NYT, February 21, 2009
Perhaps we’ve heard so little about them because the crimes are so unspeakable, the evil so profound.
For years now, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, marauding bands of soldiers and militias have been waging a war of rape and destruction against women. This sustained campaign of mind-bending atrocities, mostly in the eastern part of the country, has been one of the strategic tools in a wider war that has continued, with varying degrees of intensity, since the 1990s. Millions have been killed.
Women and girls of all ages, from old women to very young children, have been gang-raped, and in many cases their sexual organs have been mutilated. The victims number in the hundreds of thousands. But the world, for the most part, has remained indifferent to their suffering.
“These women are raped in front of their husbands, in front of their children, in front of their parents, in front of their neighbors,” said Dr. Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist who runs a hospital in Bukavu that treats only the women who have sustained the most severe injuries.
In some cases, the rapists have violated their victims with loaded guns and pulled the triggers. Other women have had their organs deliberately destroyed by knives or other weapons. Sons have been forced at gunpoint to rape their mothers. Many women and girls have been abducted and sexually enslaved.
It is as if, in these particular instances, some window to what we think of as our common humanity had been closed. As The Times’s Jeffrey Gettleman, on assignment in Congo, wrote last fall:
“Many of these rapes have been marked by a level of brutality that is shocking even by the twisted standards of a place riven by civil war and haunted by warlords and drug-crazed child soldiers.”
Dr. Mukwege visited me at The Times last week. He was accompanied by the playwright, Eve Ensler, who has been passionate in her efforts to bring attention and assistance to the women of Congo.
I asked Dr. Mukwege to explain how it was in the strategic interest of the various armed groups to rape and otherwise brutalize women. He described some of the ramifications of such atrocities and the ways in which they undermine the entire society in which the women live.
“Once they have raped these women in such a public way,” he said, “sometimes maiming them, destroying their sexual organs — and with everybody watching — the women themselves are destroyed, or virtually destroyed. They are traumatized and humiliated on every level, physical and psychological. That’s the first consequence.
“The second consequence is that the whole family and the entire neighborhood is traumatized by what they have seen. The ordinary sense of family and community is lost after a man has been forced to watch his wife being raped, or parents are forced to watch the rape of their daughters, or children see their mothers raped.
“Neighbors are witnesses to this. Many flee. Families are dislocated. Social relationships are lost. There is no more social network, village network. Not only the victims have been destroyed; the whole village is destroyed.”
The devastating injuries treated by Dr. Mukwege at his hospital can all but stun the imagination. There is no need to detail them further here. AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are commonplace. Often the ability to bear children is destroyed. In many other cases, women end up giving birth to the children of their rapists.
“The hospital can take care of 3,600 women every year,” said Dr. Mukwege. “That is our maximum capacity. We can’t take any more.”
He spoke of ambulance teams that would drive into villages and be besieged by rape victims desperately seeking treatment. “It is awful to see 300 women in need of help,” he said, “and you have to take 10 because the ambulance can only take 10.”
Ms. Ensler spoke of her encounter with an 8-year-old girl during one of her trips to Congo. The girl’s father had been killed in an attack, her mother was raped, and the girl herself was abducted. The child was raped by groups of soldiers over a two-week period and then abandoned.
The girl felt too ashamed to allow herself to be held, Ms. Ensler said, because her injuries had left her incontinent. After explaining how she persuaded the child to accept an embrace, to be hugged, Ms. Ensler said, “If we’re living in a century when an 8-year-old girl is incontinent because that many soldiers have raped her, then something has gone terribly wrong.”
Despite the presence in the region of the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world, no one has been able to stop the systematic rape of the Congolese women.
If these are not war crimes, crimes against humanity, then nothing is.