How have we got to a place in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo where more than 150 women can be gang-raped by rebels in a four-day brutal attack only an hour’s drive from a UN base? It is traumatising simply reading the accounts, reported only this week, of what happened to ordinary people in a series of villages in Luvungi in the eastern part of the country at the beginning of the month.
The often understandable reaction to such extreme violence is to take a deep breath and shake one’s head in disbelief. The response of all us should be extreme anger and outrage at such atrocities. This is not a one-off event outside of human understanding.
Rather, outrageous human rights abuses are a daily reality for many people in eastern Congo, but they are preventable if there were the serious political will to stop them.
Last year alone, 15,000 women and girls were raped in DRC, with many more sex attacks going unreported. More than 150 women in four days or 15,000 in one year? These are numbers that have somehow been normalised in this long-running crisis, one of the worst humanitarian emergencies in the world.
Since early 2009, the emphasis for the UN Mission and the Congolese army has been on its military offensive against the rebels accused of perpetrating this most recent attack. Protection of local communities at risk of rape has not reached the top of the agenda; in fact, the military operations have put ordinary people at greater risk of attack.
An Oxfam survey released in July this year found that women overwhelmingly felt less safe than last year, in large part due to widespread rape. In the survey, of 816 people living in 24 communities in eastern Congo, 60 per cent of those surveyed felt security had deteriorated, with women and boys feeling particularly at risk.
The uses of an army
While the UN investigation into the Luvungi attack announced this week is a positive move, the scale of this incident must be the final wake-up call to the rest of the world. More, much more, must be done by all to improve security for Congolese children, women and men.
Ordinary people are bearing the brunt of the conflict because of a basic failure by those who have the responsibility to protect them. Today, that means the UN mission and tomorrow the Congolese army.
Improving security requires root-and-branch reforms to the national army and police force, institutions now in disarray. Soldiers lack training and discipline, while sections of the army are themselves perpetrators of widespread abuse, including sexual violence.
The people we work with tell us that the Congolese army is living in pitiful conditions — often deployed without rations, and with wages paid irregularly or stolen by commanders. Such living standards result in abuse and looting against citizens. All the communities surveyed by Oxfam said if soldiers were paid on time it would improve their security.
However, nothing can ever serve as an excuse for rape.
Only when accountable national security services, trained, paid, disciplined and supported, are deployed across the country will there be the possibility of a safe and secure DRC where people feel protected.
In the interim, the UN needs to do the job it’s been given: listening and responding to the security needs of ordinary Congolese people, getting boots on the ground, and working with the Congolese government to get the national army ready for securing peace and security in the long term.
The world must realise that deep suffering is happening every day for ordinary Congolese, and it has to stop.
Marcel Stoessel is Oxfam’s country director for the Democratic Republic of Congo.