10/11/2005

Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone - Raping the Congo

Day Seven: Sexual Violence is 'Worse Than the Guns'

(Note: This dispatch contains explicit content that some readers may find disturbing. The names of sexual assault victims have been changed and their faces obscured to protect their privacy.)

It is beneath its beauty, no, rather embedded in it that you discover its violence. From the soaring hilltops of Bukavu, looking across Lake Kivu, this place in eastern Congo seems more than serene; possibly, in the proper amber dusk-lit moment, idyllic even.

But what you learn soon changes everything. For example: Lake Kivu, so magnificent, still seeps with the volcanic gas that helped create it; gas that in places can render bathers and fisherman unconscious.

Then consider the richness of the surrounding mountains -- laden with diamonds, gold and other precious minerals -- but also containing the armies, militias and rebel forces that plunder its wealth and, in the process, systematically rape and murder the impoverished local population.

"They use rape as a weapon of war," says 33-year-old Marie. "They have guns, but this is worse than the guns."

Marie speaks from experience. In 1997 her husband was killed and she was raped by three members of the Hutu Interahamwe militia -- the same group responsible for much of the 1994 genocide against ethnic Tutsis in Rwanda.

For Serapina, 25, the tragic moments of her life lay on top of each other like bricks, each one heavier than the last, slowly building into a crushing weight of unthinkable misery.

It began, also in 1997, when Rwandan soldiers supporting the Congolese revolt led by Laurent Kabila came to her home in the mountains of eastern Congo.

"They forced the door open," she says, in a sure and steady voice that has shared this story before. "They tied my husband on a tree. They had me to lay down. The first one came and he jumped on me. The second came, the third ... and all of them -- there were six -- and they had sex with me."

When they were finished, she says they shoved a piece of cloth far into her vagina.

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"Then they took me outside," she continues. "They beat my husband. Then..." she pauses. "They killed my two children."

She says they looted everything from the house and then torched it. They left her standing naked in front of the flames. It was too much; mind and body shut down, and she says, she fainted.

For Serapina the horror was reprised seven years later. Rebel soldiers connected to Congolese dissident Laurent Nkunda came to the IDP (internally displaced persons) camp where the family was now living because of renewed violence.

"They killed my husband. After having killed him, one tied my arms on a tree. He also had sex with me as before," she says.

She was three months pregnant when she was raped the second time, she says, but two days later she had a miscarriage.

"They mutilated my husband's body. Cut off his arms." And then, she says in an unfathomably calm tone, "they forced me to eat my husband's flesh. They said they would kill me if I refused."

Serapina says she wishes she had died then. The only thing that has given her any hope in the aftermath of these assaults is the comfort from hundreds of others like her; women victimized by the armed groups camping near their communities.

Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone From Yahoo! News

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