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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 July 2005, 10:21 GMT 11:21 UK
DR Congo's towns besieged by rapists
Robert Walker
BBC Focus On Africa magazine in Kigali

Dr Congo court
Courts are hearing more cases - but there is still much to be done
The town of Walungu - a quiet trading centre perched on top of the fertile hills of South Kivu province - is a town under siege.

It is already late in the evening in the cramped room of a local government official, but people keep arriving, looking for help. Sitting by candlelight, Mwachishafuka - the fourth woman I have spoken to in the space of an hour - tells her story.

Like the others, she has a tale of brutality difficult to comprehend.

Earlier this year, a group of Rwandan Hutu rebels came to Mwachishafuka's home at night.

They tied her up along with her husband and 13-year-old daughter. Then they were taken into the hills with ten of their neighbours and told that each person would have to pay US$200 to be released.

When the villagers explained that they did not have that kind of money, Mwachishafuka's daughter and two other girls were taken behind a bush and raped by the rebels.

"As we were sitting there, we mothers, we could hear all of them crying. And we began saying that it was the end," she says.

Rape epidemic

Mwachishafuka was released and told to return to her village to find the ransom, and spent a week searching desperately for money.

Then another hostage, a girl of 16, was released with a further demand of payment.

Soldier in DR Congo
The rape epidemic is perpetrated by all armed factions
"She was no longer like a human being," Mwachishafuka says.

"She said the girls have been terribly ill treated. Each of them is being raped by several men. We have heard that they have been inserting sticks into their vaginas."

The rebels terrorising civilians in Walungu are among an estimated 10,000 Hutu fighters based in eastern DR Congo since the end of the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

Some of them were involved in the slaughter, as members of the former Rwandan army or the notorious Interahamwe militia.

Others are later recruits from among Hutu refugees. Some of the rebels' political leaders say they are now ready to disarm and return to Rwanda, but so far there has been no movement on the ground.

"It is like nowhere else in the world - the atrocities carried out on these people are absolutely unbelievable," says Major Mohamed Younis, commander of a company of Pakistani UN peacekeepers in Walungu.

He believes his troops have managed to curb the number of rapes being committed by the rebels, although they have not been able to stop them completely.

But the Hutu militia is just one of the armed groups guilty of appalling acts of sexual violence.

An epidemic of rape exploded across eastern DR Congo during the country's brutal five-year civil war.

It became another weapon in the conflict, a means of subduing civilians.

Refugees

Despite the establishment of a powersharing government in 2003, and the official end of the war, sexual violence continues.

All armed groups are implicated, including the new Congolese army, and even UN peacekeepers have been accused.

New York-based group Human Rights Watch estimates that tens of thousands of women and girls have been raped since the start of the civil war - yet less than a dozen perpetrators have been brought to justice.

The big difficulty is that the justice system has collapsed
Maitre Bisimwa, lawyer
But, finally, attempts are being made to change this.

Jeannette Mbarayumanana, who says she was raped by four soldiers, is one of a growing number of women no longer prepared to keep silent. After she sought justice, one soldier was apprehended and charged with raping her.

She has since been threatened by other soldiers telling her to drop the case.

"They often came and surrounded my home," she said.

"I heard they would even go as far as killing me. I no longer stay in my home. We are refugees now."

Victims also struggle with the fear of being stigmatised, meaning many victims do not report the crime - and some even refuse medical care.

Even if victims can overcome these barriers, they still face huge obstacles, says Maitre Bisimwa, one of the few lawyers in Bukavu who victims of rape can turn to for legal advice.

"The big difficulty is that the justice system has collapsed," says Bisimwa.

"The Congolese government does not support the magistrates. They don't have salaries, they don't have equipment.

"When we hear that a rape is committed in a village, we report it to the magistrates but they don't have vehicles to go there. And the crime will go unpunished."

Attacks on children

The impunity enjoyed up to now by soldiers and rebels has encouraged the epidemic of sexual violence to spread.

Rapes committed by civilian men in Bukavu have rapidly increased since the start of this year, according to Bisimwa. The victims are often very young children.

Some analysts believe that conflict in DR Congo has led to a breakdown in the social system, and this explains the frequency of attacks on children.

Meanwhile South Kivu's former interim governor, Alimasi Ndomba Pauni, appealed for time in tackling the problem.

"There is a particular emphasis placed on arresting all those who rape," he stressed.

"But of course this needs time. We're a country in a post-conflict period and we have a lot of financial problems.

"But when we have the means we do try and support the magistrates here."



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