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In the Congo, rape is a weapon of war

In 2005 alone, some 45,000 women were raped in the South Kivu region of the Congo, according to the UN. But rape does not begin or end with an incident of sexual violence, it tears apart families and destroys lives.

By Lisa Richlen and Oscar Olivier

A women’s shelter for victims of sexual violence in Goma, DRC, March 7, 2009 (UN Photo/Marie Frechon)

It is well known that rape is a weapon of war. What is perhaps less understood is what this actually means for the women who are raped. Perhaps no country exemplifies this better than Congo where the scope of violence, sexual and otherwise, is staggering.

The current round of unrest in Congo began in 1998. According to some estimates, since that time over five million people have been killed or died of starvation and disease. One of the regions most affected is South Kivu, and within this region, members of the Banyamulenge ethnic group are on the receiving end of most of the violence. Women are among the primary victims; indeed, the UN estimates that in 2005, approximately 45,000 women were raped in South Kivu.

But behind each number lies an individual whose life is destroyed by rape.

Take the case of Zanika, now 30 years old. At the age of 13 she was brutally raped by a group of men. The attack destroyed her reproductive system and left her with lasting back pain. However, the rape precipitated a series of additional traumas that follower her to this day. Zanika was and continues to be stigmatized by her community. Damaged by the incident, she withdrew from the public eye and quit school. Furthermore, starved of love and affection, she became involved in a lesbian relationship. A serious taboo in Africa, this was ‘discovered’ and led the arrest of her and the others who were involved by the Congolese police. While in prison, she was tortured, further compromising her already poor physical state. Today, Zanika lives in Nairobi. Due to recurrent back problems, it is difficult for her to work and she is forced to rely on the generosity of others. Nor can she foresee any hope of starting a family. Indeed, this one incident of rape completely changed the trajectory of Zanika’s life.

Or, take the case of Munezero, now 37, who also belongs to the Banyamulenge ethnic group in the South Kivu region of Congo. When rebels entered her village, she and four of her children were separated from her husband and one additional child. They have not been in contact since then. She and her oldest daughter, who was 14 years old at the time, were both raped and Munezero and the children who remained with her were forced to flee. Munezero has recurring back problems that make prolonged physical labor (the only work available to refugees in most cases) difficult. Her daughter fared even worse; following their arrival in Nairobi, she was hospitalized for three months and her uterus was removed. The incident led to the disintegration of the family and of Munezero’s ability to care for her remaining children. Today she struggles to find sufficient work and her daughter is working in prostitution.

As these cases demonstrate, rape in the context of war does not begin and end with an isolated incident of sexual violence. Rather, it tears apart families, causes tremendous physical injury, results in social isolation and exclusion and forever stigmatizes the victims. Furthermore, rape often precipitates further sexual exploitation; those who have undergone acts such as these are more likely to be repeatedly targeted for rape again in their home countries, in countries of transit and in host countries; many begin working in prostitution and others are put in situations where they are coerced into engaging in sexual relations for food, shelter or basic protection.

However, it is not only the women who find themselves in situations of danger, those who defend and help them – and talk about it – are targeted as well. This is the situation of Dr. Denis Mukwege, the founder of the Panzi hospital near Bukavu, which is South Kivu’s capital city. He specializes in the treatment of women who have been gang-raped and is an outspoken critic of the Congolese government. As a result of his work, he narrowly survived an assassination attempt in November. As someone who has operated on thousands of such women, he, perhaps, best understands the impact of rape as a tool of war.

“We talk about them as numbers and we don’t fully appreciate that they are individual human beings who have each been through a horrifying and destructive experience,” he said, adding that the violence and endemic rape continues “because of indifference on the part of our government and inaction by the international community,” perpetuated by the disconnect enabled by the fact that it is happening “to someone else. But really, it happened to one of us.”

Two months after the assassination attempt against him, Dr. Mukwege returned to the his hospital in the Congo to treat the endless stream of women in need of help.

