Congo's Violent Rape Epidemic Needs a Cure

Can the U.S. Army help stop an epidemic of rape and sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

November is hot in Congo. Every month is hot in Congo.

So it's likely their faces shone with sweat when the first residents of Duru, in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, raced from mud hut to mud hut with a warning that sounded like, "El are ah!" That's "LRA," in French or the Congolese dialect Lingala.

For years, the rebel Lord's Resistance Army has haunted northeastern Congo. Chased from neighboring Uganda in 2005 by the Ugandan army, the LRA found heavily forested, poorly governed Congo ideal for hiding and ripe for pillage. For more than two decades, the LRA had fought to establish a theocratic government based on a bizarre mix of fundamentalist Christianity and the voodoo messianic creed of founder Joseph Kony. In Congo, Kony and his few hundred surviving LRA fighters quickly lost all touch with their politics. Now they fight for no other reason than they can. What they need, and want, they simply take from Congolese villages. That includes slaves: boys to carry looted goods; girls as prizes.

It was November 2009 when the LRA came to Duru, an isolated farming town of some 5,000 residents in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, just south of the Sudanese border. Word of the rebels’ approach spread quickly. Terrified Congolese streamed onto footpaths connecting Duru to Dungu, the nearest large town, some 50 miles away. They carried what they could, usually just the simple clothes on their backs and the colorful plastic sandals on their feet. Big families divided the children between mother and father and fled in separate directions, so at least some might escape.

Elisee Anidawe and her older brother Jean-Pierre Balemgba followed their father through the low doorway of their hut and rushed down the path to Dungu. Beyond the open spaces of the town center, the tangle of 10-feet tall grass and 100-feet-tall trees rose on either side, forming a reedy green tunnel.

"We had gone a distance on the road when we saw two men," Anidawe recounted nearly a year later. She was 13 at the time of the interview, with a beautiful round face, perfect skin and dark brown eyes. When she described that day, her voice faded to a nearly inaudible whisper, and she sometimes stuttered. She said the men were armed. "Don't be afraid," she remembered them saying. "We're soldiers."

"We thought they were Congolese soldiers," Anidawe recalled.

They weren't. And had they been, they still might not have helped. Over the years, the Congolese army has periodically deployed soldiers to Duru on orders to defend against LRA attacks. But the poorly-trained government troops never remain long, often being drawn away by the opportunity to extort workers at small-scale, “artisanal” mines. And even when they are present, the soldiers are sometimes as dangerous to civilians as their enemies are. "They raped, they stole, and when they saw the LRA, they ran away," Ferruccio Gobbi, a Catholic priest, said of Congolese troops garrisoned in Duru in 2005.

It dawned on Anidawe that the armed men were not there to protect her. She, her brother and their father ran through the forest, but the LRA fighters, long accustomed to moving through the thick underbrush, quickly captured them. The children, the LRA wanted as slaves. A grown man, they had no use for. "They killed my papa," Anidawe said, casting her eyes to the ground.


What happened next was visibly painful for Anidawe to describe. The rebels carried her to their camp, where she was offered as a trophy to a rebel officer. That same day, he raped her for the first time. He would continue to rape her for several months, like clockwork. As if that weren't enough, the rebels handed the shy, delicate girl with the close-cropped hair a machete and told her she would become a killer like them, or they would cut off her rations. She refused. They starved her. The cycle of torture continued until Anidawe and her brother managed to escape amid Ugandan army counterattacks.

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In late 2010, with her father dead and her mother missing, Anidawe and her brother lived with a foster family in a neighborhood of Dungu populated mostly by people displaced by the LRA. Anidawe is just one of at least 15,000 girls and women violently raped in Congo every year, according to the aid group Oxfam International. Thousands of additional sexual assaults likely go unreported. The U.N. has declared the country the "rape capital of the world." Oxfam has warned that escalating sexual violence in Congo could lead to countrywide anarchy.

Congo’s rape problem has compelled Oxfam to take action that has surprised some observers in the typically pacifist humanitarian community: In 2009, the group began actively lobbying Congo, the U.S., the U.K., France, the U.N. and the E.U., among other governments, to undertake in Congo a military initiative called "security sector reform" — the process of rebuilding a country's security forces. "Congo needs to create an army that's actually helping civilians rather than being a threat to them," Oxfam’s Congo director Marcel Stoessel says.

