TOPICS > Politics

Systemic Rape, Fighting Threaten Congo’s Future

August 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Secretary of State Clinton condemned sexual abuse by Congolese soldiers and rebels against civilians. A women's rights advocate describes the scope of the atrocities.
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JIM LEHRER: During Secretary of State Clinton’s trip to the region today, she met with refugees and victims of rape. She told Congolese President Joseph Kabila there should be “no impunity for sexual and gender-based violence.”

Later, she spoke to reporters.

HILLARY CLINTON, secretary of state: I have just come from a meeting with two survivors of sexual attacks. The atrocities that these women have suffered, which stand for the atrocities that so many have suffered, the United States condemns these attacks and all those who commit them and abet them. And we state to the world that those who attack civilian populations using systematic rape are guilty of crimes against humanity.

JIM LEHRER: For more on the conflict, we talk to Zainab Salbi, the founder and CEO of Women for Women International, an organization that aids women in conflict zones. She’s a frequent visitor to Congo.

Ms. Salbi, welcome. The United Nations has called the Eastern Congo the rape capital of the world. Explain what that means.

ZAINAB SALBI, Women for Women International: Congo has one of the worst cases in terms of rape since World War II, where 900,000 German women were raped, and since the genocide of Rwanda, where more than 500,000 women were raped.

In Congo, we have hundreds of thousands of women who are taken as sexual slaves, where they are raped as frequently as possible by rebel and soldiers and where they are forced to clean and cook and carry their ammunition and food for free, or as a slave.

Rape is happening on a public level in front of husbands, in front of fathers, where they are forced to see the rape of their mothers and their daughters. And it’s happening in public level in front of the whole community, particularly vis-a-vis respected members of the community, such as teachers. It is one of the worst cases where rape has been utilized as a weapon of force.

Destroying Fabric of Society

Zainab Salbi
Women for Women International
When a husband is forced to see the rape of his wife or his daughter in front of him, this is a complete emasculation of the husband, and telling the whole society that we are destroying the most respected members of your society.

JIM LEHRER: What is the point of it? What are they trying to accomplish, beyond gathering slave labor?

ZAINAB SALBI: Well, the slave labor often happens. This is servicing the army, basically. You go, you rape, you pillage, you burn, and you take a slave, so that's one of the most patterns -- the patterns in Congo and in other wars, as well.

There's also -- it's to destroy the social fabric of the society. When a husband is forced to see the rape of his wife or his daughter in front of him, this is a complete emasculation of the husband, and telling the whole society that we are destroying the most respected members of your society.

In one of the interviews I've conducted, a woman said they took the most private acts and they made it into such a public domain, you know, destroying us forever in front of the whole community.

It is also -- one of the interviews I had with a soldier, he said, "I never questioned, whenever I entered another man's house and I had a gun and he didn't have a gun, I never questioned my right to rape his wife. I always raped her."

So it's a message from one man to another, in terms of, "I have a gun. You don't. I'm stronger than you." So it's a variation from -- the destroying of the social fabric of the society to the servicing, considering servicing of the rebels and the troops to a messaging from one man to another.

Culture of Rape New to Congo

Zainab Salbi
Women for Women International
Congo, for the longest time, felt that America is looking the other direction and tolerating the killing of at least 5 million people.

JIM LEHRER: How in the world did a culture like that get started?

ZAINAB SALBI: That's a culture that often actually happens in military. As I said, in World War II, the Russian army raped 900,000 German women.

JIM LEHRER: Not a special situation then in the Congo?

ZAINAB SALBI: It's not a special situation in the Congo. It has gotten out of hand in the Congo. Initially, this was not a Congolese culture. It came with the Interahamwe who are -- or the FDLR, who are the Rwandese extremist rebels who created the genocide in Rwanda who started that practice in Congo. And eventually that became also a practice of the Congolese rebels and eventually the practice of the Congolese army itself.