Three months ago, rebel troops entered South Kivu’s largest city, Goma, wreaking havoc and displacing tens of thousands more.

The cycle continues.

Lisa Richlen volunteered with HIAS Refugee Trust Kenya during the month of November. Oscar Olivier is a Congolese refugee residing in Israel. Both are social activists working on behalf of refugees in Israel.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Shmuel

      Horrible and heart wrenching. Yet because of Arab oil and influence, the UN and others go on obsessing about Palestinians, taking up most of their spare time, instead of doing maybe half as much for these poor people.

      But then again, African people have no oil and they have not organised themselves as an effective political bloc like the Arabs. And I guess, most of all, they haven’t got an ‘everybody’s ready made’ historical scape goat like the Jews to blame.

      Reply to Comment
      • Is there any atrocity you won’t use as an excuse for Israel?

        Reply to Comment
        • Shmuel

          Read this Larry and then come back and ask me why again:

          http://www.adl.org/israel-international/un-international-organizations/c/Israel-at-the-UN.pdf

          “Since Israel’s establishment, Arab member states of the UN have used the General Assembly (GA) as a forum for isolating and chastising Israel. With support from third- world nations, particularly the Non-Aligned Movement, and others, the Arab states have had little difficulty passing harsh anti-Israel resolutions through the GA. Even today, the strength of these groups in the world body allows them to continue rebuking Israel. While anti-Israel resolutions are easily passed in the GA, this is not the case in the Security Council, where resolutions are binding in nature, as the United States has consistently used its veto power to prevent the passage of such resolutions.
          In the 1970s, the Arab bloc used its power to establish and authorize funding for several UN committees and divisions of the Secretariat which primarily carry out the anti-Israel agenda. Among these are: The Division for Palestinian Rights of the Secretariat, The Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices in the Territories, and The Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. Today, these bodies continue to be deeply engaged in promoting programs and initiatives that are harshly critical of Israel.
          Some UN agencies have also exhibited anti-Israel sentiments. For example, between 1974 and 1978 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) instituted financial sanctions against Israel, passed hundreds of resolutions criticizing Israel‘s activities in the West Bank, and denounced Israel’s archeological and restoration efforts in Jerusalem.”

          Reply to Comment
      • JG

        Congrats. Another hasbarian takeover of a comment section brabbling about UN mistreating poor Israel, regardless of what the article is about.
        Hint: none of the above

        Reply to Comment
        • Shmuel

          “Congrats. Another hasbarian takeover of a comment section”

          Congrats, another progressive invokes the word “hasbarian” and thinks that by doing so people can ignore the gist of the point that his dehumanised target made.

          Reply to Comment
        • Kiwi

          Yea, Shmuel, I was warned by my Jewish friends that if I go to “progressive” sites and defend Israel, people will use the term “hasbarist” to try and discredit what you say.

          They seem to use it as a dog whistle to rally the troops to ignore arguments that they don’t like.

          Never mind, I agree with the point that you made totally. The UN is an utterly biased corrupt organisation that better fix itself up otherwise it has no future. More and more people are waking up to them and they don’t like what they see.

          Reply to Comment
      • Scootalol

        Well, let’s all sit down and let Shmuel work his little self to the bone to divert attention from the horror faced by the women of Kivu. Their pain and desperation pales in comparison to the horror of Israel being criticized by the UN about something-or-other.

        Way to go, Shmuel.

        Reply to Comment
        • Shmuel

          Hey Scoo, I don’t have to work my little self to the bone to divert attention from the horrors that these poor women face. Your Arab buddies are doing a much better Job of it already.

          And people like you and the UN let them by devoting all your petty little lives about Chastising Israel and do very little about much greater horrors perpetrated elsewhere.

          Way to go SCOO.

          PS
          Read the links that I posted. Not interested? I didn’t think so.

          Reply to Comment
        • Kiwi

          :
          Shmuel
          Ignore such ignorant commenters. They just want to bait you and try to trivialise your valid comments. But they cannot.

          They are not worth wasting your time with.