The U.S. State Department and military — motivated not just by humanitarian concern but also, in part, by America’s large and growing demand for the rare minerals concentrated in Congo — have responded, as have the French, Belgian and South African governments. American troops have begun deploying to the country in hopes of addressing the sexual-violence epidemic. Thanks to escalating American involvement, the basic elements of a reform campaign have started to fall into place. But more help and better coordination are clearly required, because so many of Congo's gravest problems intersect in the culture of entitlement and sexual violence inside the Forces Armees de la Republique du Congo.

The FARDC is barely an army at all by Western standards; it’s more accurately described as a collection of loosely trained gunmen and former rebels who were offered military jobs in exchange for leaving opposition groups — and who routinely exploit the Congolese people instead of defending them. In principle, the Congolese army should represent the first line of defense against the Lord's Resistance Army and other armed bands of serial rapists. In reality, the Congolese army is at best irrelevant and, at worst, actually part of the problem. The army’s failure to protect civilians allows groups such as the LRA to perpetrate systematic rape. Moreover, Congolese soldiers themselves are guilty of many rapes during their long marches across the country’s interior.

For reformers, the Congolese army offers a way into the rape crisis: Reform the FARDC, and you just might reform the rape state. Or so the thinking goes.

The U.S. could play perhaps the biggest role in what Oxfam hopes will become an international campaign of army reform in Congo. Altruism aside, the world’s governments certainly have reason to join in. A more reliable FARDC would be better able to combat Congo’s many armed groups without also endangering civilians in the process – thus ensuring Congo’s stability and the world’s continued access to the country’s mineral reserves.

This access is no trivial matter. For many countries, including the U.S., Congo is the only economical source of certain vital minerals, including cobalt, a key component in electronic devices. Though deposits of the element do exist in some Midwestern states, the U.S. no longer mines them, instead importing the metal at a rate of 10,000 tons a year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. That’s $300 million of cobalt. The biggest sources are China and Congo. It's not an overstatement to say that the U.S. needs a stable Congo because it needs Congo to reliably churn out thousands of tons of valuable rocks.

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Minerals have been a factor in military interventions throughout Congo's modern history. On June 30, 1960, Belgium formally granted sovereignty to its former colony. In early July, the Congolese army mutinied. Four years of fighting ensued as Congo fractured along ethnic lines. Belgian business interests backed the secession of two provinces rich in diamonds, copper, uranium, gold, tin, tungsten, cobalt and other important minerals, some quite rare. The Belgians, the U.N. and the U.S. all sent troops.

For a period in 1960 and '61, there were no fewer than four competing regimes in Congo, each with a different mix of foreign backers. The strongest belonged to army chief of staff Joseph Mobutu, who enjoyed the loyalty of troops in the capital and the support of powerful Western countries, including the U.S. In 1965, the CIA backed a successful coup by Mobutu.

Over the next 30 years, Mobutu crushed all political opponents in his drive to transform Congo. He renamed the country "Zaire," nationalized major industries and amassed a personal fortune reported to be as large as billions of dollars. Meanwhile, Congo's roads, cities and schools crumbled.

When Mobutu died in 1997, Congo once more came apart at the seams. Rwandan troops chased Hutu extremists over the border and set themselves up in lucrative, illegal mining operations. Rwanda and Uganda threw their support behind rebel leader Laurent Kabila, whose troops captured Kinshasa and installed him as president. When relations soured between Kabila and his former allies, Ugandan and Rwandan troops invaded to bolster anti-Kabila rebellions. Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe all took Kabila's side.

The resulting conflict became known as "Africa’s World War." Between 700,000 and 3 million people died, according to the most reliable estimates. Kabila was shot and killed by a bodyguard in 2001. His son Joseph took over on an emergency basis and, in 2006, won the country's first democratic election in four decades.

The younger Kabila's most important moves were to sign peace deals with Rwanda and, later, with several of the bigger rebel groups. As part of the latter deal, thousands of rebel fighters, some of them wanted war criminals, were invited to join the Congolese army in lieu of prosecution. "In Congo, peace must come before justice," Kabila famously said.

