At a meeting of the United Nations Security Council early this week, the Under Secretary General for peace keeping operations, Atul Khare, reported that UN troops failed victims of mass rapes in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where more than 500 women and children have been massively raped in the past month. Khare warned of a growing “culture of sexual violence” in the region, as rival groups fight for control of gold and other mineral wealth. The under secretary general outlined that there was a mass rape of at least 242 women and children in 13 villages; while he stated that about 260 more rape attacks took place in parts of Nord and Sud Kivu provinces throughout the month of August, with some of the victims being children as young as seven. While noting that the DR Congo government is primarily responsible for the security of its people, he nevertheless accepted the failure of the UN, in the matter: “Clearly we have also failed. Our actions were not adequate, resulting in the unacceptable brutalization of the villages of the area. We must do better”. Atul Khare then added: “I feel personally guilty to the people who have suffered this brutalization”.
The situation in the troubled regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has unleashed a catastrophe, which has reduced the country to becoming the rape capital of the world. Khare said there were more than 15,000 reported cases of rapes each year, in 2008 and 2009. He said that between July 30 and August 2, 242 women and children were raped in the first attacks. A MONUSCO (UN Congo operation) report of July 30 had mentioned one rape, but by August 5, reports emerged of 15 women having been raped and had sought treatment; the toll gradually rose, but the Security Council was only informed three weeks later, of the gravity of the situation. Khar added that 40 cases came from the Nord Kivu village of Mubi; 13 rapes in the market at Pinga; 74 cases of sexual violence in the Sud Kivu village of Miki and 130 in 10 villages in the Shabunda region. Atul Khare blamed the Mai-Mai Cheka group and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), saying that leaders of the two groups, named as Colonel Mayele and Colonel Serafim, had told inhabitants of Luvungi that they were out to protect the village. The FDLR rebel denied participation in the rapes. In a statement from Paris, the group’s executive secretary, Callixte Mabrushimana, told AFP, it was “in no way involved in these odious actions and takes umbrage at the baseless accusations launched against them by the secretary general of the United Nations”.
Responding to the horrors, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, said everything possible must be done to prevent atrocities in the future. He said the Congolese authorities must fully investigate what had happened: it was “of utmost importance that the Democratic Republic of Congo continue to pursue its efforts to fight impunity”, according to the UN chief, adding that the Congolese authorities must “investigate this incident and bring perpetrators to justice”; just as the UN Security Council also accepted that peace keepers in the area should have done more to protect local people from the rebels. The UN under secretary general said it had become imperative for the international community to control the traffic in natural resources “which is clearly driving the violence in the region”. He also promised more patrols and random checks as a part of a more “aggressive posture” against the bands of militia men carrying out these systematic rapes. He then called for sanctions against militia leaders. However, the DR Congo’s UN Ambassador, Ileka Atoka, told the Security Council that sanctions will not “ease the horror that the Congolese people have already been living for more than a decade, a horror which has become part of our daily life”. On her part, Margaret Wallstrom, the UN special representative on the prevention of sexual violence in conflict, read out a woman’s account of the attack on Luvungi, the worst hit village, where 103 women and children were raped. The account said that armed men went from house to house breaking down doors after surrounding the village. “She described how armed men inserted their hands into women’s genitals searching for gold. Many women were gang raped by up to five or six men at a time”.
The BBC reports that the rapes in Luvungi happened after the rebels occupied the town and surrounding villages, which were within miles of a UN peace keeping base. The reports added that nearly 200 women and some baby boys were attacked over a 4 day period before they left. It was in the wake of the latest atrocities that Ban Ki-Moon dispatched an envoy to DR Congo, while calling on officials to renew efforts to bring peace and stability to the conflict-ridden eastern Congo as well as urging the rebels to lay down their arms. He wanted the UN troops in the region to do more to “protect civilians from such wanton violations of international human rights and humanitarian law”. MONUSCO, according to the UN Secretary General, “does what it can within its mandate, working within limited resources in an exceptionally difficult environment”. However, “at such times, we should always ask if we could have done more”. UN peacekeepers in the area say that they were not given information about the attacks and rapes until about 10 days after they happened.
Roger Meese, the top UN diplomat in the DR Congo reported that he had not been at the base but said UN troops would have intervened had they known about the attacks. “Our first priority is very clearly the protection of civilians so if you have an accurate or a credible report of mass rapes going on, certainly the commander in place and the MONUSCO forces would have tried to stop whatever was going on, but we didn’t have that information”, he told the media. However, in response to the situation, Meese announced plans to improve communication and prevent recurrence of sexual violence in the Congo, including a proposal to have villages report to the UN’s forward operating base at Kibua, everyday. In response, the president of the Security Council, Vitaly Churkin, said the UN would have to conduct its own investigation into what went wrong. “There was general feeling that things did not work the way they should have worked, and it is the intention of the council to look into it very thoroughly”. Churkin added that “everything is to be done in order to prevent such occurrences in the future”. The use of rape as a weapon of war is one of the major crimes of recent civil wars, from Congo through to the LRA’s insurgency in Northern Uganda; it must be arrested forthwith and perpetrators brought to justice. The honour of women and children must be protected by all of humanity: in the Congo and elsewhere.