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Rape attacks in Congo: UN envoy dispatched

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 24 August 2010

Channel 4 News has learned the UN is sending its senior peacekeeping official to Congo, after rebel fighters "systematically" raped as many as 200 women less than 20 miles from a UN base. International Medical Corps has revealed the attackers "forcibly removed" babies from their mothers.

the UN is sending its senior peacekeeping official to Congo, after rebel fighters

The UN is sending Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Atul Khare to the Democratic of Congo to investigate after confirming that rebel militias carried out attacks and mass rapes on villagers in the province of North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Margot Wallström, the UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, will also travel to the central African state to take charge of the UN's response to the attacks.

According to a UN statement Rwandan Hutu rebels and Mai-Mai militia invaded the town of Luvungi in North Kivu province in July, controlling it for several days and systematically raping the female population.

Stefania Trassari from the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said: "During the attack [the rebels] looted [the] population's houses and raped several women in Luvungi and surrounding areas.

So far 179 cases of rape have been reported.

The attack was carried out between 30 July and 4 August.

More articles on the DRC
Congo crisis: the background
The horror of Congo's forgotten war

'Armed men entered village'
According to the International Medical Corp (IMC) which was on the scene "as soon as the security situation permitted," the incident began when armed men entered the village and urged the people not to flee by telling them they were there looking for food.

Will Cragin, from IMC, has told Channel 4 News International Editor Lindsey Hilsum how the number of victims "kept rising" and they believe most of the rapes took place in Luvungi.

He said: "As soon as we got rumour of this we started to hear reports of cases of sexual violence - mainly from the local leader of the area. He had requested our support.

"I guess it was 5 August... when we went up there with two vehicles and an emerency response team to investigate and if possible identify the medical and psycho-social needs of survivors.

"Most of the population at that point had just fled and were just starting to come back. We identified, with the help of the local community, 22 cases of sexual violence.

"We knew there were more people, that were displaced, that most likely had also been raped, so we kept coming back and the numbers kept rising.

"It was really the scale of the attack that made it stand out and the fact it happened in one place over the course of a few days."

Lindsey Hilsum blogs: UN peacekeepers 'failing'
Sexual violence characterises the brutal confict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and UN peacekeepers are manifestly failing to stop it.

Way out in the bush, about 50 miles from the jungle town of Walikale, 179 women were gang-raped allegedly by rebels of the FDLR, the remnants of the Hutu force which spearheaded the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

A UN peacekeepers' base is just 20 miles away, at Kibua, but they did not attempt to reach the scene until two days after the rebels had melted back into the jungle.

What distinguishes this horrific attack from others is the large number of women raped, and the fact that many were assaulted by up to six men.

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He said the women he met were clearly "traumatised" but "resilient".

He said: "I think they felt like they had been left there for days, without support. The population was still in something of a panic.

"It was a very emotional scene. They were very angry and confused."

According to reports, another group of men arrived after dark and the women in the village and the surrounding areas were attacked over a period of four days. Many women reported being physically beaten before the sexual assaults; there were incidents in which babies were forcibly removed from their mothers' arms.

Humanitarian workers from the IMC aid group, which operates in the provinces of North and South Kivu, are now treating the victims. A spokesman said: "Nearly all reported rapes were described as having been perpetrated by two to six men, often taking place in front of the women's children and husbands."

Sexual violence in the DRC
Sexual violence is widespread in the DRC but many incidents go unreported. According to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) at least 8,000 women were raped by warring factions last year in the provinces of North and South Kivu.

Although members of the FDLR are believed to be responsible for most of the rapes that are carried out in the region, soldiers serving in the national army have also been implicated in sexual abuse in these provinces.

The conflict in the DRC has produced some of the worst cases of sexual violence in the world, with the UN estimating that 54,000 women have reported being raped since 2004.

However, this number is likely to be much higher, as many women fear coming forward because they are often ostracised from their communities and forced to abandon their livelihoods.

'Mobile clinic set up'
Government health officials and members of the IMC emergency team transferred several cases to local health centres for life saving medical treatment and psychological first aid. A mobile clinic was set up to treat a stream of injured villagers returning from the forest.

The IMC says emergency contraception was provided for those who sought help within 120 hours. Although HIV prevention kits - post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) -were made available, only two survivors arrived at the health centre within 72 hours, the time in which the medicine is effective.

Human Rights Watch
The situation in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is a complex one.  In the past that every major actor in the eastern Congo has played some role in terrible events like this one, which happen quite frequently. The FDLR and the Mai-Mai rebel groups are known perpetrators of rape as a weapon of war, as are Congolese army troops. In the past there have even been allegations of involvement by some peacekeepers.

The DRC is home to the biggest UN peacekeeping force in the world, known as MONUSCO, but the country is the size of western Europe and there are barely any paved roads, making it a very difficult place to navigate logistically. The UN mission has been chronically short of helicopters, rapid reaction capability and intelligence gathering.

