Olun Kamitatu looks drawn and tired after spending a long day at the United Nations in New York City, petitioning its international bureaucrats for a more forceful and comprehensive presence in Democratic Republic of Congo. “You have to have faith in the people of good will,” a U.N. official who hurried off to his next meeting said to her. “Where are they?” asked an exasperated Ms. Kamitatu.
People of good will were hard to find in Congo. last July, when Ms. Kamitatu completed her U.N. visit. On the same day her appeal was patiently tolerated in New York, Mai-Mai militia and Hutu rebels with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (F.D.L.R.) were finishing up a raid in North Kivu province, beating and dragging the village men from their homes, then raping scores of their mothers, sisters and wives before their eyes in what has become a familiar, brutal exercise. U.N. forces in the field did not prevent the attacks or succeed in rounding up the perpetrators afterward. Not until Oct. 5, months later, did U.N. forces arrest one of the leaders of the village attacks, which continued into August and ultimately included the rapes of some 500 men, women and children.
Ms. Kamitatu, the regional technical advisor for extractive industries and governance for the Central Africa Regional Office of Catholic Relief Services, was accompanied in Manhattan by Mathilde Muhindo Mwahmini, the director of the Centre Olame of the Archdiocese of Bukavu in South Kivu. Centre Olame (“living with dignity”), a C.R.S. partner, has worked for 50 years to improve the status of women in Congolese society. The center was instrumental in bringing to light the extraordinary level of sexual violence that has typified the brutality of the Congo conflict. Ms. Mwahmini’s agency was among the first to document officially the use of rape as an instrument of warfare and to respond to the survivors, mostly women.
Still, the news from Congo. since the two women appealed to the United Nations offers little evidence that this long nightmare is nearing an end. The United Nations reported on Oct. 15, 2010, that as many as 15,000 women were raped in Congo’s eastern provinces in 2009. The report that the F.D.L.R., members of the Lord’s Resistance Army and other militia and bandit groups continue mass rape was no surprise, but according to other U.N. findings, even Congo’s government soldiers have taken part in the sexual assaults.
In late October news of other mass rapes and assaults along the border with Angola began to surface as survivors reached authorities. As many as 650 women and girls were reported raped during a mass expulsion of Congolese refugees from Angola. Many victims told U.N. officials that they had been locked in dungeon-like conditions for weeks and raped repeatedly by “security forces.” It was unclear if these forces were Angolan or Congolese.
In many parts of the D.R.C., normality—or what passes for it in a poor country headed by a weak and at times corrupt government—has returned. In the Congo’s east, however, violence remains a major problem. Despite having conducted in 2006 its first multiparty election since 1960, the Congo is unstable, says Ms. Mwahmini. “We still have foreign armed groups [and] the insecurity persists.”
“Most of these clashes,” adds Ms. Kamitatu, “actually happen in the mining areas. We have observed that mining areas have become more and more militarized.”
The U.N.’s pacification and democratization campaigns in Congo are among the largest and costliest in the organization’s history. The two women fear mission exhaustion has diminished the effectiveness of the campaigns. The outrages in Kivu and along the Angolan border justified their fears. “What really shocks me,” says Ms. Kamitatu, “is that on the one hand we see all this [international] assistance, and then when you talk to U.N. peacekeeping staff, they say they don’t have enough resources to fulfill their mandate.”
“That’s why we are here to say that the war in the Congo, the violence against women,” says Mwahmini, “…has lasted too long, and we need to put an end to it.”
“We believe that if the Congolese government does what it’s supposed to do and the international community…also does what it’s supposed to do,” Ms. Kamitatu says, “then the lives of women and children will be spared.”
The U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo (the U.N. Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, better known by its French acronym, Monusco) is the largest in the world, with more than 19,000 troops across the country. Critics of Monusco, like the international aid and development organization Oxfam, complain that the force is so ineffective that humanitarian organizations cannot safely complete their missions, and they point out that Congolese continue to die not just at the hands of rebels and bandits but also because medical, sanitary and food aid is still not reaching the people in need.
Years after the United Nations arrived in Congo, the question persists: Who will protect the people?
The arrival of Hutu escaping into Congo in the chaotic aftermath of the 1994 Tutsi genocide in Rwanda began a period of violence and civic disintegration that continues. Some five million Congolese have died during the conflict, and it is estimated that every 30 minutes a woman in the eastern provinces is raped.
The Hutu and other rebel, ethnic and bandit groups are one cause for the dislocation, but the conflicts have been abetted by the weakness of the central government. The violence also has been fueled by so-called conflict commodities—coltan, gold, tin and copper—rich deposits of metals and minerals that should have been a huge resource for Congo’s economic development. Instead, they have been a curse, supporting the violence.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo’s patriarchal culture, the status of women is low, but the persistence of rape and sexual assault in war has further degraded their status. Ms. Mwahmini laments the “reversal,” noting that during 50 years of independence, women in Congo had greatly improved their position in society, achieving political office and places of authority and power. “They were the ones who remained in the villages when the husband fled…. They had to provide for the children,” she says. “We’ve also seen a new generation of [women] traders who are traveling to Hong Kong or Dubai or China to buy goods that they bring and sell in the Congo, and by doing this they provide jobs to other women. And that’s why I think that the people who are using rape as a weapon of war know the potential of Congolese women. They understand that by targeting women they affect the whole community.”
