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War Crimes

Congo, Democratic Republic of

Mother and undernourished child in a feeding centre run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Shabunda, South Kivu. Infant mortality rates in the east of the country have in places reached 41 per cent.

Chris Keulen / Panos / www.panos.co.uk

THE town of Baraka sits on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in the South Kivu province of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. It ought to be a prosperous town. The lake is full of fish, the land between the edge of the lake and the nearby mountains is arable and the mountains hold gold and minerals that could be mined. Clearly this was once the case and buildings show the signs of the commerce they once supported – a photo shop, grocery stores, a smart tailor. But after years of civil war the buildings are crumbling, the roads are hidden beneath mud and grass and the petrol station sign, riddled with bullet holes, swings in the breeze next to a forecourt that has long since disappeared.

Baraka is at the crossroads of armed groups – from Congo, Rwanda and Burundi – who have used the area to support themselves economically. They have spread terror through the population by looting and burning villages and raping and murdering their inhabitants. Throughout the fighting many people fled into the bush, where they hid, afraid to come out.

In the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital here, we see between 30 and 50 victims of sexual violence each week. Most are women but there are also men and children.

More than half the rapes took place in the fields, as one woman told us in October 2003: ‘One week ago I was working in the fields with my husband and two other women. Suddenly we saw a group of armed men approaching us. My husband managed to flee but two men caught me. They raped me and at the same time they hit me on the back.’

Other rapes took place as part of a wider attack on the village, as another woman who was raped in March 2003 explained: ‘There was an attack on our village, five armed men entered our house… they caught me and took me to the bush… when they had done with me, they carried me back to the village. As it turned out my house had been burnt in the attack and my children had fled. My husband was not there any more either; later we found his body in the bush.’ Over 80 per cent of the women seen by MSF have been raped by between two and five attackers.

The medical consequences of these rapes are both pathological and psychological. The risk of catching sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS is high. And the trauma runs very deep. At the clinic the counsellors hear the psychological aftermath of rape: fear, anxiety and intrusive memories. One young woman spoke of the sound of her sister being raped and killed: ‘I can still hear my young sister screaming beside me. I did not know what they were doing to her and I could not help her.’

There are social consequences too. The stigma of rape leads some men to abandon their wives. As one man explained: ‘Rape or not rape, having sexual intercourse outside the conjugal house makes her husband ridiculous and for the woman, it means being definitely rejected outside of the house.’ Others report deteroriated relations between them and their husbands: ‘Whenever my husband and I have an argument he calls me the wife of the militia men who raped me,’ says one woman.

Furthermore, because the rapes often take place in the fields, the women are scared to go back to cultivate. ‘I would rather never go there again, because I felt so close to death,’ said one. Yet this is not a viable option for most women – they have many children and few other sources of income. Food is scarce in the area and malnutrition is high. Victims also report that after the rape the soldiers stole the food they were growing, and in some cases took control of the fields entirely.

As a weapon of war sexual violence is highly effective. The outcome is a traumatized, impoverished population. The military groups achieve both power and material gain, particularly useful when their pay is erratic. The violence is conducted seemingly with impunity. Despite the truce, many attacks reported took place after the ceasefire commenced, suggesting that it is one weapon demobilized soldiers refuse to surrender.

The question for Baraka now is, with a peace accord in place and a ceasefire being followed, whether it can prosper again. It will depend on a lot of factors: it will need the peace process to last and the military groups to be kept under control; it will need international aid to restore essential services and provide economic assistance. And given the psychological trauma of the population, it will need a lot of time.


Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) - Doctors Without Borders


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