Congo Justice: Sick in Their Hearts

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.

Many of the crimes being tried before the Kamituga mobile court took place in the nearby town of Mwenga, a two-hour motorbike ride into the mountains along National Route 2. Like so many towns along the road, Mwenga's recent history is one of extraordinary violence. In conversations with local people, it quickly becomes clear that the experience of the war here is still actively shaping the present.

Abbé Dieudonne Kalozo Mukaze: A Beginning, and Middle, but Still No End

Abbé Dieudonne has been a parish priest in Mwenga, his birthplace, since 1989. He recounts the war years in chronological order, as if he were reciting an epic. His recollections begin with the Hutu massacre of 800,000 Tutsis across the border in Rwanda. Then, a long painful middle section is punctuated by Tutsi- and rebel-led invasions of Congo from Rwanda, ambushes by local resistance fighters, and the killings and rape of thousands of local people—men, women and children. The story has no end. Abbé Dieudonne breaks off his recollection at the present day with no resolution, no dénouement. The mobile courts are one of many efforts to produce one.

“In 1996, we heard on the radio that the Rwanda’s Tutsi army and Kabila’s rebels were coming along the National Route. The Tutsis were killing Hutu and Congolese, because the Hutu are a Bantu people, like the Lega people here, and the Bantus resemble Hutus. The townspeople and soldiers fled into the bush. I was the only Mwenga native among the priests here. I chose to die here with my brothers.

“The Tutsis arrived here in the late afternoon and took control of the road. They shot people in front of the parish. After this, I, too, went into the forest. There was local resistance, the Mai Mai. They first fought with machetes and bows and arrows. Then they obtained guns dropped by fleeing soldiers. The Tutsis were afraid to enter the bush. The church was empty on Christmas 1996. But the situation calmed.

“People began returning home in March 1997. But in August 1998, another army, the Rassemblement congolais pour la démocratie (RCD), came up National Road 2, this one was made up of Tutsis from Congo and Rwanda who were run by the Rwandan government. Mai-Mai resistance collapsed. They thought everyone was Mai-Mai. The RCD killed people and began raping women. They came to the church, put me on my knees, put a gun to my head, and demanded money. They cut my face with a knife. Then they went to Kamituga and killed many people.

“On 23 August, they came back from Kamituga, passed through Mwenga, and arrived at Kasika. There, the Mai-Mai attacked a vehicle in which the general officers of RCD were riding. We have heard that one of the dead was a relative of Paul Kagame, [Rwanda’s president]. After that, the RCD killed everyone they could in retaliation for Mai-Mai attacks. In Kasika, they killed a priest and a seminarian and four nuns. The tribal king and his pregnant wife were killed, and they cut her open. They raped women and killed people for three days. Two days later, we went to Kasika to bury the dead. The stench….1,000 dead…covered in a common grave. There is a memorial now.

“The stress was terrible. Mwenga’s townspeople lived in the bush for the next six months. The RCD named a new local administrator. Every time he came to the parish, he said he would kill us. That’s when we ran again into the forest. He used the priest house as a headquarters and transformed other parish buildings into a prison. People were tortured here. They filled a garage pit for repairing automobiles with brine and kept people in it for days. They slaughtered people before another garage pit and dumped the bodies into the back yard, between the priest house and convent. The soldiers raped women. They forced men to dig gold for them. In October 1999, they imprisoned 25 women and accused them of supporting Mai-Mai soldiers. Five of the women were executed here and their bodies dumped in the back. On October 17, women were taken away nude and marched to the town’s center. Some were killed immediately. Fourteen women and a man were buried alive.

“The RDC left in 2002. They were here for four years 1998 to 2002. I have no idea where the commanders are today.” He gave their names.

“Now the Hutu are coming out of the forest to rape. They took a woman in January. She returned seven weeks later. She did not say what happened to her. No one asked. Rape carries a great stigma here. A raped wife is liable to be driven from her home.”

Nyangi Kabale: Why Do They Rape?

Nyangi Kabali, the interim king of the Lega people in the vast, mineral-rich Mwenga Territory, sits behind a paper-stacked desk in a modest office in a brick-and-stucco building. To the building’s right is a court chamber, and to the left a jail. There was once traditional justice administered here, customary justice, not the statutory justice of the state of the Democratic Republic of Congo. But justice withered during the years of massive violence, including sexual violence, in this region. The king understands the spirit of these people who have engaged in the sexual violence.

“The first reason is that they do not really know what they are doing. They are not informed. They do not know it is against the law.

“The second reason is witchcraft. The men want to possess power. They want to obtain a charm, to receive magical power. Perhaps they need a charm to have good luck hunting animals. Perhaps they need good luck in life. Perhaps they need good luck before they set off for the mines and find gold. There are no women near the mines to bring them luck.”

Claudine Tabena-Isima Mikongo: Why Rape, and What Are the Consequences?

Women who have been raped seek help by coming to the Mwenga office of APIDE, the nongovernmental organization where Claudine Tabena-Isima Mikongo works. She is a mother with five children and lives in a well-maintained wooden cottage with a red-dirt yard about 50 steps from National Route 2, in the town of Mwenga. She, too, grew up here.

“There is a traditional form of rape, one that was not considered rape before the new laws were passed. It was normal to have sex with a 13-year-old girl and get married. Now it is considered rape. But many of these people don’t know this. Many of them are illiterate. The wholesale violence came because of the wars, with the armed groups of soldiers. The people saw what the soldiers did, and see what some soldiers are doing. We have a problem with one army colonel who comes here. We’re submitting reports on him. We’ve even begun to think that the colonel is untouchable. But rape by the soldiers seems to be decreasing even as rape by the civilians is increasing.

“We do sensitization about rape and the new law. We usually choose a place in town, have a pastor or a priest call people together, and use bullhorns to deliver a message. We explain the new law on rape. We explain that, once someone knows the law, he should not break it.  This is something people from the community do not understand. The first reaction we get from the crowd is this: ‘You say it is against the law, but can the government arrest the officers in the army or the Hutu militia men who rape? Can they punish them for this? Can you change things that have already become the custom around here?'

“Psychologically, the women have difficulty. After being raped, you lose your place in society. All your friends know that you have been raped. This creates economical problems, because stigmatization prevents the rape victim from working together with others.

“If she has a young man or a man who wants to marry her, he will go away. Married women lose their husbands. They become separated. Not all of the rape victims are shunned, but most of them are. Some become ill and die. Some suffer stomach ulcers. Some grow sick in their hearts.”

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

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