While the major state-on-state fighting has now ended, uncounted rebel groups, both foreign and domestic in origin, survive in the rugged eastern half of the country, alongside rogue Congolese army elements also involved in the illicit "conflict minerals" trade. A 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force guards humanitarian workers and maintains eastern road and air links. The U.S., France, Belgium and other powers periodically send in military trainers and Special Forces units. The Ugandan army quietly tracks rebels, including the LRA, in the far east.

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On a typically muggy September day in the capital of Kinshasa, in Congo's extreme west, Stoessel, the bookish former Swiss journalist now serving as Congo director for Oxfam, hauled a laptop computer and a stack of documents to a wooden table in his large, sunlit office. Oxfam has spent years and thousands of man-hours studying rape in Congo: These were the group's findings. He opened a report dated June 2010. "Sexual violence was reported to be on the increase in 83 percent of the communities surveyed," it read, "with the perpetrators largely militia fighters or soldiers."

"It is estimated that tens of thousands of women have been systematically raped by combatant forces," stated another of Stoessel's reports, this one a collaboration between Oxfam and Harvard University dated April 2010. As for why the problem is getting worse, the report speculates that there’s a sort of feedback loop: the more sexual violence in a society, the more sexual violence there might be moving forward. "Have the years of rape by armed combatants exacerbated the low valuation of women within Congolese society?" the report asked.

It seems they have. Between 2004 and 2008, the incidence of rape perpetrated by civilians, as opposed to combatants, jumped 17-fold in Congo. To Oxfam, that statistic heralds the possible unraveling of Congolese society. "Civilian adoption of sexual violence is quite disturbing, since it may well have long-term implications that will not be easily reversed," the report with Harvard asserted. "This rise in civilian rape speaks to the reversal of a society’s norms and values."

The patterns of sexual violence vary in different parts of eastern Congo. In North and South Kivu, border provinces rife with ethnic tension and teeming with Rwandan rebels, mass assaults are common. It was in the Kivus that at least 300 women, girls and babies were raped over a four-day period starting in late July 2010, allegedly by the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda rebel group. In Orientale province and other northeastern LRA haunts, abductions and forced marriages are the rule. In towns garrisoned by the Congolese army, soldiers assault women passing through checkpoints or invade their homes at night.

"Rape is an extremely effective wartime weapon," the Oxfam-Harvard report explained. "It is strategically used to shame, demoralize and humiliate the enemy. By systematically raping women and girls, armed groups assert power and domination over not only the women, but their men as well." For Congolese troops, rape is a way of punishing civilians suspected of collaborating with the indigenous Mai Mai rebel group, the report asserts.

Where rape is worst, so is instability. In just one case in May, limited attacks by a small number of LRA fighters along the border between Congo and Central African Republic sent some 15,000 refugees streaming south into Congo's Bondo territory. It took the U.N. months to mobilize and transport the personnel and supplies necessary to build a temporary refugee camp in Bondo. In the meantime, people went hungry, fell sick and in some cases were exploited. Ironically, at least one girl was raped by some of the very people to whom she fled to escape sexual violence.

Congolese soldiers learned techniques from the U.S. Army in an effort to professionalize the troops. (David Axe)

Congolese soldiers learned techniques from the U.S. Army in an effort to professionalize the troops. (David Axe)

Oxfam estimated there are 2 million displaced people in Congo, though the real number could be much higher. Displacement disrupts health, education and agriculture, resulting in long-term food shortages, permanent unemployment and depressed life expectancy — currently just over 40 for a Congolese born today. Rape isn't just a tragedy for the victims. It's a key link in the chain of misfortune that binds all 65 million Congolese. The roughly 100,000-strong Congolese army is directly responsible for as much as 60 percent of the sexual violence in the country, according to Oxfam. And so, the group says, Congo can’t stop being a rape state until its security sector is reformed.

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U.S. efforts to recruit and train up the Iraqi and Afghan militaries may be the world’s most visible examples of security sector reform, but it has also played an important role in formerly heavily militarized societies in Indonesia and Ukraine and across Latin America and West Africa. This type of reform involves putting responsible leaders in the right positions and tweaking laws to shift the military’s roles and methods. Most of all, it means retraining foot soldiers to make sure they're protecting, rather than preying on, civilians.

