DRC: Their Stories Still Ring in My Head (Opinion)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010
Central Africa
Central African Republic
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

The wires have been hot this week with reports of a slow-moving mass rape crusade in Walikale, Congo. According to The New York Times, rebel soldiers raped at least 154 Congolese women and four baby boys in broad daylight, 18 miles from a United Nations base of 80 peacekeepers, over a four-day span in late July & early August.

"Why is this happening?"

"Why didn't the peacekeepers intervene?"

"What can we do?"

These are the questions that have flooded my inbox this week. I have struggled to provide anything approaching a coherent answer. One year ago today, I landed in Washington D.C. with Falling Whistles business cards in hand, intent on wrapping my head around the world's deadliest war, anxious to give voice to our growing coalition of whistleblowers in the halls of power.

In a previous life, I was a human rights lawyer, helping women fleeing sexual violence seek asylum in the United States. I sat in sterile courtrooms translating their stories of broken trust, horrific abuse, harrowing escape, exhausting cross-continental travel, and desperate yearning for normalcy to men in black robes wielding gavels. I squeezed their hands and cried tears of joy with them upon hearing the words "asylum granted." I experienced this unique privilege seven times. That's seven good dreams to chase away the nightmares.

Their stories still ring in my head. Their photographs — their gorgeous, resilient, daring faces — still decorate my walls. But that was all I really had when I marched into D.C. one year ago today. Seven stories, an expensive law degree, a bulging Rolodex and about 30,000 whistleblowers for peace pushing me forward.

I spent a year listening and learning — devouring books, picking the brains of experts, reading long-winded reports, asking smart and stupid questions and hustling into meetings to which I was not invited and didn't belong. I have never set foot in Congo, but I am intent on wrapping my little head around the world's deadliest war.

One year later, here is what we know:

Rape in Congo is a both a by-product and a weapon of war.

First, let me get out of the way the disgusting assumption that Eastern Congo is the "rape capital of the world" because "that's just part of Congolese culture."

As Lisa Shannon explains, "Any Congolese will tell you that rape is not 'traditional' ... the proliferation of sexual violence came with the war. Militias and Congolese soldiers alike now use sexual violence as a weapon. Left unchecked, sexual violence has festered in Congo's war-ravaged east. This does not make rape cultural. It makes it easy to commit. There is a difference."

Second, the only reason rape is so prevalent in Congo is because there are zero consequences for doing it. The national government is barely functional. Congo's president, who lives 1,000 miles away from the war in Kinshasa, has repeatedly shown little interest in combating sexual violence. Indeed, government troops are often the worst perpetrators. Several Congolese generals and commanders are known war criminals.

In this environment of total impunity, is it any surprise that rape has become a proven method for controlling civilians?

But what about the peacekeepers?

Let's be clear that I'm not a fan of bashing on peacekeepers. The work they do is difficult, dangerous and often unappreciated. They rarely have the resources that they need to provide adequate coverage of huge swaths of jungle on muddy roads. A new friend who just returned from a month-long trip to peacekeeping bases in Congo compares patrolling in Walikale to "driving a jeep through a head of broccoli."

It doesn't help that the peacekeepers don't speak French or Swahili. It doesn't help that their hands are tied by steep layers of bureaucracy. And it doesn't help that their mandate is constantly changing. But we already knew/heard/cared about that.

In Congo, there are never easy answers to complex problems. But one thing this mass-rape crusade in Walikale does make clear is that the UN needs to rethink the way its peacekeepers interact with civilians. If a UN base knows that rebels are controlling an area, it's not sufficient to patrol through town without stopping and talking to local women.

Most Congolese men are not in the habit of telling foreign soldiers who don't speak their language and only drop in for a few minutes at a time that their wives and daughters are being raped. They are often forthcoming in discussions about troop movements, food shortages and road closures. As it turns out, these are the things that professional soldiers (AKA: peacekeepers) are most interested in hearing about.

But rape hits closer to home and the issue has been blanketed in shame. It's for this reason that peacekeepers need to get comfortable seeking out and listening to the voices of Congolese women. And at the end of the day, we need to do the same thing. Put simply, our advocacy must be informed by their voices, because it is their voices that are most frequently ignored by the people who are paid to protect them.

I want the faces of Congolese women to join the faces in my living room. Gorgeous, resilient, daring faces, of women who are standing up for peace in their own communities, who refuse to be silent in the midst of staggering violence, who give our growing coalition the very best information in real-time.

Let's listen to them, and be whistleblowers for peace.