A United Nations human rights team today confirmed that at least 303 civilians were raped over a period of four days in late July and early August in the volatile far east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), warning that the total number of victims may be even higher.
“The scale and viciousness of these mass rapes defy belief,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.
“Even in the eastern part of DRC where rape has been a perennial and massive problem for the past 15 years, this incident stands out because of the extraordinarily cold-blooded and systematic way in which it appears to have been planned and executed.”
The known victims include 235 women, 52 girls, 13 men, and 3 boys, some of whom were raped multiple times, according to the 15-page preliminary report, prepared by the UN Joint Human Rights Office comprising the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Human Rights Division of the UN mission in the DRC (MONUSCO).
In addition, at least 923 houses and 42 shops were looted and 116 people were abducted in order to carry out forced labour, according to a news release on the report.
The attacks, which took place mostly after dark in the Walikale region, were carried out between 30 July and 2 August by a “coalition” of around 200 members of three armed groups – the Maï Maï Cheka, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), and elements close to Colonel Emmanuel Nsengiyumva, an army deserter who has also in the past been involved with the rebel National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) group.
OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville told reporters in Geneva that the attackers, armed with AK47s, grenades and machetes, initially pretended that they had come to provide security for the population, before launching attacks in small groups.
They subsequently cut off the main routes into the area and had taken control of a key hill, which was the only place where telephone communications were possible in the area, thereby preventing the population from raising the alarm, he added.
Mr. Colville also stressed that the total number of victims might well be higher, as attacks were still taking place in the area while the investigating team was in the villages. The attacks prevented the team from completing its investigation in six of the 13 affected villages.
In addition to the mass rapes in the Walikale region covered in the report, the FDLR also attacked 19 villages north-east of Shabunda during the first three weeks of August, allegedly committing a further 214 cases of rape. The UN Joint Human Rights Office has, however, not yet been able to confirm these cases and the exact circumstances surrounding them, due to serious insecurity in the area.
He added that both local leaders and victims believe the prime motive for the attacks were to punish and subjugate the local population whom the attackers viewed as “traitors.”
The report points to serious shortcomings in the preparedness and response of the local detachments of the Congolese army and the police stationed in the area. It also notes that their failure to prevent or stop the attacks was compounded by subsequent failings on the part of MONUSCO forces, which the report says did not received any specific training in the protection of civilians.
A number of recommendations are made to both to the Congolese authorities and to MONUSCO to improve their systems to prevent such situations from arising. The report also urges humanitarian agencies to provide the Congolese authorities with much needed medical assistance and psychological care for all the victims, and the international community in general to support the efforts of the Congolese authorities to arrest those commanding the armed groups and bring them to justice.
Ms. Pillay offered the Congolese authorities her support to carry out investigations and bring the alleged perpetrators of these crimes to justice.
“I fully recognize the enormous difficulties this involves, but we have to do better. Impunity for rape in the past, and now, will simply breed more rape in the future. The cycle of impunity for sexual violence in this part of the DRC must be broken.”