Security sector reform can be expensive, time-consuming and even dangerous, especially in a country like Congo, where security forces are strewn across all but inaccessible jungle and corruption is deeply entrenched. "It's difficult to reform the Congolese army because it's a collection of armed groups that's been integrated — it's not an army that's been constructed from scratch," Stoessel said. "There is very little discipline."

Still, Stoessel said reform of the army is the only way to change Congo's rape state. An end to rampant sexual violence would not only mean safer lives for girls like Anidawe, it might also mean greater stability for Congo and the rest of Central Africa, as an increasingly professional FARDC renders the country off limits to rebels and invading armies alike. This stability would also allow developed countries easier access to Congo's resources.

Everyday Congolese have also called for security sector reform, although they don't call it that. "When we as Oxfam speak with communities on the ground, they really cry out for army reform," Stoessel said. It was nearly noon in Kinshasa as he spoke. The sun burned through the city's signature haze of car exhaust, wood smoke and dust to illuminate the street crowds visible through the office windows. Stoessel sighed. "It will take at least 10 years for comprehensive security sector reform," he said. "But it's the only way get out of the horrible cycle of violence we're in right now."

It's been roughly 18 months since Oxfam started pushing security reform in the world's capitals. Though Kabila seems open to the idea, elsewhere it's been tough going. Individually, countries are willing to work with the Congolese military; the Congolese military, by and large, is willing to have them. The French have sent soldiers, as have the Belgians and the South Africans. The Ugandans have offered to send trainers. But there's no single vision, no grand plan. The 10-year countdown to meaningful reform still hasn't started.

Economics might help explain the lack of an overarching plan. Basic access to Congo's resources requires only a moderately functional Congolese state; slightly improved access to resources might not seem to justify the potential cost to donor nations of using their armies to drive lasting reform in Congo.

Stoessel pointed out that donor nations spend roughly $1 billion every year keeping Congo on humanitarian life support. In comparison to the cost of aid and the premium importers now pay for Congolese minerals, security sector reform may not look quite so expensive. Still, overarching security-sector reform is a tough case to make. Of late, though, Stoessel has had some reason for optimism. The world's leader in security sector reform, the United States, has gotten more involved.

America’s current intervention in Congo — if the limited efforts the U.S. has made there can be called that — began with a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in August 2009. Clinton toured a hospital and a refugee camp and met with rape victims. She came away visibly shaken. Congo’s epidemic of rape was "truly one of mankind's greatest atrocities," she said. She promised U.S. assistance, starting with an initial grant of $20 million for new health clinics and expanding into a more comprehensive program of training for the Congolese military. “We will be deploying a team comprised of civilian experts, medical personnel and military engineers from the U.S. Africa Command to assess how we can further assist survivors of sexual violence,” Clinton vowed.

“Security-sector development has a number of areas, but the real objective is to help or sustain and support the government of Congo, so they can do things like better protect the civilian population and better provide security,” said Marc Dillard, a spokesman at the U.S. embassy in Kinshasa.

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It took a year, but the troops that Clinton promised finally began deploying in September 2010. Around a hundred U.S. Army National Guard doctors, dentists, medics and administrators, plus a command staff and a small coterie of media handlers, arrived in Kinshasa on a commercial flight. A fleet of hired SUVs whisked them through the sprawling, polluted city to the Grand Hotel, the biggest and priciest in town.

A week into their stay, the hotel's air conditioning failed, coughing out a spray of long-moldering dust and debris. Several soldiers came down with respiratory problems, including Lt. Col. Todd Johnston, the mission commander, and his top media handler Maj. Junel Jeffrey. Between the hotel's exorbitant cost and the sometimes uncomfortable conditions, the Americans were beside themselves. Few had ever been to Africa. Fewer had been to Congo. Fewer still spoke French — never mind Lingala, the lingua franca of the country.

But the soldiers had not come to Congo to enjoy Kinshasa. The point of the Americans' visit was a two-week exercise with nearly 300 of their medical counterparts from the Congolese army. The exercise was code named "Medflag '10." "It's a chance to learn some techniques from the U.S. Army," Johnston said through his worsening congestion.

