise her as having been among those at the stadium.

He did not, she said, and hopped down from the taxi before she did.

Only then was she able to calm down and take a deep breath and finally made her way home.

I felt hot tears rolling down my cheeks as I tried to keep my microphone steady, recording her and other women's ordeals.

It is not the first time I have interviewed survivors of sexual violence, but it has generally been in a war setting or a conflict zone.

This time, we were sitting in the heart of Conakry, right in the city, which the Guinean military had turned into a virtual combat zone.

Yes, these women could be me, I could be them. It had me thinking that this kind of brutal assault is increasingly becoming a tool of repression, a way to try to keep women silent and submissive.

But the women of Guinea will not be silenced.

Tune into the BBC World Service at 0830 GMT in East Africa or 1030 GMT in West Africa on Saturday 7 November 2009 to listen to Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reporting for African Perspective from Guinea. The programme can also be downloaded as a podcast.

Thanks for your comments. Please read a selection below:

Women and girls have been treated in a very bad manners in our Country, women are voiceless in the society, they are nobody, they are only for sex and making children, but can't raise their voices. As for the militaries, civilians are nobody today in Guinea, they are like bees every where in the city with big machine guns frightening the pollution, this has to change immediately in other to save the coming generation of Guinea.
Mariama Sacko, Guinea, Conakry

It is with a sad heart that I read this article. This seems to be a trend in many parts of the world. For those of us who are in more "fortunate" positions in life, this is really unimaginable and one really cannot comprehend the devastation that this must create in the lives of these women. My heart and prayer go out to all women suffering from the violence.
P.Daugherty, Denver, Colorado USA

Why do men in uniform behave like that do there not think that God will judge them one day, because women were also made in the image of God.
sams kaingo senior, livingstone, zambia

It is not a surprise that rape is still and will still be used as a weapon against women by those who are to protect them. As pointed out by Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, "berets rouges", Guinea's presidential guard - with still unconfirmed reports that they were aided by hired guns, mercenaries from neighbouring Liberia - who committed the atrocities, targeting with their weapons the thousands who had gathered to hear opposition leaders denounce Guinea's military regime."

This is exactly what one would expect of partial justice/double standard on the part of the International Community. Women were abused in Liberia by people like these, but these perpetrators were left to go free and some even enjoy higher government positions today while there victims good without justice.

I can still record December 2000 in Guinea when refugee women were abused on daily basis at the commend of the then President Lansana Conte who accused refugees of harbouring rebels in Guinea. Again, this went unpunished. I have heard of even aid works of so-called NGOs using the aid as means to Exploit those women they are entrusted to protect and yet most of these cases go unpunished.

So how will one wish for crime of such to cease when the perpetrators are let to go unpunished. In fact the ICC is going after just few of those perpetrators who they believe looted Diamonds and let go those who do not have diamonds or gold even though they committed war atrocities such as rapes, abusing children, killing of innocent civilians and so forth.

If the world is so serious about bringing an end to these kind of atrocities, it is time that justice take its course. There should not be selective justice. Indicting only those you can get the Oil, diamond or gold money from and letting go those criminals who do not have International accounts. I wish you all the best, International Criminal Court(ICC). In Liberia we say "you will learn."
T. Kootee Korvah, Beppu, Japan

No woman no cry. This is the hypocrisy of despotism and low life behaviour of these so called 'thieving' African rulers. How will they feel to see their mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, friends, neighbours, relations raped? I say again, no woman no cry. Wipe your tears, our voice, our prayers and our thoughts are with you.
Michael Odibo, New Jersey, USA

The Guinean soldiers have brought themselves to a level of animals, for no sane person could do such terrible acts. Shame on you. To the all the bruised women I say stay steadfast as justice will ultimately prevail over evil! Mkushi, Zambia

ICC where are you? Can you please wake up and investigate these atrocities committed to the mothers and daughters of Africa. These heartless soldiers should have been brought to book yesterday.
Sophia M, Kampala, Uganda

i am highly disturbed that violence is continuing unabated in africa, when we start violating our sisters, daughters, mothers and wives, what legacy do we leave for our children? a polluted africa! until everyone start to know that we need to use our common sense, tears will still be flowing, i mean the governed and the governors.
martin oluwole fagoyinbo, dakar, senegal

The world should not sit by and allow scumbags to jump justice. They ought to be held accountable for their despicable act. Military rule in Africa has always bore unsavoury experiences for many. We all must clamour for justice and stand behind the rape victims. The women of Guinea need justice!!!
Dele Chu, Eindhoven

Shame, Shame on Guinea armed forces! in fact they are lower than PIG. For any man who think raping a woman is the right thing to do, should not be called to defend a country. It unfortunate that many people in the army thinks they are lords over their own people. If the so called president of Guinea can tell his comrade to apologize to an army general for minor infraction, he should now lead his whole army on bended kneels in front of the women of Guinea to apologize and beg for forgiveness. The army should stay on bended knees until the women have their say and educate the rapist army of the trauma cause by them.
Ade, Takoma, USA

