Within the larger war in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo) the warring parties carry out another war: that of sexual violence against women and girls. As military activities increase in one area after another, so do rapes and other crimes against women and girls. This report is based on research carried out in North and South Kivu provinces, an area controlled since 1998 by rebel forces fighting the government of President Kabila, the Rassemblement congolais pour la démocratie (RCD) and their patron, the Rwandan army. The Rwandan army, which occupies large parts of eastern Congo, and the RCD are opposed by several armed groups operating in eastern Congo, including Burundian armed groups and rebel Rwandans associated with the forces involved in the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
Sexual violence has been used as a weapon of war by most of the forces involved in this conflict. Combatants of the RCD, Rwandan soldiers, as well as combatants of the forces opposed to them- Mai-Mai, armed groups of Rwandan Hutu, and Burundian rebels of the Forces for the Defense of Democracy (Forces pour la défense de la démocratie, FDD) and Front for National Liberation (Front pour la libération nationale, FNL) - frequently and sometimes systematically raped women and girls in the last year.
In some cases soldiers and combatants raped women and girls as part of a more general attack in which they killed and injured civilians and pillaged and destroyed their property. They did this to terrorize communities into accepting their control or to punish them for real or supposed aid to opposing forces, particularly if they themselves had recently been attacked by these forces. In cases where there was no larger attack, individuals or small groups of soldiers and combatants also raped women and girls whom they found in the fields, in the forest, along the roads, or in their homes.
The war which has ravaged this region intermittently since 1996 has destroyed the local economy. Driven by desperate poverty, women who provided the resources to keep their families alive continued going to the fields to cultivate, to the forest to make charcoal, or to markets to trade their goods even though doing so put them at risk of sexual violence. Soldiers and combatants preyed upon such women and girls as well as on others who had fled combat to live in temporary and fragile structures in the forest. In many cases, combatants abducted women and girls and took them to their bases in the forest where they forced them to provide sexual services and domestic labor, sometimes for periods of more than a year. Among the hundreds of thousands displaced by the war were many women who sought safety for themselves and their families in towns. Instead of finding security, some were raped by soldiers from nearby military camps or by government officials.
Some rapists aggravated their crimes by other acts of extraordinary brutality, shooting victims in the vagina or mutilating them with knives or razor blades. Some attacked girls as young as five years of age or elderly women as old as eighty. Some killed their victims outright while others left them to die of their injuries.
This report focuses on crimes of sexual violence committed by soldiers and other combatants. But rape and other sexual crimes are not just carried out by armed factions but also increasingly by police and others in positions of authority and power, and by opportunistic common criminals and bandits, taking advantage of the prevailing climate of impunity and the culture of violence against women and girls. While crimes committed by common criminals are not examined in detail in this report, it does document cases of attacks by armed men when there are indications that the perpetrators might have been combatants. Such indications can be the language of the attackers, their weapons, their degree of organization or the pattern of abuse against civilians.
Irregular combatants and regular soldiers responsible for acts of sexual violence commit war crimes. In some cases their crimes could amount to crimes against humanity. The RCD, widely described as a proxy of the Rwandan government, administers large parts of eastern Congo, including North and South Kivu provinces, though this control is mostly limited to the cities and towns. Some courts do function and have punished cases of rape by private citizens. Yet soldiers and other combatants commit crimes of sexual violence with virtually total impunity, and neither police nor judicial authorities pursue rape cases seriously. Few women brought charges against rapists, in part because they knew there was little chance of seeing the criminal condemned, in part because they feared the social stigma attached to being known as a rape victim.
The fear of being stigmatized also kept some victims from seeking medical attention. Many others who wished medical help had nowhere to go. Medical services, eroded over decades of misrule, collapsed completely in many communities during the war. The lack of such assistance was particularly critical given the prevalence of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) among soldiers and irregular combatants, estimated by one expert at 60 percent among military forces in the region. With the increase in rapes, many women were exposed not just to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) but also to other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). They, like many of those seriously injured by rape and other sexually assaults, have not been able to receive appropriate medical treatment.
These crimes of sexual violence have direct, profound, and life-changing consequences for the women and girls attacked and for their wider communities. Many women and girls will never recover from the physical, psychological, and social effects of these assaults and some will die from them. A significant number became pregnant as a result of rape and now struggle to provide for the children they have borne. Some women and girls have been rejected by their husbands and families and ostracized by the wider community because they were raped or because they are thought to be infected with HIV/AIDS. Survivors of rape and other forms of sexual violence must now attempt to make a new life for themselves, sometimes by relocating to communities far from their former homes. A thirty-five year old woman was raped by Rwandan soldiers in August 1998, and her husband killed by the same attackers. Later she was chased away by her husband's family. She told Human Rights Watch: "My body has become sad. I have no happiness."
Brutality against civilians, and specifically sexual violence, is an integral part of the war in eastern Congo. Forces involved in acts of sexual violence against women and girls continue to be rewarded by their leadership and by their powerful patrons for their actions. As long as the climate of impunity persists in eastern Congo, women and girls will continue to be targeted in the war within a war.