As always, the issue of access to minerals was never far off the radar. "The U.S. has determined it wants to be more involved in Africa," Johnston said. The ultimate effect, he added, would be "to bring Africa into the mainstream of the world economy." But for Congo, that integration is predicated on the country possessing an army that does not rape and that can prevent other groups from raping. The American medics call this “professionalism.” The Americans’ job, as trainers, was to “professionalize” the FARDC. “Professionalization of a force does, in fact, make a difference,” said Maj. Gen. David Hogg, Johnston’s boss.

The first week of Medflag '10 was mostly classroom instruction and hands-on medical training. In unadorned rooms at an overgrown parade ground once favored by Mobutu, American sergeants and junior officers addressed Congolese medics seated in neat rows, elementary-school style. Every sentence or so, the Americans paused, and let interpreters repeat their words in French or Lingala. It was a halting, tedious way of conducting a class. Sgt. Stuart Hammer, a medic, said he was told to expect delays for interpretation, so he had planned his teaching schedule accordingly.

The lectures were about nitty-gritty medical matters, mostly: how to evaluate a patient, stop bleeding and properly lift and carry a stretcher. The Americans discovered the Congolese already knew a lot of what the Americans were teaching. The big difference was that the Americans were accustomed to using electronic equipment and vehicles for certain tasks; the Congolese usually made do with manual tools and muscle-power.

Still, the Congolese were "very eager to learn," says 1st Lt. Coty Sicble, overseeing the lectures from a weedy patch outside the classrooms. In a sense, the free instruction from the Americans was the "carrot," the reason the Congolese government would invite in a foreign army in the first place. What came next was, from the U.S. government's point of view, the "stick" — that is, the opportunity to get what it wanted in Congo, which is an army that looks after civilians instead of exploiting or neglecting them.

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With the Americans nudging them along, in the second week of Medflag the Congolese soldiers organized a bare-bones health clinic at a shambling youth center on the outskirts of Kinshasa. Two thousand city residents registered for free dental and medical care courtesy of the U.S. and Congolese armies. There were malaria cases, advanced gum disease and tooth decay and lots of diabetes. Behind a sheet in one corner, an American doctor took an old man's blood pressure. A Congolese dentist pulled a woman's rotted teeth as she curled her toes and screamed. American and Congolese pharmacists slung prescription medicines as fast as they could process the paperwork.

A Congolese army dentist provides free care in Kinshasa. (David Axe)

A Congolese army dentist provides free care in Kinshasa. (David Axe)

On the clinic’s sidelines, a sniffling Jeffrey was orchestrating her own miniature reform of the Congolese army's public affairs apparatus. After welcoming a gaggle of American and Congolese reporters to the clinic site, Jeffrey spotted a Congolese army media handler steering a Congolese reporter through a crowd of waiting patients, clearly trying to keep the reporter from talking to the civilians. Jeffrey grew furious. Marching across the clinic site, Jeffrey confronted the Congolese officer. "They can talk to anyone they want to!" she insisted. Wide-eyed, the Congolese officer nodded his assent.

By week's end, thousands of Congolese were a little better off than they were before. For once, they had the Congolese army to thank. In a country where the army is usually part of the problem, the clinic represented a profound change — one that, multiplied a thousand times, could mean an end to the rape state.

But lasting reform will take more than one medical exercise. Concurrent with Medflag '10, a U.S. Special Forces team deployed to Kisangani, 500 miles east of Kinshasa, to work with a Congolese infantry battalion. And future exercises are likely. "This is not a one-time thing," said Col. Gilbert Kabanda, the Congolese army's top medical officer.

All the same, Stoessel says it would be better if the Americans' efforts were part of a coordinated, international reform campaign. "What would need happen for army reform are two things, really. First, the government [of Congo] should show a clear willingness and leadership for army reform. And the main donors, on their side, should match that with serious, long-term funding based on a comprehensive plan agreed on with the government. Without those two things, the efforts will be piecemeal and won't have an effect."

"We have hope this will happen," he said, "that the world will wake up to this call."

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