The Center Olame maintains a listening center focused on “detraumatizing” women; it has served almost 6,000 Congolese women between the ages of 8 and 75. “Nobody was spared,” reflects Ms. Mwahmini. “There was no question of age. Young, elderly—it didn’t matter.”
One of the first victims Ms. Mwahmini interviewed was an elderly woman. She and her husband “were attacked during the night. Her husband, he was brutally beaten, and she was raped,” Mwahmini remembers. “The first soldier raped her, then the second, and then the third soldier…. As the fourth one was approaching, they heard the voice of a commander, who told the soldier, ‘Leave her alone, she’s an old woman.’
“From that testimony we understood that this was… planned, that there was an authority…watching and…guiding all of this.”
The use of rape has become so widespread now, Ms. Mwahmini says, that this kind of sexual violence has been trivialized in Congolese society. Worse, many of the perpetrators named by investigations that Center Olame contributed to, including a prominent study from Human Rights Watch, have not been prosecuted; many perpetrators have been promoted within the Congolese military and government, an impunity that Ms. Mwahmini says “fuels the phenomenon.”
“The Center Olame is here to restore the dignity of women,” says Ms. Mwahmini. “Now there’s a perception of Congolese women as raped women.
“No,” she says, “we are here to say that Congolese women are strong.”
Not all the news from Congo is bad. “We have a wonderful people; they do not accept their fate; and we have the natural beauty of the country that [tourists] will keep coming to see,” says Ms. Mwahmini. “The Congolese people believe in life…despite everything.”
Ms. Kamitatu is likewise impressed by the people’s resilience. “Somehow the conflict has strengthened us as a nation,” she says. “We used to think of ourselves as more of, you know, ‘I’m from Bandundu; she’s from Kivu.’” Now the struggle to survive has united them. She says, “We want to remain Congolese; we don’t want a single portion of our territory to be given to anybody else. This is who we are, and this is the country that God gave us, so let it be.”
Another source of hope has been the actions of the global civic community. “I was really amazed [to discover],” says Ms. Kamitatu, “the level of commitment that some of the American Catholics have to this issue. They’ve never been to the D.R.C.; they don’t know anyone in the D.R.C.; but they’ve educated themselves. We’ve heard testimony from ordinary American Catholics that have harassed, literally, their representatives to make sure they pass [legislation aimed at containing Congo’s conflict commodity trade].” Ms. Kamitatu is gratified by the introduction of this “first of its kind” legislation in the U.S. Congress. “Now we are able to use that as we’re meeting other missions to say, ‘The U.S. has done that, what are you going to do?’”
Other Signs of Hope
According to Ms. Kamitatu, the government in Kinshasa has improved its effectiveness and taken steps toward transparency in its dealing with multinationals and in state expenditures. It still has far to go. But while violence plagues the resource-rich provinces, the more commonplace hazards of poverty are the people’s main preoccupations in other provinces. “Can I get health care? Can I get food? Can I get an education for my children?” asks Ms. Mwahmini.
To resolve the conflict, Ms. Kamitatu says the international community must do two things. First, better police the outflow of conflict commodities from the Congo. “Most of these groups occupy mining areas, and they use the revenues from the extraction and sale of these minerals to continue fighting,” she explains. “Unless we address that, they will keep fighting.”
Second, the international community must devise a practical plan for resettling the Hutu refugees who fled Rwanda and now live in Congo. It has been 16 years since the Hutu first entered Congo to escape the retribution of the victorious Tutsi, who seized control of Rwanda and ended the genocide there. Now those innocent of genocide remain trapped among the guilty. Some of the F.D.L.R. rebels now harassing the Congolese countryside were just children when they fled Rwanda. Ms. Kamitatu suggests the Congolese and Rwandan governments agree on resettling and rehabilitating those Hutus who can be restored. “But…I’m not sure there is a political will to get there,” she said.
“Is there a regional solution to the F.D.L.R.?” Ms. Kamitatu asks. “If we are able to disarm them, what do we do with them? That’s the question nobody wants to answer…. What we’ve heard [at the United Nations] is: ‘We will disarm them, demobilize them and move them to another part of the D.R.C.’ Is that the solution? I think the country is an integrated region and the international community needs to find a more lasting solution [than relocation within Congo] so that we give an incentive to those that no longer want to fight.”
In 2010 Congo celebrated its 50th year of independence, a bittersweet milestone in Ms. Mwahmini’s view. For its 60th celebration she hopes to celebrate a nation that addresses its people’s basic needs, pays its civil servants, builds roads and infrastructure and thoughtfully invests its vast riches in the development of its people.
Ms. Kamitatu smiles wanly at her friend’s laundry list of national improvements. More than better infrastructure, she says, the nation needs a change of heart. “What I would really like to see within the next 10 years is a new generation of leaders—even if we don’t have all the roads and all the other things.… I think the failure of the Congo…has been the absence of leaders with a vision; and if we have that, then slowly but surely we will get there.
View a slideshow report on the Congo's war on women.