Congo Justice: Pink Smock v. Police Blue

This series of dispatches chronicles the work of a mobile court in the town of Kamituga in eastern Congo, a region riven by conflict that has witnessed an appalling epidemic of rape and other sexual violence. The court, supported by the Open Society Justice Initiative, will try ten rape cases involving soldiers and policemen over the next two weeks.

Motorbikes and NGO four-wheel drives—no cars, no buses, no African minibuses, but perhaps a truck or two—bounced and lurched along National Road 2 as the mobile court’s first trial commenced. The tent blocked the tropical sun. But the crowd, standing outside in the glare, pressed close to listen and blocked any breeze that might have slid in from the mountains. The presiding judge called for fans before the first trial commenced. The defendant, Justin Pakulu, a police officer, was facing a charge of attempted sexual assault. He stood in his police uniform. He remained standing for the entire hearing.

The key prosecution witness, the victim, K., wore a shocking-pink frock over a beige shirt with her hair gathered in a neat braid as if her mother had dressed her for church. She stood a few feet from the defendant to give her testimony. The president, sitting behind a table, looked down into her eyes he asked for personal details.

“Age?”

“10.”

“Address?”

“Mwenga.”

“Marital status?”

“Single.” The crowd erupted in smiles and giggles.

“Occupation?”

“I work the fields.” The crowd approved,  for here in Kamituga, where the men are artisanal miners, practically all the women work in the fields.

The presiding judge broke into a smile. "Tell us what happened."

K. said she and two younger sisters went to gather grass to feed their animals. The defendant Pakulu, she said, asked her to gather some grass for him and offered to pay her for it. He then appeared and said the grass she had gathered was not enough. He told the girl’s sisters to collect the grass and go home and said K. would soon follow.

“He asked me to give him my knife,” K. said. “I asked the policeman for my knife back, because I had left a baby at home and the baby would be crying.

“He gave me the knife and took me by the neck and told me that I am now his wife. He took both of my hands behind my back and covered my mouth and eyes and lay me down. Then he lifted my skirt and took off my underwear.”

The crowd disapproved. Guards with Kalashnikovs hissed. Everyone grew quiet.

“Then he took off his trousers,” K. testified. The crowd erupted again. “When he wanted to be on me, he took his hand away from my mouth. I cried out. And after I cried, my two sisters came back. Then he put on his trousers and ran away. I took my grass and went straight to my home. When I arrived, I told my grandmother. She took me to the authorities. I told them the same things I’ve just said here.”

“Did you tell your parents?” the judge asked.

“Yes, I told my grandmother and my mother.”

K.’s father was next to speak: “Even though the defendant does not admit what he is accused of, while he was in prison he sent his wife to see me so we could settle this problem at home.”

K. remained consistent in her story.

“Did the policeman take off his clothes?” the judge asked.

“I saw his underwear. It was red.”

The crowd exploded, and guards ejected young men making noise in the tent.

***

The incidents of sexual violence on the Kamituga mobile court’s docket occurred at villages and towns along National Road 2. These villages and towns were the scenes of unspeakable atrocities during the wars of the late 1990s and ongoing violence through the 2000s. K.’s home town, Mwenga, was infamous for atrocities committed during the two years before her birth. Kasika, just up the road, was as well, as was  Kamituga.

During peacetime, these towns smell of wet soil, sweat, and the smoke of charcoal braziers. They seem enveloped by cricket chirp, rooster crow, pig squeal, bird squawk, drum beat, churchbell clangor, and, in the evenings, shouting, crying, and laughing children. The few buildings of brick are surrounded by warrens of wood-plank or mud-and-wattle shacks with thatched-grass or corrugated-metal roofs.

Some of these shacks are family houses. Some are stalls for stock animals. Some are hair salons and restaurants or bars, some are bakeries and tiny shops, and some, with signs out front reading “Achat d’or,” are the offices of gold buyers—middlemen fronting for military officers, militia chiefs, warlords, and other protected people—who pay a few crisp dollars or ragged Congolese franc notes to local men and boys who dig and pan at secret places in the forest and trudge home for days with flakes and tiny nuggets hidden in their rags.

