'How Can Human Beings
Do That To Each Other?'
Rape Joins Plunder Of Diamonds And Gold As
A Hallmark Of Congo's Bloody Conflict

By Declan Walsh
The Independent - UK

GOMA -- A pungent odour wafted through the room. Hands folded on her lap, Rosette, a 23-year-old with twists of black hair, waited patiently. The operation was the next day, she said. Surgery should get rid of the smell.
Rosette was waiting for doctors to rebuild her vagina. Two years earlier, a gang of armed men had destroyed it. They stormed her village in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, killing six men including her husband. Then they raped the women. For four days Rosette lay there, battered and unable to move. When help came, her rescuers followed a swarm of flies buzzing overhead.
Rosette suffers from vaginal fistula, a medical condition that has virtually disappeared in the developed world. It persists in some African countries where there is poor childbirth. But in eastern Congo, a flood of new victims is appearing, marking the horrors of a barbaric conflict. Aid workers call it the war against women.
Normally resulting from childbirth complications, fistula in the Congo is the product of particularly violent rape. Severe internal injuries cause immense pain and debilitating incontin-ence. Ostracism often follows.
Dozens await operations at a clinic in Goma, the eastern capital. Many have had objects - sticks, fingers, gun barrels - thrust inside them. Some have been shot in the vagina. One teenager has had her eyes poked out. For those treating them, the cruelty is incomprehensible.
Lyn Lusi of Doctors on Call for Service (Docs), a United States-funded charity running the clinic, said: "It numbs you. How can human beings do that to each other? They must be possessed."
As well as the plunder of diamonds, gold and the mineral coltan, savage sexual violence is one of the defining characteristics of the five-year Congo war. In the vast eastern forests, gunmen - rebels, local militia, armed refugees from Rwanda - rape with abandon. Sometimes the aim is to subjugate a community. Other times, they do it just because they can. Fred Kahunde, a hospital worker, said: "They want to show power and strength: that they can do whatever they want to."
In just six months this year, the Docs clinic in Goma treated 1,000 women, 83 of whom required fistula operations. An older hospital, to the south in Bukavu, has healed hundreds more. The attacks in turn fuel the spread of HIV/Aids - 12 per cent of women, many of whom had not been sexually active, tested positive.
Patients wait in two tents donated by Unicef, and eat World Food Programme rations. Last week, Mwasi, 18, stumbled through the flapping door. Her eyes had been beaten to a pulp. The gunmen also damaged her hearing, so doctors shouted questions. She replied in a low whisper, nervously fingering the zip on her jacket. Tears streamed down one cheek. Staff were unsure whether it was a medical reaction, or just sadness. She said: "They killed my parents. Then they beat us to show them where the food was."
Mwasi's assailants were with the Interahamwe, the Hutu militia that fled Rwanda after leading the 1994 genocide, she said. Aid workers say all armed groups - including the main rebel group, RCD-Goma, and the Mayi Mayi militia - are guilty. Dr Abuka Longombe, a Congolese who did many of the operations, said: "They are all as bad as each other." Dr Longombe, a big, burly man, reached into his drawer and pulled out a photo. It showed a woman whose lips were cut from her face. For a moment he was lost for words. "My youngest patient was five, the eldest was 73. How can you do this to a grandma?" he said. "I don't have an explanation. But one thing is sure: their goal was to destroy."
Dr Longombe has seen the worst of the Congo war. Last year he narrowly escaped death at Nyankunde in northeastern Ituri province, when Lendu fighters killed more than 1,000 people from the rival Hema tribe. In the hospital where he was director, the militia hacked at least 40 patients to death in their beds. "Some had just had surgery, so they were still in traction. It was impossible to escape," he said. Nyankunde was among the worst atrocities of the war; some of the dead appeared to have been cannibalised.
Dr Longombe said a war crimes tribunal was needed to end the culture of impunity. But hopes for justice are thin. Congo's judicial system is crumbling, and rebel armies rarely discipline their soldiers.
Brig-Gen Laurent Nkunda, the RCD-Goma commander in North Kivu province, denied his men had committed mass rape. "Yes there has been some rape," he said. "But where there is war, there is abuse. War is not a recommendation."
A few days later Jan Egeland, the UN under secretary for humanitarian affairs, visited Goma. He said: "I have told the leaders the international community will hold people accountable for war crimes."
But for now the outside world is concentrating on cementing the fragile peace between Joseph Kabila, the President, and his former rebel enemies. A transitional government is sitting in the capital, Kinshasa. In the east, fighting has slowed but not stopped, and looting, murder and rape continues.
After her operation, Rosette recovered on a narrow bed. Beside her, about 40 other women waited. Amid the talk of peace, their battle continues.
- Names of victims have been changed.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd




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