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In the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, a region infamous for its distinction as the ‘most dangerous place in the world to be a woman,’ civil and humanitarian officials now report that the incidence of rape is dramatically on the rise. A report from Congo's South Kivu province yesterday indicated that attacks by FDLR rebels, notorious for their use of brutal rape, have escalated in recent months as the rebels seek to punish the civilian population for the government’s latest anti-FDLR offensives.
Tragically, this pattern of retaliatory attacks has become the norm in Congo. The Congolese government forces have recently tried to crack down militarily on the FDLR, whose leadership was responsible for 1994 Rwandan genocide, but have mainly provoked the rebels to lash out against the local Congolese populations.
"As is usual, the FDLR attack at night, they burn [houses]... and take women to the forest where they rape them ..." said civil society coordinator Venant Rugusha to IRIN News.
On Monday, villages in the territory of Mwenga were attacked, according to a Catholic priest from the Mwenga parish. Caritas, a NGO operating in the region, also reported attacks nearby, in the Kilungutwe and Kalama localities.
According to Caritas, the local population sees the attacks as a violent warning issued by the FDLR rebels, who purport to seek a non-military resolution of the conflict. The FDLR is essentially holding the population hostage in hopes that the Congolese army and MONUC will see the excessive violence against civilians as too steep a price to pay to continue the operation. Tragically for the Congolese living in the vicinity of the FDLR, the Congolese army MONUC are not heeding this warning and taking measures to protect civilians from this violent fallout.
In the past three months, at least 463 cases of rape have been reported – more than half the total number recorded in 2008. Given the sensitive nature of the crime, it must also be assumed that these figures only reflect a portion of the cases of rape that occurred.
"A three-year-old girl succumbed to injuries sustained from defilement, presumably by the FDLR," reported Nestor Yombo, a public relations officer with the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). "According to her mother, the [girl's] sisters aged 12, 14 and 17 have also all been raped at least once by armed men."
To complicate matters, the forces that should be in charge of punishing these attackers and protecting civilians are also responsible for sexual violence in the region.
As Rugusha, the civil society coordinator explained, "The FDLRrape daily but there are also isolated rape cases by the FARDC [national army] which the government has not taken charge of for a long time.”
Of course, the guilt primarily falls on the FDLR and otherwise-affiliated individuals who perpetrate or direct these atrocities in eastern Congo. But until the Congolese government – and the United Nation’s mission supporting these operations – foresees these inevitable and deadly backlashes by the FDLR and takes the precautions necessary to prevent the rape and killing of innocent Congolese, the government and MONUC bear responsibility for not doing their job: to protect civilians.
Photo: Congolese woman at a safe house for survivors of sexual violence. Enough/Rebecca Feeley