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.
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."
Victims Released in ‘Middle of Nowhere’
Mid-last month the victims were released "in the middle of nowhere" in Bandundu, Mangia said, many of them naked. They then scattered to seek help.
The brutal rapes, which eventually caused one victim to die, were reminiscent of the attacks in North Kivu at the end of July, when upwards of 500 women, as well as several men and boys, were gang raped over the course of several days in a string of remote villages.
Given the failure of the nearby U.N. peacekeepers to respond to warning signs and protect the people, top U.N. officials, including Margot Wallstrom, the secretary-general’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, flew to meet with the victims and devise new safety precautions, such as equipping villagers with cell phones.
But nearly a month after CISP first reported the violent expulsions to U.N. agencies, basic information–such as whether the rapes took place in Angola or the Democratic Republic of Congo–is still unavailable.
Wallstrom and other U.N. leaders have condemned the violent expulsions from Angola and called for a full investigation.
Wallstrom has a small staff and their attention is shifting to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where she will meet next week with survivors of sexual violence and focus on reparations in the war of 1992-1995.
U.N. spokesperson Farhan Haq attributed the difference between the U.N.’s responses to the two recent mass rapes to peacekeepers’ lack of mandate in Angola.
Inquiries Up in the Air
Giuliano, of the U.N. Office of Humanitarian Affairs, said he is uncertain whether government inquiries into the attacks have begun. The Angolan and the Democratic Republic of Congo missions to the U.N. could not be reached for comment.
Mangia, of CISP, says government investigations have yet to commence.
"Governments are trying to keep a low profile about this and say that there is no emergency. They are just trying to shut everything up," he said.
CISP is rare among international aid organizations in serving the Western part of the Democratic Republic of Congo outside the capital city Kinshasa, along the Angolan border, which typically sees strong waves of expulsions back and forth. The majority of international aid groups, like the Kinshasa-based International Rescue Committee, work in the conflict-ridden Kivus.
Dalita Cetinoglu, director of the International Rescue Committee’s gender-based violence program in the Democratic Republic of Congo, doesn’t have first-hand information of the border rapes. But she said that like the attacks in the region where she works, these rapes along the border could produce a short-term response that overlooks the endemic and less-spectacular of sexual violence that is a condition of women’s daily existence.
"Just being reactive when there’s a new event won’t get ahead of the problem because sexual violence is constant and widespread," she said.
In South Kivu, the International Rescue Committee alone has supported 5,000 female victims of sexual violence since 2008 and aided 3,700 victims in North Kivu.
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Amy Lieberman is a correspondent at the United Nations Secretariat.
For more information:
Stop Rape Now:
"UN: Mass rapes on Angola-DRC border," Al Jazeera English: