Wed, Nov 15, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Rape used as `weapon of war' in Congo


Hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been raped over the past decade by soldiers, rebels and ethnic militias in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The scale of the assaults has become increasingly evident over recent months as growing numbers of women have emerged for treatment with the reduction in fighting ahead of presidential elections, and because medical workers have been able to reach areas in the east of the country long cut off by conflict.

The survivors have given accounts of villages subjected to repeated assaults in which many women and girls were serially raped and men killed.

Although there are no comprehensive statistics, in one province alone, South Kivu, about 42,000 women were treated in health clinics for serious sexual assaults last year, according to statistics collected by the human rights group, Global Rights.

While rape has been a product of many conflicts, its scale and systematic nature in eastern Congo has led some human rights groups to describe it as a "weapon of war" used to punish communities for their political loyalties or as a form of ethnic cleansing. On occasions men and boys have also been raped.

Doctors and women's groups working with the victims say the attacks are notable not only for their scale but also their brutality.

Among those receiving treatment in the relative safety of the town of Goma in eastern Congo is a woman from Kindu who was repeatedly raped in May last year but was only able to reach a hospital for treatment earlier this year.

The 54-year-old woman, bent double over a stick after surgery to save her womb, said her village first came under attack from a group of Mai Mai, an ethnic militia recognizable by a preference for wearing animal skins and amulets believed to give magical powers.

"There were Mai Mai in the area. They came in the morning and raped me, two of them. That didn't disturb me so much after what happened later," she said. "In the afternoon five men came into the house. They told my husband to put three kinds of money on the table: dollars, shillings, francs. But we didn't have any of that kind of money. We are poor. We don't even know what dollars look like. So they shot him. My children were screaming and so they shot them. After that they raped me, all of them."

The woman identified the second group of armed men as members of the interahamwe, the extremist Hutu militia that fled into Congo 12 years ago after leading the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda. The interahamwe used rape as a tool of genocide, telling women that they would bear Hutu children.

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