          Reply to Comment
      • andrew r

        Shmuel, it should be clear to everyone that state actors tend to have an agenda having nothing to do with principled concerned for human rights. Of course the UN has intervened in the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, Bosnia and Haiti, but there’s no argument that the UN is a vehicle for enforcing international law; it’s a device for world-powers and wannabe world-powers to push their own agenda.

        For one thing, just as there are no resolutions against China or Russia, the same goes for the US. The dominant presence of Israel in UN resolutions, regardless of what goes on behind the scenes, doesn’t really amount to anything. There are no enforcement clauses in any resolution against Israel; in contrast, UNSC 660 and 678 urged the member states to take any action necessary to make Iraq withdraw from Kuwait. No resolution took that language about the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan or Sinai (pre-1979).

        That said, anyone with half a brain can see you’re only discussing other conflicts here in reference to Israel’s image. So while you might accuse others of ulterior motives for supporting the Palestinians, you make it openly clear your motives for discussing the Congo and Tibet are also ulterior.

        Lastly, just because someone supports the Palestinian cause doesn’t necessarily mean they have the same agenda as the Arab states; they also co-opt the cause for their own ends.

        Reply to Comment
        • Shmuel

          “Shmuel, it should be clear to everyone that state actors tend to have an agenda having nothing to do with principled concerned for human rights.”

          I am glad you admit that about “state actors” in general rather than just singling out Israel.

          “… but there’s no argument that the UN is a vehicle for enforcing international law; it’s a device for world-powers and wannabe world-powers to push their own agenda.”

          Yes, again I am glad that you admit that. And yes, the Arabs are a wannabe world power that has the ability to get it’s own way in the UN at least when it concerns a small country like Israel with few natural resources and of little interest to others as a market. Unlike the Arabs who have black gold (oil) and who are part of a large power bloc.

          “The dominant presence of Israel in UN resolutions, regardless of what goes on behind the scenes, doesn’t really amount to anything.”

          Not quite. For one, it has the propensity to fool people into believing that Israel is an un-paralelled villain. The comments of some people on this site serves a partial evidence to that.

          “That said, anyone with half a brain can see you’re only discussing other conflicts here in reference to Israel’s image.”

          If you are saying that I am NOT shocked and apalled by the atrocities that this article lists, then you are VERY WRONG!

          “So while you might accuse others of ulterior motives for supporting the Palestinians, you make it openly clear your motives for discussing the Congo and Tibet are also ulterior.”

          Yes, I do admit though that this article presented me with the opportunity to highlight the hypocrisy of the UN and the Arabs who use it shamelessly to advance their own agenda.

          But yes, I also realise that the Arabs are not alone. All the major powers are guilty of the same thing. Would Israel be guilty of it too if it had the opportunity? Probably. But no it isn’t guilty of it because it is only a small fish in a very big pond of very big fishes in it.

          “Lastly, just because someone supports the Palestinian cause doesn’t necessarily mean they have the same agenda as the Arab states; they also co-opt the cause for their own ends.”

          You don’t have to tell me that, I know. But by the same token, we have seen in history what can happen to the small fish. Remember how Cheslovakia was sold out to Hitler’s ambitions? Those of us who care about Israel, don’t want the same thing to happen to Israel because of oil and political expediency.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Shmuel

      Don’t just take my word for it Larry. Hillary Clinton too says that there is bias against Israel at the UN and because of the amount of time that they obsess about Israel, they neglect much worse situations elsewhere. Here, read about it and weep …

      “The United Nations Human Rights Council must abandon its bias against Israel, which undermines its work, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday in Geneva.

      http://www.jpost.com/DiplomacyAndPolitics/Article.aspx?id=210208

      “The structural bias against Israel – including a standing agenda item for Israel, whereas all other countries are treated under a common item – is wrong. And it undermines the important work we are trying to do together,” she told the UNHRC at the opening of its 16th session.”

