SADOKE KIKUNDA Mayele repeatedly cracks his knuckles as he sits restlessly in a small room up a dank stairway in Goma's central prison, the largest in eastern Congo. He cuts a distinctly underwhelming figure.
Looking younger than his 42 years, Mayele is short and wiry with a shaved head and wispy beard. His dirty jeans, ragged Quiksilver T-shirt and flip-flops have seen better days.
My Congolese translator is taken aback and remarks that he looks like a very ordinary man. But Mayele's name is notorious in eastern Congo – he is accused by the UN of playing a major role in a series of attacks over four summer days in 2010 which included the gang rape of more than 300 villagers.
“I suppose you are here because of the lies the UN tells about me,” is Mayele's opening shot, its hostile tone setting the mood for the rest of the interview. He complains that he is hungry and sick, but mostly he aggressively protests his innocence.
In November, Roger Meece, head of the UN's stabilisation mission in Congo, told the UN Security Council that the military prosecutor in Goma had assembled “sufficient evidence” to proceed with the prosecution of Mayele, describing the case as “encouraging” and part of a “positive trend” in a country where a culture of impunity runs deep.
Mayele is defiant. “I have been in this prison for more than a year and still they have not brought one person forward to testify against me,” he says, his voice rising. “I know you don't trust me, I know you think I am lying, but bring someone here who can give evidence I did these things I am being blamed for.” Mayele is accused of participating in what is considered one of the most brutal episodes of recent years in eastern Congo.
According to a UN report published in July, 200 combatants from two rebels groups, the Mai Mai Cheka, of which Mayele was a commander, and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), “systematically attacked civilians” in 13 villages in the remote Walikale region of North Kivu province between July 30th and August 2nd, 2010.
They “looted most of these villages, raped hundreds of civilians . . . and abducted more than a hundred people who were subjected to forced labour”. The UN peacekeeping force in Congo, the largest such mission in the world, was slated for failing to prevent the attacks, which took place just 30km from a UN base.
The UN report documented how the rape of at least 387 civilians – 300 women, 23 men, 55 girls and nine boys – made the Walikale attacks one of the largest documented cases of mass rape in the region.
“Due to the fact that these attacks were well planned in advance and carried out in a systematic, targeted manner, the exactions committed could constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes,” it noted.
Mayele, who served in the Congolese army before he joined the Mai Mai Cheka militia, does not dispute that rape took place but he blames the FDLR, a largely Rwandan Hutu militia, for it. “I am innocent and no one from my group raped,” he says. “It was all the work of the FDLR.”
As a way of bolstering his claims of innocence, Mayele argues that codes of honour adopted by the Mai Mai, loosely connected Congolese militias who tap into local customs and superstitions as a way to inspire fighters, forbid rape. “I am a true Mai Mai and we have rules. You cannot be with a woman who is not yours. Otherwise you will lose your special powers and capabilities.”
A US study last year concluded that 1,152 women are raped every day in Congo, a rate equal to 48 per hour. The highest frequency of rape was found in North Kivu, the province most affected by eastern Congo's smouldering conflict. Mayele, however, is nonchalant. “Rape is a weapon for men to use,” he shrugs. Later he even suggests sexual violence is inevitable when fighters spend months in the mountains and forests without seeing a woman.
He also accuses NGOs of exaggerating the problem, and claims women are paid $10 to say they were raped.
Prosecutor Christophe Mputu Mpendi says plans are afoot to hold a hearing for Mayele's case in Walikale so that witnesses can testify against him there. But Mayele is not the only one implicated in the Walikale attacks. Military authorities have issued seven other arrest warrants for crimes against humanity, including for sexual violence, and other serious crimes, against Ntabo Ntaberi Cheka, leader of the Mai Mai militia that bears his name and under whom Mayele served; two FDLR rebel commanders; and four Congolese army deserters.
Apart from Mayele, however, no other arrests have been made. In a blatant example of Congo's culture of impunity, Cheka himself, who handed over Mayele to the UN in what some suspect was a bid to shield himself from prosecution, openly campaigned as candidate for parliamentary elections in late November. The UN Security Council recently added Cheka to its sanctions list, subjecting him to a travel ban and assets freeze. Yet still he operates freely, infuriating rights groups.
“If the Congolese government is serious about ending sexual violence, then it needs to demonstrate the political will to arrest those implicated in mass rape,” said Anneke van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch.