Amid New Instability, a Struggle for Justice Continues in Eastern Congo

I was in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo last week when the M23 militia entered Goma, a major provincial capital. Since then, there have been reports of women and children being abducted by the rebels, a practice common throughout over a decade of civil war. The DRC—considered by the UN as the worst place in the world to be a woman—is yet again being subjected to war, violence, and neglect. Yet in very remote areas of the country, some glimmer of hope remains for a just and peaceful future.

I traveled through Bukavu enroute to Shabunda—a place so remote it is accessible only by air, through UN plane or private aircraft—to observe a mobile court focused primarily on gender related crimes. Although my trip was cut short due to the violence engulfing the region, I witnessed three rape cases held by the court. In one case, three members of the same family, aged 11, 15, and 22, had allegedly been raped (a couple of them on multiple occasions) by a fake ‘healer’. Over the course of a couple of months, he ‘treated’ them and deceived them, and then convinced them they would die if they reported the assaults. But when the 11-year-old girl became so ill as a result of the diseases she caught from the rapes, she figured she was going to die anyway, and told her family. Stunned, the two others admitted the charlatan had raped them too.

The accused grinned and snickered as he told the court— and the laughing crowd—how he’d tricked the woman and girls into believing him, even while claiming his innocence. The females testified in closed session and their names were not made public, but their testimony from inside was broadcast to attendees sitting and standing outside under a makeshift tent. While the crowd weren’t laughing at the rapes, but instead at the shenanigans of the accused and the gullibility of the family, there was enough discomfort amongst them for an observer to assume that some of them too may have gotten taken in by his tricks if the situation were reversed. The town is poor, uneducated, and cut off from much of the world, without electricity, running water, or news. Yet there was an inherent awareness among the crowd that what happened to this family was wrong and deserved redress.

In another case, a 16-year-old girl told the court how a man living in the same village had raped her so brutally after she passed by his home one day that she dropped out of school, and needs to travel to a hospital for surgery to repair the damage. Her injuries were corroborated by medical evidence. The accused explained he offered to marry her afterward. The defense attorney offered a number of arguments in his clients defense, including a couple of old standbys—that the defendant married someone else shortly after the assault, so either the girl willingly went to his home in hopes of finding someone to marry her, or the defendant couldn’t help himself because he was essentially ‘in heat’, his testosterone in overdrive against his control.

The most heartbreaking of all was a case where a three-year-old toddler was raped. The court heard how the little girl was left at home to look after her disabled two year old brother during the day while her poor parents worked in the fields. A new neighbor dropped by to play with the kids and offered the little girl a donut. She went into the banana fields with him where he raped her, causing very serious injuries. In addition to the physical injuries, she was so traumatized that she didn’t speak for weeks until treated by the mobile court’s therapist. She is still terrified by all men, and runs in the opposite direction whenever she sees a male. The new neighbor, the prosecutor and civil party lawyers told the court, is a violent serial child rapist, moving from town to town to avoid being caught.

Dozens of trials are being held in Shabunda over the course of two weeks, both rape and non-rape cases. Observing these rape trials for only two days, I thought that if only these five victims received justice, and if the individuals responsible for the reprehensible crimes committed against them were put behind bars and prevented from destroying other lives, then the court was worth it for these three cases alone.  

The mobile court in Shabunda, in the province of South Kivu, is still continuing this week ,despite the upheaval and insecurity in North Kivu. The Congolese judges, prosecutor, defense attorneys and civil party lawyers traveled there from Bukavu, in order to provide justice to a region otherwise without access to a formal justice process.  Hundreds from the town show up daily to observe the trials, which are broadcast through a microphone powered by a generator. During a break in the proceedings, a colleague asked a young boy of about ten sitting on the ground next to us what he thought of the trials. The young man thought about it for a few seconds, and said, “I think they are very, very interesting. If this court keeps other people from committing the same acts, so they won’t have to go to jail, then I’m all for it.”  

Hope for justice remains in Shabunda. The town administrator thanked us for our efforts (Open Society  helped develop the ability of mobile courts to try gender crimes), and asked our assistance in getting the government to send permanent judges to the region. In the interim, he said, he was very grateful for a mobile court to come to them. It gave people hope.

Over a hundred miles to the north-east, the rebels in Goma opened the prison doors to let the prisoners free. They threated to do the same if they advanced to Bukavu, around 50 miles away on the southern shore of Lake Kivu. In Bukavu,  several hundred prisoners are imprisoned after being convicted of rape, murder, theft, and other serious crimes by the mobile court. Already, judges, staff, and others affiliated with the court are being threatened and evacuated. It is untenable that so much progress can be undermined, or indeed reversed, by inaction by the Congolese government and the international community. We must step up.

The women, children, and other citizens of war ravaged eastern DRC deserve both justice and peace. Both are necessary ingredients for the country to move forward with hope, prosperity, and dignity.  No more violence. No more violations. No more turning a blind eye to atrocities.

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