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Wednesday, 6 November, 2002, 09:31 GMT
DR Congo's women in the frontline
Refugees from DR Congo
Congolese civilians are bearing the brunt of the war

Fifteen-year-old Uvila shudders as she speaks. She is the victim of a monstrous crime.

Two months ago, on her way home, she encountered four men in military uniform. They told her to put down her sack of maize and strip naked.

"They began to do bad things to me, afterwards I couldn't walk. Then some women came by and heard me crying."

She says the men urged each other on.

"They didn't speak to me. They spoke to each other. They said, "Come on it's your turn. Come on it's your turn."

Uvila identifies her attackers as soldiers from the rebel group, the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD).

Five-hour ordeal

Sitting alongside Uvila in the rehabilitation centre, is 15-year-old Odette.

She is a pretty girl, but her eyes are blank.

One night, RCD soldiers broke into her house, looking for money.

RCD soldiers
Men in uniforms of every hue have been accused

When they discovered there was none, they turned on her instead.

"The soldiers did bad things. My little brother who followed me, started to cry. They turned to him and put a knife to his heart. They said if he carried on making a noise, they would kill him."

Her ordeal lasted five hours. Each man raped her twice.

Serious wounds

Women and girls are bearing the brunt of the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Throughout the four-year conflict, thousands - perhaps tens of thousands - have been subjected to rape, torture and humiliation.

The rapes were in public. They took place in front of everyone else. They did whatever they wanted to you

Seraphim, rape victim
In his consulting room at Panzi hospital, Dr Denis Mukaweye leafs through his patient book. Page after page detail terrible injuries.

"We've had cases of serious wounds to the women's genitals and anus. Sometimes after the actual rape, women have been shot in the vagina. Or they are cut with knives."

'Weapon of war'

Human rights activists say rape is being used as a weapon of war. The goal is to subjugate the civilian population.

All sides - the Mayi-Mayi and Interahamwe militias, the Rwandan-backed rebels and Rwandan soldiers - have been implicated in this crime.

Mathilde Mahindo runs a support group at Centre Olame, in Bukavu, to help traumatised women. She says some suffer the same fate at the hands of different groups.

She recounts the case of 10 women and girls, some as young as 12, from the village of Ninja. They were coming to seek help, after being raped by RCD rebels.

"On the way they encountered an Interahamwe roadblock. They were told to remove all their clothes, and put their belongings on the ground. The women were told to lie on their stomachs. Then they were raped for the second time."

The penalty for refusal is heavy. In a room in Panzi hospital lies 24-year-old Mamie. Her arms are bandaged.

An iron cage protects the bottom half of her body. Two Rwandan soldiers tried to abduct her, and when she resisted, they shot her.

A nurse draws back the blanket, to show the wounds: two in the legs, one in the arm, one in the genitals.

Sliced to pieces

Mamie has no money to pay for her hospital treatment. "Help me," she says pathetically.

But Mamie is lucky to be alive. One young woman who refused Mayi-Mayi advances, was sliced to pieces in front of her mother's eyes.

The men who raped me have weapons, they have guns, they have control of the area. I don't know who will punish them.

Seraphim
A few kilometres across town, 36-year-old Seraphim is finally packing to go home. She has spent 10 months being treated for psychological and physical injuries.

She was among a group of women abducted from their home village of Shabunda by Mayi-Mayi militia.

For one month, they were held naked in a forest and raped by 10 men every day.

"The rapes were in public. They took place in front of everyone else. They did whatever they wanted to you."

Seraphim still experiences urinary problems. But she is looking forward to going home to see her husband and children.

Her return is brave. The men who raped her belong to the group in control of her village.

Does she think they can be punished? She shakes her head in disbelief at the question.

"The men who raped me have weapons, they have guns, they have control of the area. I don't know who will punish them."

An investigation by the New York-based Human Rights Watch group has found that despite the prevalence of rape, the perpetrators went unpunished.

The RCD authorities had little interest in meting out justice.

The author of the report, Juliane Kippenberg, writes, "Those who should protect (the people), instead preyed upon them."

Rape, in these circumstances, can be officially classified as a war crime.

At the International Tribunals for Rwanda and Bosnia, men who committed sexual violence have been found guilty and imprisoned.

But in the Democratic Republic of Congo, rape is a crime which is going unchecked and unpunished.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Ishbel Matheson
"Rape is being used as a weapon of war"

Key stories

Background

TALKING POINT
See also:

18 Oct 02 | Africa
11 Jun 02 | Africa
05 Jan 01 | Africa
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