By the end of the sixth day of the landmark mass rape trial currently taking place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 47 women had told a closed session of the special military court their horrifying accounts of what happened in Fizi on New Year’s Day. With the general public barred from hearing their testimony by the president of the military court, Lt Colonel Utena Kuluila, the final witnesses gave their individual versions of the terrible events on January 1, when soldiers raped and looted their way through the town.
Most of the men and boys had fled after they had been told that soldiers were going to attack Fizi and kill 100 men in retaliation for the earlier murder of a soldier by inhabitants of the town.
In most instances, this left the women alone and vulnerable with their children. There was no defense when the soldiers arrived. They entered these women's homes and raped them in front of their children. In almost all instances, they were raped by more than one soldier.
One woman provided testimony that after she was raped by one solider she lost consciousness. When she woke up there were two other soldiers in the room with her. She could not be certain if they had raped her while she was unconscious but thought they may have.
Another woman was asked by the court why it took more than three days for her to get her medical certificate showing she had been raped. She responded that it was difficult to access medical facilities as her town is remote and she is poor. Indeed, infrastructure in this part of the eastern Congo is challenging at best.
While the women give their testimony in Swahili, the five military judges listen attentively and interject, a number of times asking questions of the women’s lawyers or of the women directly to clarify the facts. There is no cross-examination of the witnesses, rather defense counsel for the 11 soldiers charged with rape, attempted murder and crimes against humanity make statements to the court attempting to cast doubt on the testimony. The women’s lawyers respond to these until the court is satisfied. The lead prosecutor Colonel Laurent Mutata Luaba makes a number of key points illustrating that there is a pattern to the evidence and reiterates particularly pertinent issues that are salient to the prosecution’s case.
Speaking to him during a recess, Luaba says that he is happy with the proceedings and that all has been going well. It is a painstaking process making the case against the accused and he says he is determined to do as thorough a job as possible. Maitre Therese, the one woman among the lawyers representing the women, says that they will be asking for the death penalty against the most senior accused officer Lt Colonel Kibibi. He is charged with crimes against humanity and rape. Article 169 of the Military Penal Code Law 024/2602 provides for the military court to give the death penalty on a guilty verdict. An alternative sentence would be life imprisonment.
Watching this senior soldier is fascinating. Unlike his subordinates, whose uniforms are in a state of disrepair and none of whom are wearing boots, he has a military bearing. Kibibi’s boots are polished, his uniform immaculate, his beret neatly tucked under his epaulette, which bears the two shiny stars of his rank. He pays complete attention to the proceedings and barely moves from his position. This is the most senior soldier to be tried for crimes against humanity in the DRC. Yesterday a woman directly accused him of raping her.
At the end of the day we have an opportunity to speak with two of the women who have been raped. Nyota is 36 and Faida is 29. Between them they have eight children. They are extremely poor and are now also extremely traumatized. Both of them speak to us about their pain, both mental and physical. They have been rejected by their husbands since the rape and members of their community have shunned them. They say that they were unaware of what stigma meant before the rape.
When asked what they think of the process that the mobile gender courts are implementing, Nyoya says, “This tribunal is good. It is this kind of process that will bring peace in the Congo.”
She also says that the women know that other women all over the Congo are supporting them and that this has given them strength. Both women tell us that they fear reprisals and even if there is a conviction, the battalion remains in their area and that these terrible atrocities could occur again.
But watching Lt Colonel Kibibi and the other accused in court, there is also a sense of hope—hope that this and other mobile gender court proceedings will send a clear message out across eastern Congo that there is no longer impunity for grievous crimes and that women like Nyota and Faida should not have to live their lives in fear.