13 Oct 2010

Sexual violence in Congo – hearing the women's stories

The endemic sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo is not an unreported story – but reporting itself cannot make the difference, as Lindsey Hilsum writes of new hope that the perpetrators could be caught.

I was at a charity lunch about a year ago when a celebrity started to berate the media for not reporting the story of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I lost my temper. The endemic sexual violence which has plagued the eastern DRC since war started there in 1994 has been reported hundreds of times, and become something of a “cause celebre” on college campuses in the USA and amongst women’s groups worldwide. It is not an unreported story.

But journalism hasn’t stopped it. People think that if we report something that in itself will make a difference. But it doesn’t. We all know “something must be done”, yet what and how? And by whom?

But I felt guilty after that lunch, because while others had been reporting the story, I hadn’t been to DRC for more than a decade. I spent months there at the height of the war in the mid and late 90s, and then I moved on. It was time to go back.

In the middle of August, news emerged that an especially horrific mass rape had occurred near the jungle outpost of Walikale. The numbers kept increasing until it became clear that more than 300 women, plus a few men and children, had been raped by bands of armed men. UN peacekeepers posted nearby had done nothing to protect the people, even though that is their mandate. When Margot Wallstrom, the UN Secretary General’s Representative on Sexual Crime in Conflict, invited me to accompany her to the area I jumped at the chance.

The result is tonight’s film on Channel 4 News and today’s piece in the Guardian. We filmed meetings where extraordinary, brave women spoke about their horrific experiences. They said they knew the rapists might target them again because they have gone public with their stories, but such was their desperation to get the story out, they didn’t care.

The incident was so horrific, it seems to have triggered a response – at last. Pressure on the Mai Mai Cheka militia, one of the groups involved, forced them to surrender Col Sadoke Mayele, identified by many women as a ringleader of the rapists. On Monday, the French police, acting under a warrant from the International Criminal Court, arrested Callixte Mbarushimana, a spokesman for the Rwandan rebels who are also believed to have taken part. The ICC is now sending an investigation team to the DRC. UN peacekeepers are now patrolling at night.

Of course, this does not mean an end to sexual violence in the DRC. Congolese government soldiers, now driving the rebels and militia out of the area, have also looted and raped. As long as armed men fight over access to the gold, coltan and cassiterite mines in the forest, rape, kidnap and looting will continue. It’s a lawless place.

But there is renewed momentum to catch the perpetrators, and attempt to address the underlying political and cultural issues. So I’m glad we have reported this again because, even if journalism doesn’t force action, we can be part of a movement to stop this most horrific of war crimes.