A rape survivor in DRC Congo

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–Advocacy groups are calling for an end to the legal culture of impunity surrounding the mass rapes in the conflict zone of eastern Congo.

Justice is an uphill battle in a region where Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, which killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, have left smoldering political and ethnic enmities that are shifted and stoked by brutal competition for the region’s mineral resources.

North and South Kivu, two lakeside provinces, have regularly witnessed armed fighting since the breakdown of a January 2008 comprehensive peace agreement. And that fighting is routinely carried out not only by armed men, but on women’s bodies as well.

Last year, HEAL Africa, a Congolese community development project and hospital, documented 4,401 cases of sexual violence in Goma, North Kivu. Only 234 of these cases made it to court. Less than a handful reached verdicts. In most cases, the judges gave perpetrators light or no sentences. Many victims dropped charges to avoid retaliation from aggressors’ families.

No Fear of Punishment

"If there is no fear of punishment instilled, it is much easier to complete the action," Harper McConnell, HEAL Africa’s U.S. director of development, told Women’s eNews.

HEAL Africa operates one hospital in the provincial capital of Goma, which has a lawyer on site to assist sexual violence victims with medical forensics and other legal advice. The group also works with 55 health clinics throughout North Kivu.

But North Kivu’s conflict zone lacks a functioning court system outside of Goma. For this reason, HEAL Africa recently partnered with the American Bar Association to develop grassroots legal clinics to train lawyers and judges over the next three years.

Despite these efforts, the sexual violence has only escalated in 2009.

HEAL Africa’s Goma hospital treated 1,590 sexual violence survivors during the first three months of the year as a result of military operations and rebel reprisals in North Kivu. Soldiers and militias, according to the hospital’s quarterly figures, shared responsibility in this new surge of sexual violence.

More Violence, More Rapes

In a strategic shift of alliances in early January, Rwanda and Congo–former foes–joined forces to drive out of Congo two major rebel groups that have been in conflict with the army since last August. The first of these groups is the Congolese National Congress for the Defense of the People, or CNDP, formerly headed by Laurnet Nkunda, who was arrested during the joint operation.

The second is the predominantly Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR. Its leadership is accused of perpetrating Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. But the majority of the forces, according to the International Crisis Group, an international think tank focused on conflict analysis, are not associated with the genocide and stay in eastern Congo to profit from the war economy.

The first phase of military operations against the FDLR, according to the Brussels-based think tank, did not succeed. The majority of the group scattered, recovering most of its position, and has resumed attacks against the army and populace in recent months. The International Red Cross estimates that FDLR reprisals against civilians displaced over 300,000 individuals in the Kivus this year.

Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group, charged FDLR forces with burning 1,000 residences and killing at least 200 civilians in attacks since mid-February, when the first phase of military operations ended. The FDLR abducted a dozen women in the Masisi territory in February and killed nine who resisted rape, according to the advocacy group. The Congolese army brutally gang raped at least 21 women and girls in the same area one month later.

As the fighting against FDLR militias shifted south, rapes surged in South Kivu, with more than 500 recorded in the first three months of 2009, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The FDLR is one of a handful of militias financing its fighting through illegal mining in eastern Congo, according to the international body.

Dominique Soguel is Women’s eNews Arabic editor.