In Manhattan last night I spent a few minutes with the Ambassador to the UN from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ileka Atoki, as I gave him a copy of Heart of Diamonds. We met at a screening of Lisa Jackson’s documentary, “The Greatest Silence: Rape In The Congo.” Ambassador Ileka shed some sobering light on how gang rape became such a widely used weapon in the DRC. He also spoke about what needs to be done to eradicate it. I couldn’t agree with him more.
Rape as a weapon of war is nothing new, of course, nor was it invented in the Congo. According to Ileka, the current Congo rape epidemic began in earnest in 1998 when the armies of Uganda and Rwanda (among others) invaded the DRC ostensibly to destroy groups seeking to overthrow their governments which had taken refuge in Congo. Their rebel quarry, including the Hutu Interahamwe responsible for Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, used gang rape as part of their arsenal of terror. The horrible tactic was soon adopted by the Congolese armed forces, who were (and are still) mostly uneducated, underpaid, ill-motivated youths, as well as their allies, the Mai-Mai militia, whose leaders encourage the superstition that raping a woman makes them fiercer warriors.
Lisa Jackson’s film, which first aired on America’s HBO last spring and is now being distributed around the world (see my previous posts about it), is a raw portrayal of the epidemic of violence against women that is destroying the fabric of life in Congo. I’ve seen it several times and the impact grows with each viewing. Lisa interviews rape victims, the people who struggle to care for them, and even several young men who committed the crime. Their cold-blooded accounts are the stuff of nightmares.
According to some estimates, a woman is gang-raped in Congo every eight minutes today.
Ambassador Ileka said that a recent DRC government study shows that many of the crimes are now being committed not only by the various armies and militias vying for control of the eastern provinces, but by civilians–men who were demobilized after the war officially ended in 2003. They view rape as their right.
He also pointed out that an entire generation of young men, boys when the war began, have grown up with violence against women all around them. It is part of the fabric of their lives. With eighty percent of all children in this generation denied an education by the war in Congo and a million refugees still homeless while the fighting continues, there is no social infrastructure to teach them it is wrong.
There is no easy solution and it may well take more than one generation to eradicate the plague. Awareness of the epidemic is growing, largely through the tireless efforts of Lisa Jackson and others like her. But true change, as Ileka said, will be possible only with an end to the fighting. Nothing substantive can be accomplished while more than twenty armed groups vie for control of Congo’s riches. The current UN-sponsored peace talks and some very recent diplomatic and military maneuvers by the DRC government are the slimmest beginning of that process.
When the conflict finally ends, prosecution of perpetrators can help stop the practice. The DRC passed a clear stringent law criminalizing crimes of violence against women, but it is basically unenforceable under current conditions. Longer term, attitudes can be changed through education. Like many other repugnant beliefs that worm their way into the social fabric, though, the impunity with which rapists view their actions will not be eradicated overnight by either teachers or prosecutors.
Sadly, nothing will bring back the lost lives of the thousands of women and girls who have been brutalized.