So it wasn't a common thing, and now it is becoming a common thing. There is one thing that is common in the tradition, which is if you rape a pygmy woman, for example, then you are immune from HIV-AIDS. So there is also the traditional mosaic that do play some factor in here, but not completely.

JIM LEHRER: Is there any way to judge what influence, if any, the visit by Secretary of State Clinton might have on this situation over there?

ZAINAB SALBI: It's very important. A, there are lots of Americans who actually care a lot about Congo, so that's on one hand, such groups such as Run for Congo and others who have been running and demonstrating for years, to say we've got to do something about to stop the rape in Congo and the violence in Congo.

B, Congo, for the longest time felt that America is looking the other direction and tolerating the killing of at least 5 million people. The statistics...

JIM LEHRER: Five million people.

ZAINAB SALBI: At least.

JIM LEHRER: That's an extraordinary number of people.

U.S. Attention Significant to Congo

Zainab Salbi
Women for Women International
[W]hat started as a continuation of another genocide, it eventually became inter-fighting with all these players. It eventually became a fighting over resources.

ZAINAB SALBI: And this is a 10-year-old statistic. This has never been updated, actually. So it's significant in her message and the U.S. message towards Congo, that we do care about you, her investment, her announcement about $17 million for investment on women and children, her investment -- her declaration that we need to invest in professionalizing the Congolese army and in the governance. It's significant for Congo, and it's the first time that Congo gets this level of attention from the U.S.

It's also significant to neighboring countries, in terms of sending the message that this is important and we have the attention that we want to have a peace and stability in the region. So it's actually quite significant and important both for Congo and its neighbors.

JIM LEHRER: Is there a simple explanation as to what this fighting is really all about?

ZAINAB SALBI: The fighting started because of the genocide in Rwanda. It's a continuation of the genocide in Rwanda. And in many ways, it tells us, when we didn't deal with it 15 years ago, we're still facing it today.

The Interahamwe, who are the extremist Hutu rebels who committed the genocide in Rwanda, escaped to Congo. When they escaped to Congo, after a few years of continuing their attacks against Rwanda, the Rwandese and Ugandese armies sent their troops so they can stop them.

Upon doing that, there were new rebel militias or rebel groups created in Congo, who are Congolese troops or rebel groups, to fight the invaders who are the Rwandese and the Ugandan armies. And eventually the Congolese army also came into power.

So what started as a continuation of another genocide, it eventually became inter-fighting with all these players. It eventually became a fighting over resources. And it eventually became also combined with criminal sources. So it's one thing that started with a political reason; it's now all over the place in its causing.

'There Has to Be Hope'

Zainab Salbi
Women for Women International
There is a political willingness by both the Congolese government, as well as the Rwandese government and different groups, that we want to have the stability of the region and of both countries and we've got to stop the war.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, is there any reason at all to be optimistic that any of this awfulness is going to end any time soon or can be ended any time soon?

ZAINAB SALBI: First, it's a good period right now. There is a political willingness by both the Congolese government, as well as the Rwandese government and different groups, that we want to have the stability of the region and of both countries and we've got to stop the war. So that's really good.

But beyond that, the visit of the secretary of state is very important in sending political messaging. But beyond that, I work with women survivors of wars. And one of the women I work with -- her name is Hanarattan -- she was a sexual slave for a year-and-a-half.

And that woman had escaped, run in the bush for about two months, then managed to go through a program and rebuild her life, and now she is one of the most important community organizers in Goma, actually, and Mukabo, where secretary of state visited. If she can stand on her feet, I feel there must be hope. There has to be hope.

JIM LEHRER: One good story at least.

ZAINAB SALBI: Indeed.

JIM LEHRER: All right, Ms. Salbi, thank you very much.

ZAINAB SALBI: Pleasure.

JIM LEHRER: A footnote: Jason Maloney's report is part of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting's "Fragile States" project, a partnership with the Bureau of International Reporting. You can find more information about both at newshour.pbs.org.