Pain, stigma and little justice for victims of sexual violence in Democratic Republic of the Congo

Bukavu, a city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is slowly emerging from a long, violent conflict that has spared no one. Special correspondent Jonathan Silvers reports on how health workers and local law enforcement are struggling to confront a brutal epidemic of sexual violence perpetrated against even the youngest of girls.

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    The wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo are now over, and the country is rebuilding. For victims of sexual violence, that means medical and psychological treatment. For its perpetrators, its means prosecution.

    NewsHour special correspondent Jonathan Silvers tells the story from the eastern city of Bukavu.


    Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu Province, is slowly emerging from a conflict that spanned two decades and spared no one.

    Roughly half the people here have endured the violent death of a family member. Some 80 percent have been forced to flee their home at least once. With the economy shattered and basic supplies scarce, survival is a matter of improvisation.

    Conflict has left countless places around the world in a similar condition. What makes Bukavu extreme is the sexual violence that conflict has unleashed, according to the medical staff here at Panzi Hospital.

  • DR. NADINE NEEMA RUKUNHGU, Panzi Hospital (through interpreter):

    What is typical? Rape is now typical. It wasn't present in former rebellions. Now there is individual rape, mass rape, in churches, of boys, of entire families. This is all very new.


    Dr. Nadine Neema Rukunhgu is director of a sexual violence unit at Panzi Hospital. She estimates that over one-third of the girls and women in the region have been raped, many brutally and on multiple occasions.

  • WOMAN:

    Why is she bleeding in the bladder? Something must have happened somewhere.

  • DR. ELLINOR ADELROTH, Panzi Hospital:

    No. There was also a fistula so…

  • WOMAN:

    OK. All right.


    Nongovernment organizations have provided the hospital with equipment that expedites diagnosis, but demand for emergency care far exceeds the hospital's limited resources.

    For every woman taken in, another is turned away. Among the postoperative patients on the morning we arrived, a 4-year-old girl.


    This girl was raped about two, two-and-a-half months ago. And she was very malnourished when she came, except that she was totally damaged in the private parts.


    So we have had to fatten her up for two months. And then she had surgery about two weeks ago, which was successful. So, she's basically bodily mended now, but who knows what will happen in the future with her. The hospital has treated roughly 30 young children in similar condition in the space of four months. All came from a nearby village.

    In addition to treating their patients' medical needs, hospital staff are now gathering forensic evidence, in the hope that it may one day be used to identify and prosecute perpetrators.

  • DR. NADINE NEEMA RUKUNHGU (through interpreter):

    Despite our efforts, there are no solutions. Nothing is quick. When government officials see what we see and fail to react, it's revolting. You feel like taking them by the throat and shaking them. When things like this go on, it means we are no longer a society, because a society is about humanity, and when we lose our humanity, we are no longer a functioning society.


    With national institutions largely dysfunctional, local authorities are trying to respond to conflict-related violence and abuses of human rights.

    The Bukavu Police Department is making an effort to train its officers in modern crime scene techniques. That training is starting to pay off. Police captured this young man in the midst of a robbery. Upon arrival at the station house, they discovered that he's a former soldier suspected of multiple rapes and murders.

    The overwhelming majority of perpetrators of sexual violence are soldiers and paramilitaries. Their maneuvers make them hard to pin down and they are often protected by their commanders, according to police commissioner David Bodeli Dombi.

  • DAVID BODELI DOMBI, Deputy Police Commissioner, Bukavu Precinct (through interpreter):

    In times of war, the perpetrators are mostly armed soldiers. In times of peace, the majority of perpetrators, some 80 percent, are civilians.

    But they're always the same people, between 17 and 40, jobless, poorly educated. In war, they get recruited to terrorize with weapons. Later, they continue to terrorize during the postwar disorder.


    While the international community has not intervened in sexual violence here, it has strongly condemned the crisis. In response, the DRC's military has recently begun convening tribunals of soldiers charged with rape and sexual slavery.

    KAREN NAIMER, Physicians for Human Rights: So few survivors dare to come forward to speak about what happened to them. The stigma is unbelievable in their communities. They're rejected by their families, by their husband, their parents, their children. They lose their livelihood. They lose any sense of place in their community. So speaking out about what happened to them comes at an enormous cost to them.


    Karen Naimer examines conflict-related sexual violence in sub-Saharan Africa for Physicians for Human Rights. She recently traveled to Bukavu to monitor an army trial of soldiers charged with rape and sexual slavery. Last year, over 150 soldiers and officers were tried in military operational courts like this one. KAREN NAIMER: But what we found over time is that even those survivors who do dare to come forward often fail at the local level because of inadequate evidence supporting their allegations.


    One of the cases that Naimer is monitoring involved the sexual enslavement of an adolescent girl by a soldier. The girl is mentally impaired. During the trial, her identity was concealed by a head scarf and sunglasses.

    Just minutes after the session began, the military judges abandoned the rules and ordered the girl to remove her head covering and confront her oppressor in open court. The prosecutor objected, claiming the judge was violating rules, shaming the victim, and putting her at risk of retaliatory violence.

    The judge overruled the objection, and the girl complied. We turned off our cameras to protect her identity. The judges have yet to rule on the case.


    This is a tactic that is not uncommon in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And there is an outcry among so many people we work with, who are just desperate to find effective mechanisms to hold at least some of those responsible to account through a former judicial process.


    Despite the obstacles, Police Commissioner Boudelie has noticed an increase in women seeking assistance at the Bukavu Police Department. They have been encouraged by recent laws against gender-based violence enacted by the national government.

    But the courts often impose prohibitive fees on victims, typically equal to one month's pay. Even then, the commissioner can't promise that he will investigate. He earns $30 a month, and has no transportation, no resources and little support from the judiciary.

  • DAVID BODELI DOMBI(through interpreter):

    There are so many challenges to aid the young girls. Above all, we need a vast number of professional investigators here with proper equipment. Otherwise, conditions will remain just as they are. JONATHAN SILVERS: For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jonathan Silvers in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo.


    A previous version of this transcript referred to Dr. Nadine Neema Rukunhgu as Dr. Nadine Neme, and David Bodeli Dombi as David Boudelie.

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