In addition, peacekeeping forces are a mixed bag. Some troops come from nations with weaker military capability - like India, Pakistan and Morocco.  Often these forces do their best but many are poorly-trained and equipped. Indian UN forces recently had to repel a rebel attack on their base and suffered a number of dead and wounded.

Leadership is also variable. In some areas UN troops operate visibly and aggressively to deter attacks on civilians, in other places they are more passive. These gaps need more attention and more resources.

Western nations often use the excuse that they are too 'overstretched', fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to send forces out to Africa. But the reality is that countries like Britain, the US and others have never had a significant peacekeeping presence in the DRC. They pay for the UN mission but they rarely take part or provide significant operational support. Would they if Africa was more prominent on the world stage or if the west's interests were more directly threatened?

The forces operating in DR Congo need better leadership and more commitment. We need to start solving the problems there rather than just managing them. The UN mission has been there for 10 years now and it sees the same problems time and again; rape, abduction, the illicit extraction of resources and the failure to prosecute those responsible for war crimes. Militia commanders are absorbed into the Congolese army and are never tried for the crimes they commit. 

There are many Congolese local government officials, community workers and Congo’s more professional soldiers working hard to bring about change in the eastern DRC, but more needs to be done to empower them.
John Elliott is Africa advocacy director for Human Rights Watch

Rebel groups 'terrorising civilians'
The attacks were carried out by militants loyal to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), Rwandan ethic Hutus linked to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Their accomplices are believed to be a local armed militia known as the Mai-Mai Cheka. Such militias are very active in eastern Congo, terrorising civilians and raping thousands of women every year.

This attack took place despite a UN backed campaign by the Congolese army aimed at wiping out the gangs.

The United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission (Monusco) which operates in the DRC has a military company base just 30 kilometres (18.5 miles) east of the scene of the attack, but according to the UN the militants blocked the road and prevented villagers from reaching communication points.

Civil society leader Charles Masudi Kisa said there were only about 25 peacekeepers and they did what they could against the 200 to 400 rebels who occupied the town of about 2,200 people and five nearby villages: "When the peacekeepers approached a village, the rebels would run into the forest, but then the Blue Helmets had to move on to another area, and the rebels would just return."

Monusco (Monuc) Mandate 
Under the United Nations Charter, the Security Council decided that Monusco would be deployed until 30 June 2011. It is authorised to concentrate its military forces in eastern DRC while keeping a reserve force capable of redeploying rapidly elsewhere.

The Council decided that Monusco would comprise, in addition to the appropriate civilian, judiciary and correction components, a maximum of 19,815 military personnel, 760 military observers, 391 police personnel and 1,050 members of formed police units. 

The protection of civilians is given priority, the Council authorized MONUSCO to use all necessary means to carry out its protection mandate, including the effective protection of civilians, humanitarian personnel and human rights defenders under imminent threat of physical violence, as well as the protection of United Nations personnel, facilities, installations and equipment. 

The Mission would also support Government efforts to fight impunity and ensure the protection of civilians from violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including all forms of sexual and gender-based violence.

The Council further mandated Monusco to monitor implementation of the arms embargo imposed under resolution 1896 (2009), and to seize or collect any arms or related materiel whose presence in the country was in violation of the ban. 

Future reconfigurations of Monusco would be determined as the situation evolved on the ground, including:  the completion of ongoing military operations in North and South Kivu as well as Orientale provinces; improved Government capacity to protect the population effectively; and the consolidation of State authority throughout the territory.

Troop withdrawal
The DRC has suffered 20 years of fighting which is estimated to have cost 5.4 million lives – more than any conflict since world war two. Despite the election of President Joseph Kabila in 1996 the Congolese government and 23 armed militias are still struggling for power.

The United Nations has withdrawn 1,700 peacekeepers in recent months in response to demands from DRC government to end the mission there by next year, but it still supports operations against several armed groups in the country's east.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been advocating the creation and deployment of a civilian protection expert group and a clearer mandate of peacekeepers in the region. While the organisation recognises that UN peacekeepers made important efforts to protect civilians, the peacekeeping force's role as a joint player in the military operations, providing substantial support to the Congolese army, has implicated them in the abuses and undermined the mission's primary objective, which is to protect civilians.

In December HRW's senior researcher Anneke Van Woudenberg urged the UN Security Council to "provide UN peacekeepers in Congo with clear and concrete direction".

"Sending a group of experts and making clear to the Congolese army the conditions under which the peacekeepers will work with its troops can play a crucial role in ending abuses and ensuring that UN peacekeepers are not implicated in future atrocities."

Last week Roger Meece, the new head of the Monusco, warned rebels were still a huge threat to the population.

And in April Margot Wallström, the UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, said the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers from the DRC would make the struggle against endemic rape "a lot more difficult."

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