Rape Victims Make Voices Heard in Congo

October 15, 2010 at 4:01 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight: rape as a weapon of war. A top United Nations official briefed the Security Council yesterday on some particularly brutal attacks in Eastern Congo this summer.

We have a report from Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News, who accompanied a U.N. mission and talked to some of the victims. A warning: This report contains disturbing testimony.

LINDSEY HILSUM: We’re traveling with Margot Wallstrom, the U.N. representative on sexual crime in conflict. She has come to investigate the mass rape of more than 300 village women by militiamen and Rwandan rebels.

As we walked into Kampala village, there were no clues to what had happened here, no sign of the fear that drives the women to leave their houses at night and hide in the forest. The people celebrated the arrival of visitors. Maybe this woman at last would be the one to do something.

And then we went into the meeting. Men were told to go to the back or outside, women at the front, so they could tell their stories, each one more terrible than the last.

Shedla Abedi, 62 years old, raped by a man young enough to be her grandson. “This is our cry for help,” she says. “We’re in pain.”

In this village, houses were looted, children kidnapped, and 35 women raped.

SHEDLA ABEDI, rape survivor (through translator): You are our fellow women, and we believe our enemies wouldn’t hesitate to rape you if they were given the opportunity. They are merciless.

MARGOT WALLSTROM, United Nations representative on sexual crimes in conflict: I think now is also time to wipe the fear for us and to start to act.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The women told me that the armed men came on the night of July the 30th and started looting.

SHEDLA ABEDI (through translator): I told them I had no money. They began to beat me and ordered me to lie on the floor. I don’t think they expected me to resist, because, when I did, they had to tie me up.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Age was no protection. Shedla’s 82-year-old neighbor was also raped. The rapists are hiding in the jungle. Congolese troops are there, too, supposedly fighting the rebels and militiamen, but they also loot and rape.

It’s not that no one knows. There have been hundreds of reports about rape in the Congo. And it’s not that no one cares. There are dozens of nongovernmental organizations here helping the victims. But the Congolese authorities don’t seem to do anything about it.

This is a lawless place. And it seems that, really, in the east of the Congo, there’s still no government at all.

U.N. peacekeepers from the Indian army are meant to protect civilians, but they failed. An internal report says the nearest contingents have neither the right training nor the necessary translators. They didn’t show up for nearly two weeks.

What can you say to those women now. What can you promise or offer them?

SOLDIER: All that I can promise them is that we will try our best.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Another meeting at another Nyasi village. The women say these rapes were more widespread, more brutal than ever before ever before. The confidential U.N. report says that Congolese soldiers had abandoned the villages to go and make money from nearby gold and mineral mines. The rapists were militiamen and Rwandan rebels vying for control of the mines. Rape was a way of subduing and cowing the local population.

SIKILIZA BUUNDA, rape survivor (through translator): They came at night while we were sleeping in the forest. We saw men running towards us. They grabbed my arm. They took away my baby. And eight men raped me. I was screaming, “I’m dying.”

LINDSEY HILSUM: Rape carries a terrible stigma here. But the women told me despair has made them speak out.

MARGOT WALLSTROM: I really think it’s important to go after the perpetrators. They have leaders in exile in Paris that issue immediately statements. They follow very well what happens.

LINDSEY HILSUM: And, on Monday, Callixte Mbarushimana, spokesman for the Rwandan rebel group implicated, was arrested in Paris under a warrant from the International Criminal Court.

Last week, U.N. peacekeepers arrested Kokunda Mayele, a militia commander many women identified as being present during the assaults. He and other militiamen have been handed over to the Congolese authorities. So, the question now is, will they follow through and prosecute?

A new law in America requires companies to trace conflict minerals from the Congo in products such as mobile phones, a move which could help protect the women.

MARGOT WALLSTROM: There has to be an international reaction from both the European Union, from countries all over the world, to support and follow through what the United States have already decided.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The U.N. visit is over. No one expects a quick solution to the endemic sexual violence here. Although charitable organizations try to help the women, the government doesn’t seem to care. But the mass rape in August has generated such outrage, they are feeling some pressure.