Jeffrey Gettleman / The New York Times – 2010-10-05 01:02:18
LUVUNGI, Democratic Republic of Congo (October 3, 2010) — Four armed men barged into Anna Mburano’s hut, slapped the children and threw them down. They flipped Mrs. Mburano on her back, she said, and raped her, repeatedly.
It did not matter that dozens of United Nations peacekeepers were based just up the road. Or that Mrs. Mburano is around 80 years old.
“Grandsons!” she yelled. “Get off me!”
As soon as they finished, they moved house to house, along with hundreds of other marauding rebels, gang-raping at least 200 women.
What happened in this remote, thatched-roof village on July 30 and continued for at least three more days has become a searing embarrassment for the United Nations mission in Congo. Despite more than 10 years of experience and billions of dollars, the peacekeeping force still seems to be failing at its most elemental task: protecting civilians.
The United Nations’ blue-helmets are considered the last line of defense in eastern Congo, given that the nation’s own army has a long history of abuses, that the police are often invisible or drunk and that the hills are teeming with rebels.
But many critics contend that nowhere else in the world has the United Nations invested so much and accomplished so little. What happened in Luvungi, with nearby peacekeepers failing to respond to a village under siege, is similar to a massacre in Kiwanja in 2008, when rebels killed 150 people within earshot of a United Nations base.
“Congo is the UN’s crowning failure,” said Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, whose advocacy group, V-Day, has been working with Congolese women for years.
She blamed poor management, bad communication and racism. “If the women being raped were the daughters or wives or mothers of the power elites,” she said, “I can promise you this war would have ended about 12 years ago.”
United Nations officials admitted that the peacekeepers failed to respond fast enough to Luvungi, though they said the primary responsibility fell on the Congolese Army, which continues to be in grievous disarray.
“I felt personally guilty and guilty toward the people I met there,” said Atul Khare, the assistant secretary general for peacekeeping, who recently visited Luvungi. “They told me, ‘We’ve been raped, we’ve been brutalized, give us peace and security.’ Unfortunately, I said, that is something I cannot promise.”
Within peacekeeping circles, Congo is becoming known as “the African equivalent of Afghanistan,” said Annika Hilding-Norberg, a director at the Peace Operations Training Institute in Virginia, because of the conflict’s enduring violence and complexity.
Luvungi, a village of about 2,000 people, is a crucible where so many of Congo’s intractable problems converged: the scramble for minerals; the fragmentation of rebel groups; the perverse incentives among armed groups to commit atrocities to bolster their negotiating strength; the poverty that keeps villages cut off and incommunicado; and the disturbing fact that in Congoâ€™s wars, the battleground is often women’s bodies. United Nations officials call the sexual violence in Congo the worst in the world.
A sense of menace hangs over this entire area, even the government-controlled outposts.
And people in the Luvungi area are now taking no chances. After the rapes, the United Nations set up a small base here, and just the presence of 20 or so peacekeepers in an abandoned mud-walled cinema draws countless refugees from surrounding areas to camp out at night around them.
During escorted trips to markets, thousands of villagers trudge up the hills behind a handful of Indian peacekeepers in trucks, begging the peacekeepers to drive “pole, pole” — or “slowly, slowly” — so as not to leave the slightest gap or opportunity for armed men to drop down from the jungle wall.
This area is spectacularly rich in gold, tin ore and fertile land, which is partly why it has been so bitterly contested by rebel groups and renegade army divisions. Surging brown rivers slice through the jungle, which is decorated with pink hibiscus flowers and birds of paradise. Rumbling up a road here is like driving through a greenhouse.
In mid-July, the Congolese Army contingent stationed in Luvungi suddenly pulled out, leaving the people here unguarded. The United Nations later learned that the soldiers had marched off to Bisie, where there is a huge tin ore mine — and illegal taxes to be extorted.
“This place was a total void,” said Maj. Radha Krishnan, an Indian peacekeeper.
Shortly after the rapes that month, the government ordered mines in eastern Congo temporarily closed, to starve armed groups of income. But the government does not control many of the mines or, for that matter, much of the area.
“The government’s able to dominate only the road,” explained Lt. Col. R. D. Sharma. “The rest,” he said, sweeping his hand over the treetops, “is the negative forces.”
The negative forces stormed into Luvungi on Friday, July 30, around 8 p.m. According to United Nations reports there were around 300 men, a mix of Rwandan rebels who have been terrorizing eastern Congo for years and fighters from a new Congolese rebel group, Mai Mai Cheka, which has been vying for attention as the government tries to absorb more rebels into the army.
Paradoxically enough, the effort to integrate certain rebel groups into the Congolese Army — intended to help stabilize the region — may have supplied a motivation for the rapes, analysts say. The more fearsome and powerful an armed group can appear, the more concessions it can extract in negotiations.
“These guys are trying to boost their ranks, to colonel or general,” said Lt. Hamisi Delfonte, a police officer in Walikale, about a two-hour drive from Luvungi.
The other day, several government soldiers suddenly unshouldered their rifles, clicked off their safeties and started chasing a man in camouflage pants through the middle of town. All heads swiveled in the same direction. Children broke away. “They’re going to kill that guy,” someone said.
But the soldiers did not shoot, and it was soon clear why. The fleeing man was an army major who had just pulled the pin on his grenade. It all stemmed from a dispute over 50 cents. The man was eventually talked down and arrested.
The Indian peacekeepers at the base nearest Luvungi, in Kibua, about 11 miles away, said that they started hearing reports of an attack on the following Sunday, but that they had been tricked many times before. Often, truck drivers claim a certain area is under attack, the peacekeepers said, when in fact they simply want a United Nations escort to the next town to ensure that no one steals their minerals.
Because there is no cellphone service in the area or electricity, it is not always simple to know when there is an attack. The United Nations, which has around 18,000 peacekeepers in Congo, is now trying to install solar-powered high-frequency radios in some villages.
On Aug. 2, that Monday, the peacekeepers agreed to escort truck drivers through Luvungi. Indian officers said that they saw ripped-up mattresses and clothes strewn along the road — evidence of looting — but that the villagers did not say anything about mass rapes.
“Sometimes,” Colonel Sharma said, “the women here are ashamed to tell a soldier, especially a male soldier, that they’ve been raped. And we don’t have any female soldiers.”
Several women in Luvungi said that after they were raped, the rebels hollered into the night, as if they were celebrating. Mrs. Mburano lay bleeding on her floor, listening.
“I know, I still look sick,” she said, though her cloudy eyes tried to smile as she spoke. “Just a few vegetables, that’s all I’ve eaten, since I was demolished.”
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