Feature: Tearing Congo's womb
WASHINGTON -- Interpreting into another language is emotionally draining. As an interpreter, I worry I might miss the nuances, distort the message and fail both the speaker and the audience. Over the years, my interpreting sessions have felt like out-of-body experiences, which summon all of my faculties. Often I remember little of the exchanges, as if I did not participate.
However, never before have I been eviscerated as I was when I accompanied Mathilde Muhindo Mwamini on her Washington, D.C., advocacy tour on behalf of Congo's mass rape survivors.
I met Muhindo on her arrival at Reagan National Airport after a long trip from Kinshasa, Congo's capital. Though I had spoken with her on the phone several days earlier, I did not know what she looked like. In my rush to the airport, I forgot to make a welcome sign. Somewhat at a loss, I scanned all the passengers coming out through the arrival gate. "Surely, I will see the puzzled look on her face," I said to myself. "Don't worry, you will know." I expected an older, unsure and confused Congolese woman, uncertain of her whereabouts. I found no such passenger.
My eyes locked with those of a confident, dignified and well-dressed woman who seemed to know exactly where she was headed. She smiled at me.
"Mathilde Muhindo, je présume!"
"Oui, certainement!" came the reply.
"Enchanté de faire votre connaissance, madame!" Such was my encounter with Muhindo, the no-nonsense social activist who has helped countless mass rape survivors in South Kivu, the epicenter of Congo's recent bloody conflicts. The bond was instant.
A guest of En Avant Congo!, a voluntary association of Congolese and Americans concerned about Congo's descent into hell, her goal was simple - to raise awareness in the U.S. government and public of the chaotic situation in her country. Since the last round of fighting started five years ago, more than 3.8 million Congolese have died out of a population of 60 million; some of them fighters, but most innocent people. In the United States, that would amount to Sept. 11 happening every day for three consecutive years. No other conflict since World War II has claimed so many victims. Congo's yoke is too heavy for any nation to bear. Muhindo came to Washington to speak of the unspeakable.
On Capitol Hill, the first station on her via dolorosa, she treads with matronly serenity peppered with unshakable determination. Clad in the traditional Congolese maputa and libaya, the 5 foot 3 inches, 52-year-old social worker turned political activist, looks 10 years younger. After the warm and heartfelt welcoming introduction, a deafening silence rises in the majestic conference room as the senior staffers from the Congressional Subcommittee on Africa eagerly wait for her words. "Thank you for making the time to see me. It's a pleasure to be here," Muhindo starts. "As I speak to you at this very moment, my hometown of Bukavu is under siege. C'est vraiment la providence qui me permet d'être ici. ..."
For 15 days last summer, Bukavu was the scene of heavy fighting between government loyalists and mutinying Tutsi troops supported by Rwanda. Renegade leader Laurent Nkunda, a former officer in the Rwandan Army, claimed he acted to prevent genocide against the so-called Banyamulenges, or Congolese Tutsis. Both the United States and the United Nations rejected that claim, citing the lack of evidence and called the declaration irresponsible and inflammatory.
Mutineers looted and pillaged Bukavu, systematically destroying the local economic base and setting ablaze what they could not take. The city bled as they raped door-to-door, house-to-house. Analysts feared the hostilities signaled the third installment in the war that brought the late president Laurent-Desire Kabila to power in 1997.
In 1998, after Kabila fell out of grace with his backers in Uganda and Rwanda, these two countries invaded Congo in an attempt to overthrow him. A multinational war followed, with Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia intervening on Kabila's side. Unable to unseat Kabila, Rwanda and Uganda chose to support a rebellion in eastern Congo. For the civilians in Kivu, the rebellion ushered apocalyptic atrocities.
Muhindo has witnessed the effect of these atrocities firsthand. As the director of Centre Olame, a women's empowerment organization in Bukavu, she opened South Kivu's first rape counseling center in 2001. "Women and girls are paying dearly for the war in Congo," Muhindo continues. "Sexual violence in eastern provinces should be seen in its proper context -- a war within a war. A war against women."
