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Crimes against human rights

For about 20 years the Great Lakes region in central-eastern Africa has been living in a state of war, which in the eastern zone of Kivu has become acute since 2008. The troops of the regular army on the one hand, and the non-governmental pro-Rwandan and Ugandan militias on the other, are fighting as much for political as for financial motives, that is, for the control of the mineral riches of eastern Congo. Although the area surrounding Kinshasa, the capital, in the western part of the country, is under Government control, in the rest of the country this control is very weak. The presence of a large contingent of UN troops, the MONUC Mission, has yielded no substantial results.

Massacres of civilians with mass rapes of women and children are a fundamental aspect of this war. It is not only a matter of occasional violent episodes but rather of systematic acts of violence which end by destroying the communities’ social bonds. It is not only the rebel or non-governmental militias that contribute to the violence but also the soldiers of the regular army themselves (according to UN reports) and even the troops of the UN Mission, MONUC, in theory sent to protect the population. The involvement of UN soldiers in rape – and not only in this area – has been reported time and again in recent years, but without any effective consequences.

In order to speak of these phenomena we met two Capuchin friars: Benedict Ayodi, a Kenyan and the Director of the Office of Justice, Peace and Ecology, particularly committed on the reconciliation front, and Joaquim José Hangalo, an Angolan and Vicar of the Fraternity. In conversation with them and in view of their experiences in the field we sought to identify the specific peculiarities of the rape phenomenon, without confusing it with the acts of violence characteristic of war yet at the same time without neglecting the fact that war is the context in which these forms of violence occur. “For at least 10 years the war has involved six or seven countries, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan and Congo – in short the Great Lakes region, Ayodi explained. The latest massacre, in Beni, happened in a region close to the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes conflict is now an old one, with massacres involving the civilian population, women and children. In practice it is a genocide, with almost no coverage in the international media, and which creates great anxiety, since as well as its local repercussions it also destabilizes relations between States”, Joaquim Hangalo told us. “The international institutions and particularly the media have forgotten many things about Africa. They have forgotten the Congo, and until the Pope spoke of the recent massacres in Beni none of the media mentioned it. We hear about Syria and Iraq but not about Africa. It is necessary to draw the attention of the international institutions to the fact that people here, the poor, are suffering. We must do more to help these people and to assist them in their suffering”, Ayodi said.

In this general context, a specific, very serious and pressing problem exists: the mass rapes perpetrated on women and children and often followed by the killing of the victims. “Between 2009 and 2014 200,000 rapes were reported, perhaps more, which demonstrates the gravity of the problem. The militias and also the government troops are accused of being involved in these rapes which are proving to be a weapon of war and of the degradation of the enemy. And even during the most recent massacres in Beni a great many cases of the rape of women and children have been reported”, Ayodi said. “Even very small girls are raped. And then there is the problem of child soldiers, taken into the militias as soldiers. These children are abused and raped in every way. The children are suffering, like the women”.

Already in the case of Bosnia rape was seen as weapon of war. In that case, however, it functioned as a means of ethnic cleansing, by making Bosnian women conceive children with Serbian blood. Instead, in these cases in Africa rape has a different meaning: “In these African communities, the woman is sacred, she is the pillar of the community and if this pillar is hit it is the community which dies”.

Do raped women remain in their families, when these still exist, or are they banished? This is a great problem which we might call cultural, a problem of mentality. After rape, in fact there is a stigma. “Thousands of raped women cannot even speak of it because if they did they would be rejected by their families and by their communities. They keep quiet and suffer in silence the impact of the violence they have undergone. And many organizations have started to work on this enormous problem, offering psychological assistance. One of the strategies which the Church, and the Capuchins in particular, have begun to implement is that of creating small groups of women who can speak to each other about what they have been through. The women can at last open themselves to each other and obtain help. It is only a beginning, but the phenomenon is spreading. It would also be useful to give women greater power and greater autonomy, increasing female literacy and education”, Ayodi said. Of course, this is a general strategy which works in the long term but in the meantime the massacres and rapes are increasing.

Rape becomes a mass phenomenon, a weapon of war, when it loses its character of exceptionality and is accepted as a weapon like any others, if not even more effective. But do governments and peoples consider these rapes a crime or inevitable acts of violence which must not be sanctioned or punished? Are there laws against rape? Both Ayodi and Hangalo recognize the political will of governments to put an end to rape, but they also emphasize their weakness which does not allow them to do so in reality. Governments, including that of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, adhere to the international protocols on rape and its criminalization. But the Government of Congo is ineffective and does not have much authority; the country has been very unstable for years. “What we need”, Ayodi affirms, are “structural political reforms which support the Government in taking these criminals to court”. The cases of rapists condemned in court for the specific crime of rape are an absolute minority, a few dozen in comparison with the hundreds and thousands of acts of sexual violence perpetrated.

The picture that emerges portrays an enormous difficulty in transforming rape from being an accepted and recognized weapon of war into a prosecutable and prosecuted crime, in some way setting rape apart from its general context of war violence. Yet this is what the Church is endeavouring to do, especially the Catholic Church, by taking in raped women and even coming into conflict with the mentalities which marginalize victims of violence. “The Church has responded in various ways to the rapes and violence against women and children. First of all through the letters of bishops who ask government authorities for justice. Many letters were sent to the authorities of the Democratic Republic of the Congo requesting justice for the victims. The Church is also a refuge which is offered to women, providing them with a place to stay in and food, as well as responding to their needs. All this takes place in a general context in which the Church gives shelter to victims of the disasters of war and to refugees forced to leave their ravaged villages. The Church sets up schools for orphaned children which, in their turn, are destroyed”. “Those who speak out are afraid of suffering retaliation”. The Church cannot stop those who come armed with machetes, but can only welcome the victims”, Hangalo added. In this work of the Church women play a very important role. “Sixty per cent are women, the women on the African continent are the Church’s soul. Sisters themselves are often subjected to rape.

Cornelia Parker “Hanging Fire (Suspected Arson)” (1999)

There are many different congregations of women religious and lay women missionaries in the region. They could be given greater power in order to do more in this field. Women could be put in a condition to do more if they had greater power”, Ayody said. It is only in recent years that the attention of international public opinion has focused on the specific problem of sexual violence; mass rape was included among war crimes at the end of the 1990s and in some cases was equated with genocide. But the attention paid to the ongoing disaster is insufficient in comparison with its enormity. “We need greater visibility and a better knowledge of the terrible things that are happening. We need to understand that it is not a matter of secondary consequences of the war or of incidents, but rather of political decisions and premeditated attacks on communities. Rape is a weapon of war”, said Hangalo. “It has been said with regard to these rapes, ‘They are a part of African culture’: this is untrue. Rape is as much a crime as murder. It is necessary to see this crime from the point of view of human rights and of justice”, Ayodi concluded, “and to take those who commit these crimes to court”.

Anna Foa




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 25, 2020