After five days of travel, including a gorgeous but hot, dusty, bumpy, and nearly eight-hour drive from the city of Bukavu, I arrived today in Baraka, South Kivu, in the war-ravaged eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
I came to catch the last few days of a rape trial. Eleven soldiers are being tried here by a pioneering mobile gender justice court for their role in the mass rape on New Year’s Day of dozens of women and girls in the nearby town of Fizi. They have been charged with rape as a crime against humanity.
I first came to eastern Congo in 2008, looking for a way to help end impunity for the sexual violence rampant in the country. Congo was already widely known as the "rape capital of the world." Some form of local justice was needed to complement the cases before the International Criminal Court, which does not have the capacity to handle more than a handful of the most senior perpetrators of international crimes.
My idea was to design a mobile court that would travel to very remote areas and provide recourse for victims otherwise without access to a formal justice process. The mobile court would focus on sexual violence but have discretion to hear other crimes and have both civilian and military jurisdiction.
To implement the project, the Open Society Justice Initiative partnered with the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, which gave a grant to the American Bar Association's Rule of Law Initiative. With our oversight, the project got off the ground in late 2009.
In 2010, nine mobile gender courts were held by Congolese officials, hearing 186 cases. Of these, 115 were for rape cases and 95 resulted in convictions (plus another 42 convictions for non-sex cases). The prison sentences ranged from 3 to 20 years. The domestic courts in the DRC don't have a great track record, but this mobile court is showing that, when there is a will, there is a way. Some impunity is finally ending.
So, I now find myself, with OSISA and ABA colleagues, in Baraka to observe the mobile court in action, as it tries the defendants, including a lieutenant colonel, accused in the Fizi rape trial.
This afternoon, we were allowed to observe the closed session hearing with the sex crime survivors. We heard heart-wrenching testimony from young girls and elderly women who had their lives and families shattered by horrific violence. Often rejected by their husbands and shunned by their communities, they were extremely traumatized, and in both physical and emotional pain. They fretted over basic survival needs, including how to feed themselves and their children, and whether other soldiers would retaliate against them or their families.
Despite all these concerns, one woman said that even though she'd never seen a trial before, she thought it was a necessary ingredient to bring peace to her country. I felt like a proud mother, listening to someone praise her baby.
On Monday, when the judgment is delivered, my hope is that the court will bring a measure of justice to the DRC and the verdict a measure of peace to the survivors.