Congo Justice: Where Convicted Rapists Go

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, tried rape cases involving soldiers and policemen over the course of a two-week session.

Bukavu Central Prison is a quadrilateral complex of red-brick walls, cellblocks, and passages closed off with iron gates. The buildings surround a central exercise yard. The Belgians built the prison when they were here exploiting the surrounding countryside for ivory, gold, diamonds, and anything else that might turn a profit. Since the Belgians’ departure, Congo’s corruption and chaos have pushed the prison beyond the bounds of failure.

The toilets are blocked. But where are there toilets in Congo’s slums? Water cascades from cracked pipes. But how far must most of Congo’s women and girls carry water? Prisoners sprawl out on the floors, as do families in thatched-roof, mud-and-wattle huts all across this country. There is next to nothing to do or, for those who can, to read—just as there is next to nothing across so much of Congo. And there is the same hunger that lurks in so many of the country’s villages and towns.

On the Saturday morning after the Kamituga prisoners’ arrival, Christian women crouched along the Bukavu prison’s front wall, waiting to enter with baskets of food for hungry inmates. Without this charity and food from relatives, Bwana Anderson, Justin Pakulu, Kasereka Bawere, and the others packed inside would face worse than hunger pangs. The prison has already witnessed food riots.

Guards and members of the prison administration beg for money for themselves, as do villagers and townspeople. “We are not paid,” one of the administrators said. “We are hungry. Please give us money, so we can eat something.” Human rights organizations have reported that the prison’s guards and director have demanded payments in exchange for allowing visitors, including the Christian women, to deliver food to the prisoners. A placard outside the prison notifies visitors that they are under no obligation to pay the jailers for access to the inmates.

Security is compromised in any prison where guards beg for money. Tutsi militiamen have already attacked and ransacked the prison to free incarcerated Tutsis. The Fizi defendants had to be removed to a more-secure prison in the capital.

***

The director of Bukavu Central Prison is hurrying to finish his paperwork and leave the office by noon. He allows one hour for four prisoners convicted of rape to be interviewed about why men choose to rape and what they feel about their court convictions. He allows no visit to the inner prison compound. He forbids all photographs. The jail is crowded now, clerks say, because so many men are being detained and sentenced to jail on rape charges.

The room assigned for the interviews has three clerks sitting behind desks. Shelves hold binders and stacked documents. The walls are of faded white paint stained with red mud. The smell is of must and sweat and, somehow, the heat itself. The air fills with a din of voices and a chaotic banging of steel on steel as the prison’s doors shut and shut again and again as visitors and inmates come and go.

The prisoners emerge one by one from the amalgam inside: Bantu, Tutsi, Lega, Bemba. Each wears faded orange coveralls over their rags.

Kado Miranga, an illiterate, unschooled Hutu, 32 years old, from the province of North Kivu. Kado joined a mostly Hutu militia in 1998 and was integrated into Congo’s regular army in February 2009. He was arrested in November 2010 north of Bukavu and charged with raping a woman, 36, who had accused him of invading her home and using his gun to chase away her husband before assaulting her. Kado has a sharp, v-shaped chin and a shaved head.

“I, of course, didn’t do it,” he said. “The woman was my prostitute. I regularly came to sleep with her. I’d give her money for food and clothes. I was astonished when she accused me of having raped her. The problem began because I am married and have two children. When my wife heard I was visiting a prostitute, the two women began to quarrel. The reason the prostitute accused me of rape was to make my wife and me suffer. Once you are convicted of rape and sentenced to 20 or 25 years, it is as if half of your life is gone.”

Why do men rape? “No one here will tell you the truth. Every prisoner here has his file. Nobody tells the truth. No one will admit that he has raped anybody.”

Kado was sentenced to 20 years.

Tumaini Habamungu, an illiterate Hutu born in Rwanda in 1987 to a man who became a member of the Interahamwe, the irregular footsoldiers of the genocide against the Tutsis. Tumaini came to Congo as a refugee in 1994: “I never saw my father. In 1994, during the attack of the Tutsi army, my mother and I were separated, and each of us went a different way. Other Rwandans took me to Congo. I lived for 16 years in the forest. It was very difficult. There was nothing like a normal school. But we had school under the trees and it trained us how to use guns. Tumaini became a member of the FDLR, a Hutu militia built from the Interahamwe…the same militia whose members have come from the jungle to rape and steal women and force them to marry.

Tumaini’s head is round and shaved. His coveralls are tied at waist with shoelaces. He was convicted of raping a 35-year-old woman with four children.

“I’m innocent,” he insists.

Why do men rape? “Each has his own story. Some rape because they are drunk, because of beer.  Some say they want luck, they want to be impervious to bullets. People who say the FDLR steals women are lying. They don’t take a lot of women. Congolese people don’t say good things about us because we are foreigners.”

Tumaini was sentenced to 20 years.

Jacques Bigirimana, a Hutu born in Rwanda in 1990, separated from his parents in 1994 and taken into Congo. He wears a tattered t-shirt and jeans under a torn prison jump suit. His teeth are stained, and he picks at a scab on his leg as he speaks, in broken Swahili with a Kinyarwandan accent. “The Interahamwe came and took me by force when I was seven years old, and I was with them until I tried to leave Congo,” he whispered.

“I was coming out of the forest and trying to go back to Rwanda. On the way I was taken and put into prison without knowing the reason why. Only here did I learn I had been accused of rape. The woman they said I raped came with children and an infant in a sling on her back with bundles balanced on her head. I don’t even know the woman they said I raped.

Why do men rape?  “They talked of magic, but I have never seen its effects.”

Jacques was sentenced to 20 years.

Mabako Lolia Nabi, 27, a native of Equateur and a former First Sergeant in the Army of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who speaks Lingala, one of the languages of the Congo military. Mabako is sharp and talkative, though he has finished only three years of primary school and cannot read or write.

“My wife is 27,” he said. “We were married nine years ago, before I became a soldier. I have two children.

“I was arrested for rape on January 2, 2008. I had never seen the woman who accused me until she was presented at trial before the mobile court in Walungu. I don’t even know her approximate age. I think she is 36 to 40 years old…Most of these cases are not just.”

Why do men rape? “We talk to one another, but no one tells anyone else the truth about what they did or didn’t do. Most prisoners will never say they raped anyone. But we talk about such things as magic. Some say they have raped women and young girls to be immune from AIDS. Some say they have done it to protect themselves from bullets. But I’ve never seen it work.”

Mabako was sentenced to 20 years.

***

By that Saturday morning, steel cage doors had already clanged shut behind Kasereka Bawere, Justin Pakulu, Bwana Anderson, and the others convicted at Kamituga. They had already crowded in among the other prisoners, splashed the dust of National Route 2 from their faces, and lain down upon sponge pads on a bare floor. And above them all, the equatorial sun had marked the end of the first day of their sentences: three years, five years, fifteen years…

Chuck Sudetic reported from Kamituga for the duration of the trials.

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