27 Mar 2013

Warzone rape: a plea to the president of Congo


Visiting Congo with film star Angelina Jolie, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague goes to Kinshasa to lobby President Kabila to back their campaign against warzone rape.

Foreign Secretary William Hague speaks to reporters in Kinshasa (Getty)

After days touring the fetid, muddy camps for people who have fled the fighting, William Hague’s visit to President Kabila at his residence on the banks of the mighty river Congo couldn’t have been more of a contrast.

Admittedly, Kinshasa is nearly a thousand miles from Goma, where the foreign secretary has been meeting women displaced by the conflict between different rebel groups and government forces. But it might as well be a different country.

The women in the camps told Mr Hague about a life of fear and desperation. They’re at daily risk of being raped by rebels like the M23 or the Mai-Mai or, indeed, the Congolese army. And it was their testimony which informed Mr Hague’s discussion with the president this morning.

Private meeting

President Kabila has a reputation for being extremely reserved and reluctant to speak publicly. Perhaps this has something to do with the assassination of his father, whom he succeeded as president on his death in 2001.

Or perhaps it’s because he’s reluctant to be challenged on why people in this country – which has more diamonds, gold and rich agricultural land than any other in Africa – live in abject poverty.

Whatever the reason, we were told that, despite travelling with the foreign secretary all week, we wouldn’t get anywhere near the meeting with the president. Apparently, Mr Kabila’s usual practice is to admit the first car in the motorcade before abruptly bringing down the barrier, no matter how many hangers-on his visitor has brought.

I’m told that once Mr Hague’s car gained access to the presidential residence, he was shown into the steaming heat of the tropical garden.

There, officials say a big chunk of the discussion revolved around the foreign secretary’s campaign against warzone rape. The women we spoke to in the camps are some of the 200,000 – probably a huge under-estimate – raped in the country since 1998.

Loss of moral authority

Mr Hague emphasised the importance of treating women with respect. Mr Kabila was apparently keen to listen. But it was less clear he grasped the scale of the problem.

Dr Jonathan Lusi, the gynaecologist we met yesterday, who repairs the horrific internal injuries caused by rape, says that years of war in the country have triggered a complete breakdown of all the structures of society and governance we take for-granted. There is, Dr Lusi told me, no “moral authority” in the Congo any more.

There’s a contrast here with the rape that occurred during the Bosnian war. There it was part of a systematic programme of ethnic cleansing. It was an organised campaign – and no less terrifying for that. Here though, you get the sense from Dr Lusi that it’s a free-for-all, where anything goes. That’s going to be much harder to put a stop to, because the problem goes much deeper.

The conversation between Mr Hague and Mr Kabila was cordial, even constructive, government officials say.

The foreign secretary gave him his book on William Pitt – the youngest British prime minister at 26. Mr Kabila took over from his father at 29. Now 41, no doubt he’s too busy trying to forge an uneasy peace to read the foreign secretary’s bon mots.

The incidence of sexual violence in the Congo is, to coin a phrase from the foreign secretary, a “monstrosity”. But it’s a monstrosity that Mr Kabila appears content – or obliged – to resolve another day or another decade.