It is with great dismay that i write this, to think that africa need economic development and growth such things arise. Africa women have been affected by bad and desposit governments. Today metalities are changing and people around the world speak of gender equality, but our leaders in africa put that aside and cause pain to our women. I think this peoples should be called to order, military personnel your duty is to protect the sovereignty of your various countries, please stop all this undemocratic act and go back to your various barracks.
nosa osakue, lagos city, nigeria

When will God ever bring justice to these soldiers? How can this happen and go unpunished? Please wake up the international community God will judge you.

How true is the tale? I hate it when the Westerners portray Africans as barbarians so as to sell their "news".
Hashim Udobong, Calabar, Nigeria

This is terrifying. Theses men should be prosecuted, no women in the world deserve this sort of treatment. The UN needs to do something to protect these innocent victims. Best
Marieme Jamme, London

Am shocked at what happened to this women and how i pray that may God change that country and especially the Military and what's the Human rights Activists doing? its painful against humanity and God and let God judge that country coz women are part of the society and should not be manipulated.
Boaz Owuor, Nairobi, Kenya

pride of men comes from women behind them as the saying: "Behind a successful man there is a successful woman." such ill treatment should stop. If those soldiers can go and find what they are doing is done to their WIVES or MOTHERS, will they be happy?

we need to do some thing to help this innocent people, we don't need to be rich or a star? I am survivor of Tutsi Genocide 1994 in Rwanda and that how people always they don't care because it is not their family or friends. let's do something and make difference, me and you we can be heroes.
Yannick Tona, Rwanda - Kigali

May God our Father comfort the wounded and sexually assaulted women of Guinea and may his peace be bestow in Guinea. In Jesus' name. Amen!!!
Francois Browne, Shreveport, USA

I am surprised by the attention and media coverage given to the atrocities committed in Guinea when the same thing happened in Cameroon a year ago and there is little or no media frenzy about it. I doubt what has made the case of Guinea different from Cameroon. We heard people were shot at random and killed, molested and women raped. No sanction was placed against the regime even when the president went on public media and threaten to do worst if people go onto the street again. Still finding an answer!!!
Sammy, Douala Cameroon

It's very terrible. Women are very precious and should always be pampered. They should not be maltreated in any way. It's very sad. Something have to be done about it.
Elizabeth Kuranchie, Accra, Ghana

This repressive government should be made to account for this inhuman and shameful atrocity perpetrated against the innocent people and especially women of Guinea. There is no excuse or justifiable reason for this act of brutality. Those responsible should be brought to justice, and the military government should step down and allow for a peaceful process to a civilian democratic elections. The end to Military dictatorship is the first step to any meaningful development in Africa and particularly Guinea.
Essa, Gatineau, Canada

I filled so sorry for this women's how could you do that don't this man thank is like you raping your own sister and your own mother. I Thang it is sickness. If you ask me. also this people should come to justice peace and love to all the people in world
alayey gebrihiwot, Chicago, usa

Women should always be given respect in the world. It is so sad to see on photos what the military did in guinea for the sake of power. I shed tears when i saw some photos of the rape. Am extending my sincere sorry to all the african women particular to women of guinea.
souleymane conde, Texas united states.

I doubt whether the rape in Guinea is to silence women, it is simply to offend the men of particular origin of these women, there is tribal undertone in these rapes. In Nigeria civil war, the ibos were subjugated to rapes by Nigeria soldiers, In Nigeria, the armed robbers rape the wife and daughters of their victim. The Russians raped Germans when they entered Berlin in 2nd world war. It simply tells us that women should not think that politic or war is mens affair they must get involved too. Women in Guinea must struggle to be enlisted in Guinean army
Sunny Ekwenugo, Berlin, Germany

May God wipe away their tears.
Ebun oguntibeju, Lagos, Nigeria

I want to say that woman is the part of our life. we must respect her. we should try to live peacefully and try to stop the rape cases in our world
sajid, lahore, pakistan

my heart goes out to these women, my hope is the strength of their voices, raised in sorrow will rise up and stifle the brutalities of man's inhumanity to each other.
anne graham masters, greenville, usa

How could such a thing happen to the mother of the nation? Why should we be left to suffer in shame like this and nothing is done about it? My colleague from Cameroon should know that if we are informed about the injustices our fellow women are being subjected to, we voice them. let us unite and fight this common evil. Women organisations should come out to voice such matters so that we deal with them to avoid History from repeating itself. God Bless and Protect all the women in the world because when they suffer, the nations suffer too. God Bless.
Tukwatsibwe Keddeth, Kampala, Uganda

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