      Reply to Comment
    3. Shmuel

      -
      Don’t just take my word for it Larry. Hillary Clinton too says that there is bias against Israel at the UN and because of the amount of time that they obsess about Israel, they neglect much worse situations elsewhere. Here, read about it and weep …

      “The United Nations Human Rights Council must abandon its bias against Israel, which undermines its work, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday in Geneva.

      http://www.jpost.com/DiplomacyAndPolitics/Article.aspx?id=210208

      “The structural bias against Israel – including a standing agenda item for Israel, whereas all other countries are treated under a common item – is wrong. And it undermines the important work we are trying to do together,” she told the UNHRC at the opening of its 16th session.”

      Reply to Comment
      • You really don’t see that that’s not the point? If I punch somebody in the nose, does that become any less wrong because other people are doing much worse things?

        Reply to Comment
        • Shmuel

          And you don’t see my point do you Larry?

          Think of it this way. The UN is supposed to be an impartial referee.

          Yes, Israel is not perfect. You can accuse it of many things but the Arabs are at least as imperfect and they escape the UN’s criticism.

          In a boxing match if a referee constantly admonishes one boxer for low blows, but ignores much greater wrongs that his opponent commits, you would not complain against such a referee?

          Reply to Comment
    4. The point of this piece, as relevant to 972 goal of focusing on Israeli State policy and society, is that there are Congolese refugees in Israel, some of them women, and I suspect, although unsaid, some of these have direct experience of what this piece is about. A request of asylum can be a plea to finally be allowed the possibility of mending. Some acts stay with one for a very long time, maybe unto death. Does the victim of rape have to show she will be raped again upon deportation? Can not asylum be given as helpmeet for recovery?

      Reply to Comment
      • Shmuel

        Yes Greg. I agree that Israel has an obligation to look after refugees. So do Arab countries. So thank you Greg for reminding us our duties.

        Now, may I ask you when did you last admonish Arab countries for their unwillingness to help African refugees? Or even Palestinian refugees for that matter? Never? Do I detect some racial bias there on your part?

        Reply to Comment
        • Actually, I’m quite interested in the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which I find a remarkable document, a meta-constitution framing possible constitutions. I have seen nothing else like it. My interest in constitutional development finds an exceptional case in Israel. Oh my goodness–I seem to have a racial bias! I admire and advocate the Israeli Declaration! I didn’t see the extent of my bias! Now I do.

          Reply to Comment
          • Shmuel

            ” I didn’t see the extent of my bias! Now I do”

            Do you really? I doubt it. I think you feel it natural to preach ONLY to Israel. Your daily comments on this site are testimony to that. But never mind, your kind is a dime a dozen.

            Reply to Comment
          • Arrogance is no substitue for thought. Check out your Declaration sometime; it is a most remakable document.

            Reply to Comment
          • Shmuel

            “Arrogance is no substitue for thought.”

            Avoidance is not a substitute for thought either, Greg. I asked you:

            “when did you last admonish Arab countries for their unwillingness to help African refugees? Or even Palestinian refugees for that matter?”

            Your unwillingness to answer tells a story.

            Reply to Comment
    5. Leen

      So upon seeing the title of the article, I expected a flood of Israeli government apologists to try and use this atrocity to deflect criticism.

      I’m glad I wasn’t disappointed.

      Reply to Comment
      • Shmuel

        … and what is even more revealing is that none of you even attempted to deal with the substance of what I said …

        That Arabs hijacked the UN agenda and have been monopolising significant UN resources in time and money to deal with Palestine at the exclusion of wrongs committed in places like Congo as outlined in this article.

        Here is an example of how the Arabs managed to monopolise the UN for their own purposes:

        “The Agenda of this Commission an item – Item No. 8 – that deals solely with a single UN member, Israel, while another agenda item – Item No. 9 – suffices for the misdeeds of all the other 190 members of the UN.”

        Reply to Comment
        • JG

          >That Arabs hijacked the UN agenda and have been monopolising significant UN resources in time and money to deal with Palestine at the exclusion of wrongs committed in places like Congo as outlined in this article.

