Margot WallstromUNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)–Margot Wallstrom, U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict, deployed a senior staff member on Aug. 25 to help find out what happened in the Democratic Republic of Congo in July, when more than 179 women were reportedly attacked and gang raped.

The attacks took place in the U.N. peacekeeper-occupied North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo

Wallstrom’s aide will be supporting the fact-finding mission of Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Atul Khare.

Wallstrom’s first task, as head of the U.N.’s response to the violence, will be ascertaining exactly what occurred in the remote town of Luvungi and surrounding villages in the troubled east of the country.

U.N. troops stopped twice in the villages–first on Aug. 2 and then on Aug. 9–and were alert to rebel activity, but apparently unaware of any "suggestion at this point of an attack, much less of…the mass rape in the villages in the area" that had been committed against women at gunpoint in previous days and weeks, Roger Meece, the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative for the Democratic Republic of Congo, said this week.

The International Medical Corps, the only health organization in the region, had "indications something was going on in the village" by early August, Margaret Aguirre, communications director of the Santa Monica, Calif.-based group, said in a phone interview. Its workers soon after understood the attacks’ full scale as "women who had been taken away, kidnapped and taken into the forest began to emerge."

"At first we thought it was maybe 10, then 20, then 50, then 100 women who had been raped," Aguirre said. "Many of the incidents involved multiple perpetrators."

‘Attacks Were Planned’

Women in the DRC listen to a presentation by the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.The attacks were planned, said Letitia Anderson, advocacy and women’s rights specialist of the U.N. Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict. She said this was demonstrated by rebels blocking entrances before they swarmed the villages.

Anderson emphasized that this type of sexual violence is not a secondary matter, but a central security concern.

"This incident shows, yet again, that we can’t draw a line between conflict and rape," she said. "Sexual violence is the conflict–a conflict fought on the bodies of women and children, rather than on the battlefield."

The U.N. Security Council on Aug. 26 held a closed emergency meeting on the attacks where Wallstrom’s Chief of Staff Nancee Oku Bright gave a briefing.

Afterwards, Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., called the briefing disturbing.

"The fact is that many questions were posed, some very poignant questions, including by me and others," Rice told reporters. "The secretariat was clear in acknowledging that things did not occur as they should have, but we await answers… as to what was the actual sequence of events, where there may have been shortcomings in processes and procedures and what steps can be taken going forward."

Wallstrom’s office has drawn attention to its slow-footed response. She didn’t receive word until the weekend of Aug. 21-22, "like the rest of the world," said Anderson.

That was more than a week after the U.N. peacekeeping force in the country learned about the violence on Aug. 12 and two weeks from when the health organization that treated the victims reported the incidents to a U.N. humanitarian liaison on Aug. 6.

The secretary-general appointed Wallstrom in March for a two-year term; nearly six months later, she has filled the two positions of her six-staff office. Still not a regular presence at U.N. headquarters in New York, Wallstrom is in Europe this week, Anderson said, and has been communicating through conference calls.

Poor Pace ‘Surprising’

The poor pace of communication has been surprising, said Sarah Mosely, who is based in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital city Kinshasa and oversees the International Rescue Committee’s program for rape survivors. "If I were Congolese, I would be my asking myself, ‘Who can I count on?’ That isn’t clear."

"Sexual violence is all too common in the DRC," said Amnesty International’s Country Specialist Tom Turner. "But this was a large scale, systematic event and the people who carried it out may well have calculated that they could count on U.N. troops not being able to intervene."

"It makes the U.N. look bad and it’s sending a strong message right back," Turner added.

More than 9,000 Congolese women were raped in 2009, according to the U.N. Population Fund.

In recent months, the U.N. has withdrawn 1,770 peacekeepers from a force that formerly numbered around 20,000, responding to demands from the Democratic Republic of Congo’s federal government, which wants a full withdrawal by next summer before its presidential elections.

While the U.N.’s failure to protect the women is coming under fire, Mosely, of the International Rescue Committee, is quick to commend Wallstrom’s plans to visit the area soon.

"There was a delay and there are reasons for the lack of response and that will become clear, but sending Wallstrom out here sends a message saying, ‘We are taking this seriously and we have to figure out what the obstacles are here,’" said Mosely.

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Amy Lieberman is a freelance journalist based out of the United Nations Secretariat.

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