The men leave the women to work the fields, and this exposes them to gangs of men who come from the forest to kidnap and rape and take them as slaves—or as wives. A traditional form of bride stealing—now considered rape under Congo’s criminal code—has existed in these mountains from time immemorial. Young men steal young women, some of them prepubescent, and have sex with them. The families of the perpetrator and victim subsequently work out a marriage arrangement and a payment of a goat or a sheep or some other compensation to the bride’s family. Then the matter is closed.

Into this mix of desires, acts, expectations, and traditional methods of reconciliation and compensation arrived wholesale, stomach-turning, impunity. In the nineteenth century, Belgium’s King Leopold II acquired, as his personal property, the territories on which the myriad of tribal kingdoms of the Congo had existed for centuries. He then sent forth thousands of Kurtzes to bring him a return on his investment. They press-ganged people to extract ivory, to extract gold, and to extract other natural resources. They had people who refused to extract killed and mutilated.

Since the end of the post-colonial period, soldiers have plied National Road 2. They moved through Kasika and Mwenga and Kamituga on their way to Kinshasa or the mining regions. In 1994 came Hutu perpetrators of the genocide in Rwanda, which left 800,000 of their blood enemies, the Tutsis, dead; these Hutus had come to escape revenge for the genocide and to regroup and infiltrate Rwanda in order to kill more Tutsis. Next came the Tutsi army of Rwanda and the Congolese rebels of Laurent Kabila. They came to kill as many Hutus as possible, to empty the Hutu refugee camps near the Rwandan border, and to march on Kinshasa, where they overthrew the dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko.

Then, from the forest, to wait in ambush along the National Road 2, came the Mai-Mai, local militias that grew in numbers as men took up machetes, bows and arrows, and abandoned weapons of Mobutu’s army to defend their homes and tribal territory against the Tutsis and the Hutus and their allies. Mai-Mai attacks on the Tutsis and others brought retaliation against villagers. Then came a Tutsi militia backed and run by Rwanda’s government to chase more Hutus and to overthrow their former ally, Laurent Kabila. There were more Mia-Mia attacks, and more retaliation.

For years, anarchy reigned in the towns and villages along National Road 2 and hundreds of other roads and trails in eastern Congo. The low estimates of the number of women who were gang raped are in the tens of thousands; the high estimates rise into the hundreds of thousands. War-related deaths are reported to be in the millions.

Investigators from human rights organizations and the United Nations have assembled only a partial catalog of the atrocities. But the overwhelming list of attacks includes the rape, torture, mutilation, and killing of women by a litany of armies, militias, and gangs, including in the villages of Mwenga and Kamituga themselves.

People up and down National Road 2 remember the names of military commanders, soldiers, and gunmen who carried out many of these crimes. They know that these men have gone unpunished. This knowledge has fostered the impunity that has made sexual violence seem a prerogative for military officers, grunts, police officers, militia members, and unemployed men throughout the hollows of eastern Congo.

Even in January, a colonel of the Army of the Democratic Republic of Congo assumed he had enough impunity to order his men to invade a village and to assault and to rape dozens of women, men, and children. His assumption turned out to be a mistake. It led to an expedited investigation, quick arrests, a fast trial, and a twenty-year prison sentence by a mobile court very much like this one, now hearing the testimony of a ten-year-old girl in a shocking-pink smock and neatly braided hair.

***

The defendant, Justin Pakulu, a member of the national police, was now insisting that K. had been instructed to say what she did about him.

He said he had never had red underwear. He said K.’s father had a grudge against him because he had once seized the father’s goats. “I gave the girl 200 francs and she went off,” Pakulu said. But he also changed tiny elements of his story. The crowd—listening with rapt attention—erupted immediately with each one.

“First you said you didn’t know if your wife had given them money,” one judge asked. “How did you know that your wife hadn’t given them money already? Where is your red underwear?”

His trial adjourned late in the evening on April 12. The next day, the prosecution called for a five-year prison term and compensation of $20,000. The presiding judge announced that the court would weigh the word of a ten-year-old girl in a shocking-pink frock against the word of a police officer in a blue uniform and announce its judgment on April 15

The next case, rape. The victim, age 13.

Chuck Sudetic will be reporting from Kamituga for the duration of the trials.

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