Denis Mukwege has been treating female victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1996. The subject of a new documentary by Thierry Michel, The Man Who Mends Women, Mukwege has dedicated his life to caring for victims of rape and other forms of sexual abuse in Africa. It is an epidemic that continues despite the supposed end of the Second Congo War in 2003.
Sexual violence is often a hidden dimension of war. The film illustrates how survivors work to rebuild their lives, organise to resist aggressors and denounce their crimes. They do so even when trapped in seemingly endless conflicts.
Through the testimony and actions of these brave women, impressive progress has been made to mobilise support and build collective awareness of this tragic oppression. Yet 20 years after Mukwege began his work, the fact remains: no one is yet able to protect women in conflict zones and to end the use of rape as a weapon of war.
The coming of the second war
Knowing the region’s history is critical to understanding the gravity of the situation. In 1994, widespread attacks on civilian populations in the border provinces of eastern Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) led to an influx of hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees, defeated soldiers and militia members fleeing the Rwandan civil war. Two years later, the Rwandan Patriotic Army - the armed wing of the Rwandan Patriotic Front operating under the orders of Rwanda’s current President Paul Kagame - destroyed the camps, forcing the refugees to flee deeper into the country.
In conjunction with Congolese opposition groups, the Rwandan army pushed all the way to the Congolese capital, Kinshasa. In 1997 it brought down the regime of President Mobutu Sese Seko. Rwandan forces then occupied eastern Congo despite the hostility of the local population. By August 1998 when its senior officers were squeezed out of command positions in Kinshasa, Rwanda unleashed the Second Congo War.
By early 1999 the front line stabilised and the DRC was effectively partitioned. The strategists from Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi had essentially achieved their goal. Now began a war within the war. Senior commanders of the occupying forces worked to enhance their own power, while their armies took on the administration and economic exploitation of conquered provinces - each in their own way and according to their own priorities.
In a December 2001 statement, the United Nations Security Council noted that
the plundering of the natural resources and other forms of wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo continues unabated.
It condemned activities
which are perpetuating the conflict in the country, impeding the economic developing of the DRC and exacerbating the suffering of its people.
Submission of populations
The nature of the conflict then shifted because there was another war that had to be won - forcing occupied populations into submission for the long term. The war of conquest now overlaid a civil war - or rather, civil wars. In working to build national alliances and reduce local resistance, the occupying armies exploited and aggravated existing divisions between populations.
In the province of Kivu, the armies’ task was made easier by the multiplicity of community and tribal affiliations, ethnic groups and cultural areas (Bashi, Bahavu, Bavira, Bafuliru, Bahunde, Banyindu, Batembo, Banyanga…), tensions between shepherds and farmers, rivalries between professional organisations and various associations.
The situation lasted until October 2013 when the main rebel movement supported by the Rwandan authorities, M23, was defeated by the intervention of UN troops. The surrender allowed Congolese armed forces to retake the DRC’s eastern provinces. Beyond the urban centres and main roads, however, various armed forces and militia continue to exploit local resources and populations.
Women still suffer
Now 20 years long, the conflict is fuelled by armed groups that are being continuously renewed. Local populations are subject to violence and abuse not only at the hands of foreign armies, but also numerous guerrilla movements fighting for control of land, resources and people.
Among those implicated by women’s testimony are men carrying arms or wearing uniforms, including many Congolese military and police officers. So are “all the men” who, in the climate of impunity and violence, abuse their authority over local populations, and particularly women. It is no longer a question of a war, but the perpetuation of a state of lawlessness.
Many countries rebuilding after an armed conflict see rates of sexual violence remain high or even increase. The continuing instability in eastern Congo has led to the region being dubbed the “rape capital of the world”, even if reliable statistics in this domain remain difficult to establish.
The attitude of the Congolese authorities is also questionable, revealed by their banning The Man Who Mends Women for two months after its initial release in September 2015.
In this context, it’s astonishing that the DRC - the site of the first great African war, which caused the highest number of casualties since World War II - has never set up special tribunal. An independent authority is needed to fully assess this tragedy and establish the responsibilities of all the warring parties.
Tribunals in the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone and Rwanda at least made strong symbolic denunciations of sexual violence as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.