Congo-Angola Mass Rapes Draw Scant Notice

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Some mass rapes attract more outrage than others. Two recent atrocities-- separated by just a couple of months--suggest U.N. peacekeeping jurisdiction can decide the degree to which the violations of hundreds of girls and women are noticed.

Civilians seeking shelter at the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo headquarters in Bunia.UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)--Mass rapes sometimes attract world notice, sometimes they don't.

Two recent atrocities suggest that the level of involvement of U.N. peacekeeping forces can be an ingredient in determining the level of notice.

Gang rapes of nearly 500 women in remote villages in North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo over the summer drew enormous international media, followed by a special meeting of the U.N. Security Council. They created a centerpiece for 10th anniversary discussions of U.N. Resolution 1325, which commits world governments to integrate women's special interests in peace and security negotiations.

But when approximately 650 women and girls were raped in late October--about 800 miles away, along the Democratic Republic of Congo's western border with Angola--no such international attention followed. A Google news search produces 21 viewable articles and wire alerts, roughly one-tenth those associated with the earlier North Kivu rapes.

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Many of the women raped in the border attacks were among a group of 7,000 Congolese expelled from Angola in October, according to the International Committee for the Development of Peoples, a Rome-based humanitarian aid organization best known by its Italian abbreviation, CISP.

Congolese victims said Angolan security guards repeatedly raped them while they were held in deportation areas for weeks in cage-like enclosures, Antonio Mangia, protection coordinator of CISP, said in a recent phone interview.

Severine Autesserre is a professor at Barnard College, in New York City, and author of the 2010 book "The Trouble With the Congo: Local Violence and International Peacebuilding." In a recent interview, Autesserre said U.N. officials feared the mass rapes in North Kivu would be compared to the "Kiwanja incident" two years earlier when hundreds of people were massacred near the U.N. peacekeeping base.

"So they felt threatened by the charges that they had not done their job properly and had to be proactive. With the rapes on the Angola border, no one is thinking about blaming the U.N., because it is not their job to protect those refugees," Autesserre said.

Governments Deny Emergency

The U.N. has charged Angolan and Democratic Republic of Congo national authorities with investigating the rapes, but these governments have denied an emergency, according to press reports.

The U.N. is conducting its own humanitarian and fact-finding missions with international and local aid organizations, but information is becoming increasingly spotty.

The U.N. Office of Humanitarian Affairs says CISP is the only international aid organization that has provided treatment to victims in the Tembo area of the Democratic Republic of Congo's Bandundu Province, where last month's less publicized attacks occurred.

Expulsions from both the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola are common and not illegal as long as they are conducted with respect for people's rights, says Maurizio Giuliano, spokesperson of the U.N. Office of Humanitarian Affairs in the Democratic Republic of Congo. An estimated 160,000 Congolese were deported from Angola in 2009 and 51,000 Angolans were deported from the Democratic Republic of Congo that same year.

"These are illegal immigrants on both sides, but just because you are deporting someone doesn't mean you can rape them," Giuliano said.

Mangia, the CISP coordinator, said many of the victims are now trying to go back into Angola, drawn by work in the lucrative diamond mines and family ties there. Others are just "picking up and leaving without saying anything. It's very hard to detect everyone who was affected. We think there were more people affected, but it's just difficult for us to gather that information and identify these people."

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It is difficult to even imagine the lives of those affected. The breakdown of human care and respect is to a low level which is unimaginable, and these governments sit by and do nothing. How does a semblance of culture regain itself in such a situation, with no help from governments?