“War continues to rage in eastern Congo. Within that larger war, combatants carry out another war -- sexual violence against women and girls,” said Alison Des Forges, senior advisor to the Africa division of Human Rights Watch.
The report, which is based on numerous interviews with victims, witnesses, and officials, details crimes of sexual violence committed by soldiers of the Rwandan army and its Congolese ally, the Rassemblement congolais pour la démocratie (RCD), as well as armed groups opposed to them – Congolese Mai Mai rebels, and Burundian and Rwandan armed groups.
These combatants raped women and girls during military operations to punish the local civilian population for allegedly supporting the “enemy.” In other cases, Mai Mai rebels and other armed groups abducted women and girls and forced them to provide sexual services and domestic labor, sometimes for periods of more than a year.
Some rapists attacked their victims with extraordinary brutality. In two cases, assailants inserted firearms into the vaginas of their victims and shot them. In other cases combatants mutilated the sexual organs of the women with knives or razor blades. Some attacked girls as young as five years of age and women as old as eighty.
Assailants often attacked women and girls engaged in the usual activities necessary to the livelihoods of their families: cultivating their fields, collecting firewood, or going to market. By doing so, the assailants further disrupted the already precarious economic life of the region.
Medical services in eastern Congo have nearly totally collapsed, leaving most victims of rape and other sexual torture with little hope for treatment of injuries or of sexually transmitted diseases, including testing and post-exposure treatment for HIV/AIDS. Some experts estimate that HIV prevalence among military forces in the region may be higher than 50 percent. Rape in these circumstances can be a death sentence.
The report also documents the rejection of some women and girls by their husbands, families, and wider communities because they were raped or because they are thought to be infected with HIV/AIDS. As one such ostracized woman told Human Rights Watch researchers, “My body has become sad. I have no happiness.”
With the collapse of official services, Congolese churches and civil society organizations have used their scarce resources to assist the victims. Local organizations which have also documented sexual violence in the region contributed to the report.
“Commanders of regular military units and heads of armed groups alike must get their men in order,” said Des Forges. “Combatants must direct their violence against recognized military targets, not against helpless women and girls who happen to cross their paths. Those who abuse women must be held accountable for their crimes.”