          Oooh, the puppet masters playing their evil game ruling institutions.
          I feel like I heard similar nonsense before. As antisemite slurs.

          Reply to Comment
          • Shmuel

            JG,
            Why am I surprised that people like you are in denial. Here are some more facts for you. Maybe you will choose to wake up from your stupor?


            There has been a genocide in Rwanda, an ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, periodic and horrifying communal “strife” in Indonesia’s East Timor, the “disappearance” of a few hundred thousand refugees in the Congo, a decades-long and culturally devastating occupation of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China . . . but none of those U.N. member states has ever been subjected to the rebuke of a General Assembly “emergency special session.” Israel has, though, repeatedly, simply for refusing to surrender in the face of terrorist attacks that have killed hundreds and injured thousands of its citizens–murders that no U.N. resolution has ever so much as mentioned.
            No fewer than four separate administrative units within the U.N.–two of them directly supervised by Kofi Annan’s governing secretariat–do nothing but spend millions of dollars annually on the production and worldwide distribution of propaganda questioning Israel’s right to exist. The “Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and other Arabs of the Occupied Territories,” for example, “investigates” Israel’s continued “practice” of “occupying” not just the territory taken in the 1967 war, but also the land within its internationally recognized, pre-1967 borders.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Shmuel

            Yes I know, JG, people like you are always in denial. But listen to what Ban Ki-Moon, the UN chief himself, said:

            http://www.haaretz.com/news/ban-ki-moon-criticizes-un-human-rights-council-for-singling-israel-out-1.223672

            “United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon joined Western nations on Wednesday in criticizing the world body’s own Human Rights Council for “picking on Israel” as part of an agreement on its working rules.

            The European Union, Canada and the United States have already attacked the deal reached in Geneva on Monday under which Israel’s actions would become a permanent item on the Human Rights Council’s agenda.

            A UN statement said: “The Secretary-General is disappointed at the council’s decision to single out only one specific regional item given the range and scope of allegations of human rights violations throughout the world.”

            Reply to Comment
    6. Shmuel

      “So upon seeing the title of the article, I expected a flood of Israeli government apologists”

      A flood, Leen? And you were not disappointed?

      Two commenters here made pro Israel comments, me and Kiwi.

      On the other hand, Larry, JG, SCOO, Greg and you were anti Israel.

      Five against two. Your comment tells a story in it’s own right about how you guys handle the overall narrative about this conflict. A flood indeed ….

      Reply to Comment
      • Leen

        And yes you can be critical of the government and not be anti-nation. I criticize Assad everyday, doesn’t make me anti-Syria. I criticize France and Britain’s policies, doesn’t make me anti-France or anti-Britain.

        Reply to Comment
    7. XYZ

      There are many reports from Egypt reporting that Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist supporters are also using rape and sexual harrassment as a political weapon in order to intimidate women protestors against the regime. A report on Israel radio I heard on Wednesday said that a prominent Muslim cleric went on television and said it was praiseworthy to do this since women who oppose the MB are nothing more than prostitutes anyway. He also burned a Christian New Testament in public.

      Here is a link:

      http://www.foxnews.com/world/2012/12/05/egypt-muslim-brotherhood-accused-paying-gangs-to-rape-women/

      Reply to Comment
    8. Leen

      Sorry, how was I anti-Israel?
      I made an observation, and it was correct, and then I was barraged with personal attacks. Woopididoo.

      For the record, I have campaigned along with quite a few Palestinian solidarity activists to bring more attention to the DRC, and the systematic use of rape. I’ve also known some Palestinians who worked with Congolese refugees. So I suggest you don’t pass judgement without knowing anything about me.

      What have you done for the Congolese victims, Shmuel? Since you seem to be very concerned for their wellbeing.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kiwi

        Leen:
        ” and then I was barraged with personal attacks. Woopididoo.”

        Show me where you were barraged with personal attacks Leen?