Following the breakdown of state authority after the 1998 multinational war, eastern Congo became a virtual lawless land divided among various armed groups. Muhindo estimates about a dozen ragtag militias and armed gangs vie for control of the region and its natural riches.
Like any other society in the world, Congo has had its traditional rape cases. However, in 1998 militias adopted rape as a weapon of war. "FDLR, the Rwandan rebel group, and the Rwanda-backed RCD are the most vicious," she says, "but all parties are guilty of abuses against women." Fifteen thousand-men strong, the FDLR includes the remnant of the old Rwandan Army before the genocide and the infamous Interahamwe. The Hutu Interahamwe is responsible for 60 to 70 percent of these rapes. The rest is split among the other militias.
Some of the FDLR fighters have been accused of killing 800,000 of their fellow Rwandans in 1994. Their presence in the region and the threat they present provided Rwanda's army with justifiable grounds to invade eastern Congo. Yet, seven years of Rwanda's involvement in Congo has only exacerbated the already tenuous situation in the Great Lakes region, and has yielded no security for Rwanda.
The RCD is mostly a collection of Tutsi militias backed by Rwanda to further its interests in Congo. They have been heavily involved in the illegal exploitation of natural resources.
According to Human Rights Watch, RCD forces have on several occasions massacred hundreds of civilians, whom they accused of supporting local militias opposed to their control in eastern Congo. Many civic organizations are still active in those regions, but the RCD uses arbitrary arrest, ill treatment in detention, and torture to frighten them into submission. Some of their alleged enemies have "disappeared" and are presumed dead.
A 2003 UN Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources accused both Rwanda and Uganda of prolonging the civil war so that they could illegally siphon off Congo's wealth with the help of Western corporations. While neither Uganda nor Rwanda have gold, diamond or coltan deposits of significance, both countries have become important exporters of these minerals.
"We have never seen anything like this before," Muhindo explains. "It is not just rape. It is the atrocities that go with it." She pauses. "You will find the most extreme cases at Panzi hospital in Bukavu. Rebels shoot women in their genitals after they had their way. Young girls with torn organs lay down with their legs hanging. ... They go to Panzi for reconstructive surgery. Some of these little girls need three or four interventions." With tears streaming down her cheeks, she sighs. "Je ne sais pas si vous me comprenez; c'est incroyable ce qui nous arrive." What's happening to us is unbelievable; I am not sure you understand.
The statistics tell a gruesome story. Twice the size of Maryland, South Kivu has registered more than 25,000 cases to date. In 2003, Centre Olame provided counseling care to 1,256 victims. Some of these victims had been violated many months prior, but did not have the courage or means to seek help. Sex is a taboo subject in the local culture.
Wiping her tears, Muhindo talks about the victims' plight. "Women lose on all fronts. First, it's rape. Then comes the rejection by the husband, who often wants nothing to do with her." She shakes her head. "Finally, she is shunned by the whole community. Victims are abandoned to their own fate."
Neighboring Maniema province has registered 11,350 cases. "That's the tip of the iceberg. Most victims do not have access to treatment. There is no care center outside the 45-kilometer radius around Bukavu. They live too far out in the countryside. They are afraid to be raped on their way to the center."
The victims' screams echo across the room as Muhindo tells of the inhumanity of these crimes. Militiamen often rape women in front of their families, killing husbands who try to protect their wives. They slit throats of crying babies interfering with the act. For a greater impact, they force boys to rape their own mothers.
"These savages tear the very fabric of life. It's the total destruction of the family and the community," Muhindo laments. HIV and AIDS infection rate in the region has increased from 3 percent in 1996 to over 17 percent in 2003. "It's death -- slow, but certain."
One teary-eyed congressional staffer asks, "What can the United States do to help?" Besides her duties at the rape center, Muhindo is also a member of the transitional parliament where she represents South Kivu's civil society. She is one of 68 women in the 600-member parliament. "What can the United States do to help?" She repeats to herself.
