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Victims, Rapists Speak Out on Rape as Weapon of War in Congo

September 13, 2010 at 7:01 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next, a grim story of rape as a weapon of war. For more than a decade, the Democratic Republic of Congo has been a battleground of Congolese and fighters from neighboring nations, and the fighting has brought a legacy of sexual violence, at least 200,000 cases since 1996, according to the United Nations, that’s gone on undeterred by the presence of U.N. peacekeepers.

We begin our coverage with a report from Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News. A warning: it contains graphic material.

LINDSEY HILSUM, Independent Television News (voice-over): The survivors of mass rape around the village of Luvungi last month speak to an ordeal so dreadful, it’s hard to listen to their stories. More than 280 women were gang-raped by militiamen in the forest of eastern Congo.

ZAINA NYANGOMA, rape survivor (through translator): They would beat us for a long time. After they raped us, they would walk out and we would do our best to escape into the bush. Sometimes we would have to crawl on the ground while they would rape others until dawn. They would also sometimes follow us into the forest, aware of where we were hiding at night. And if we were found, they would then rape us again. And that’s how they managed to rape all the women of Luvungi.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Nearby U.N. peacekeepers failed to protect the women. Their bosses in New York say they’ll do better next time.

But what about the rapists? Sexual violence is endemic. Under the international (INAUDIBLE), Congress lease soldiers are on their best behavior, but all sides rape in this brutal conflict. Now a few Congolese soldiers in a retraining program have been pushed into reflecting on their actions.

SGT. JOSEPH KILANGA (through translator): When I saw a woman it was like seeing food because of spending so many days without any sex. I often asked women to let me have sex with them, which sometimes they did, against their will, for fear of their lives. I could call that rape.

SGT. JEAN NGOY WA KASONGO (through translator): We did all sorts of things to women just because we felt we were in a position of power and there weren’t going to be any consequences. We took advantage of their vulnerability knowing they couldn’t defend themselves. We were using our power to abuse women physically and sexually.

JOSEPH KILANGA: I agree that forcing women to do things against their will is wrong. However, the isolation of life in the war in the forest that we’re living is partly to blame for our behavior towards women. And then we had no mercy.

JEAN NGOY WA KASONGO: The soldiers who are participating in the rape would stand and cheer, enjoying witnessing such an act. This normally encouraged more and more soldiers to rape women.

Sometimes it starts with one soldier raping a women and then it ends up with a gang rape. And that’s why I say it’s like evil spirits that are making us treat women in this way. I now believe that this training will prevent these things from ever happening again.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Rape victims near the town of Bukavu learn hygiene and child care and receive trauma therapy, as will the victims of the most recent atrocities. There are many projects to help them earn a living by, for example, making roof tiles. But nothing will really change in the Democratic Republic of Congo until there are more projects to make men change their attitudes. For women like Solange, bringing up a child of rape, it’s been a long nightmare. She’s been raped four times in the last nine years of conflict.

SOLANGE M’MAHESHE, rape survivor (through translator): I believe the war is the cause of all this. I started school at 6 and got married at 17. And for all those years I never heard of anybody who got raped or killed by a Congolese soldier. We only started getting rape cases in 1994, when Rwandan forces and militia came over the border. I’ve always advised and encourage others who have been raped. I often tell them to be resilient, because even though they went through the ordeal of rape, they should still be grateful to be alive.

LINDSEY HILSUM: She’s called her child Esperanza (ph), meaning hope, something she tells other women who have been raped that they should still somehow try to feel.