        Reply to Comment
    9. Shmuel

      “Sorry, how was I anti-Israel?
      I made an observation, and it was correct,”

      Read your own comment. And you were not correct. You blabbed about a flood of Israeli Government apologists. That was two of us at the time, now three. “Government apologists”? Only you know what that means. And how many of you made anti Israel comments? At least five of you. How would you describe that? A tsunami maybe?

      Ah bah humbug. What a trivial argument you got me into. You guys have a propensity to do that instead of arguing substance …

      “and then I was barraged with personal attacks. Woopididoo.”

      Where exactly were you barraged with personal attacks Leen?

      “What have you done for the Congolese victims, Shmuel? Since you seem to be very concerned for their wellbeing.”

      I have done more than you. But unlike you I will not use this blog to big note myself and make claims, like you did, that cannot be verified.

      Reply to Comment
      • Leen

        Whatever makes you happy.

        Attributing a political position without said person saying anythig is a personal attack. Please refrain from making up my political positions next time unless I explicitly say so.

        Reply to Comment
      • Leen

        And no, no one is arguing. I made an observation and you got into an argument.

        Oh and kiwi, read what I said about political positions.

        Reply to Comment
    10. Kiwi

      “Oh and kiwi, read about political positions”

      “Attributing a political position without said person saying anythig is a personal attack. Please refrain from making up my political positions next time unless I explicitly say so.”

      Ohhh how wrong of Shmuel to claim that you were anti-Israel Leen, you obviously were not, you were pro-Israel, right? Nah, just joking …

      Reply to Comment
    11. directrob

      So we have here a good article about the women suffering because of the African world war. The reactions are at best strange.

      @Shmuel, the UN is very busy for Congo:
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-21563949

      @XYZ Congo is mostly Christian.

      Reply to Comment
      • Shmuel

        @Directrob
        You think they are doing something Rob? You are happy with what the UN is doing for Congo?

        Personally, I think they are fiddling around the edges. I stand by what I said.

        Yes, the Palestinians have problems. I won’t dwell on the fact that at least some of the problems of the Palestinians are self created. I will however say that the problems of the Palestinians pale in comparison to the problems of the Congolese, in particular Congolese women. Yet who gets more attention and resources from the UN? The Palestinians of course.

        Does that make sense to you Directrob? It does not make sense to me. Where I come from, we devote more resources and attention (not less) to solve the BIGGER problems.

        I guess in your world though Rob, it goes on cronyism and elitism. And on that criteria, in your world, the Palestinians deserve more attention and resources than poor black Africans, right?

        Reply to Comment
        • directrob

          In 2011 abouth one third of the refugees in the world came from Israel. The occupation combined with the refugee problem combined with the duration of the problem is more than enough reason for the UN to pay ample attention to Israel.

          One might suggest that the UNWRA should withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank and that the EU and the US should stop support for the PA and let Israel pick up the bill as Israel is responsible for those areas and invest the money in Congo. The US could also invest the 3000 million Israeli millitairy aid as Congolese humanitarian aid instead.

          As for Congo, much more should be done, but almost 20000 soldiers at a cost of 1500 million a year plus 300 million a year in humanitarian aid is not nothing. As long as people like Gertler keep the country corrupt and Rwanda supporting rebels it is not so clear what effectively can be done.

          Reply to Comment
    12. Shmuel

      ” 2011 abouth one third of the refugees in the world came from Israel.”

      This is another example of the privilege that the UN gives Palestinians. Only for them does the UN recognise descendants of refugees as refugees too. No other people, including the Congolese refugees are recognised as refugees by the UN if they are the descendants of refugees and they themselves were born outside the area from which their parents had to flee.

      Consequently, the Palestinian refugee population has been inflated from 700,000 to 5 million.

      “As long as people like Gertler keep the country corrupt and Rwanda supporting rebels it is not so clear what effectively can be done”

      How about giving the aid and the attention that the UN gives the Palestinians NOW to the Congolese and the aid and attention (very little) that Congo now gets, to the Palestinians instead?

      Reply to Comment
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