"Our problems are political and deserve political solutions," Muhindo begins. "We live in a state of total impunity. There is no central government authority. No judicial system. These atrocities will continue as long as the perpetrators face no consequences."
The collapse of state authority has left a security vacuum that militias and other armed groups and bandits have been quick to fill. Anarchy is the normal way of life in eastern Congo. Those with guns have the right of life and death over hopeless civilians.
The country needs a well-trained, unified army and police to ensure security. "Civil servants have not been paid and live off the people," Muhindo adds. "Until a professional army and national police are in place, we will not know peace. There is no reprieve for women. No legal recourse."
Along with its European allies, the United States can help train security forces and the police. To date, only Belgium has committed to training the much-needed professional army.
Rwanda's operations in Congo to squash the FDLR amount to a failure both militarily and politically. Instead of peace, these operations have generated looting, plundering, rape and mass-murder by Rwandan troops, their proxies and other armed groups, effectively undermining Rwanda's argument for invading its neighbor.
The government in Kigali should invest more in a political solution in its dealings with the FDLR. Rwanda should create the proper environment, which would encourage more fighters and other dissidents to return home; the génocidaires would face justice while the rest of them reintegrate society.
Muhindo explains. "These men are trapped. Their despair has turned them into savages with nowhere to go. They kill, loot and rape. Congo pays a stiff price for Rwanda's problems."
"The cycle of violence in eastern Congo is fed by arms trafficking. The United States should fully support and help enforce the U.N. embargo on the flow of arms into Congo," Muhindo tells her audience. "I call on the U.S. government to reinstate its own bilateral arms embargo on Rwanda and Uganda, the main sources of arms flow into my country.
"The U.S. government ought to reinstate its own bilateral arms embargo on Rwanda and Uganda, until they put an end to arms flowing through their countries into Congo. The U.S. Congress should condition bilateral assistance to both of these countries on their cessation of support for any factions in Congo, whether through arms transfers, financial assistance, military advising, military training, or harboring of those who flee the Congolese national government."
The United States lifted the embargo on Rwanda in July 2003. This action negatively affects the peace process as weapons continue to flow into eastern Congo. With this proliferation of arms, the already crippled Congolese government is unable to secure its borders with Rwanda and Uganda. As a result, the two countries have used border insecurity as a pretext to invade Congo.
After a long day on Capitol Hill, I escort Muhindo to Mount Pleasant, one of Washington's culturally diverse neighborhoods. "Can we go in here?" she inquires. Her request puzzles me. In their spare time, foreign visitors usually want to see the National Mall or perhaps go shopping. Muhindo has a different idea.
"Je voudrais voir le type de poignets et serrures qu'ils ont ici," she tells me. She would like to see what type of knobs and locks the hardware store carries. I am baffled. "Why does she need knobs and locks?" I wonder. "Surely, she can get that in Congo."
"May I see that lock over there?" She asks the store owner, pointing to a sturdy safety lock. "Do you have anything that works for exterior glass doors?" Methodically, she compares various locks and knobs, feeling their weights and checking their prices. She is hoping to find a few decent locks for her home security.
"I heard of a rape incident where the militiamen fired 40 bullets to break a lock. Imagine how scary that is," she says, half in jest. "I know these locks will not stop anyone from intruding my home, but I hope they can delay their entrance."
In her advocacy efforts, Muhindo has traveled to several European countries. She has visited with powerful ambassadors and ministers. In Washington, she met with the assistant secretary of State for human rights and walked the hallways of the U.S. Congress, the world's most powerful legislature.
Yet Muhindo remains grounded in her reality; Kivu is a violent place. The recent fighting in her hometown of Bukavu sent a clear message. Mass rapes and insecurity remain the daily lot of civilians. It will be a while before peace returns to eastern Congo. Until then, she will take no chances. Muhindo is as vulnerable as the helpless victims she shelters at Centre Olame.