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Congo rape victims are getting help

The high school senior was walking home when a local businessman, standing outside a hotel he owned, asked her to step into his office. Inside, she said, he raped her.

Now, this 17-year-old is doing something very few Congolese women have dared: She’s pressing criminal charges.

“I expect justice and want him sent to prison,” said the teenager, whose name and that of the man she accuses have been withheld for her protection. “My hope is that he will not do this to other girls.”

More than a decade of civil war and lawlessness in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have left the region with one of the world’s worst records for sexual violence against women. In fact, rape has become an increasingly common tool of war, used by virtually every rebel militia and even government soldiers to terrorize civilians and punish enemies.

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Until a couple of years ago, rape was barely considered a crime in the region’s corrupt, male-dominated justice system, where the accused often bribe their way out of trouble for just $10. Most fighters, whether government soldiers or guerrillas, simply walked away from their crimes.

Rape victims faced public shame, divorce and abandonment while their attackers sometimes returned to rape their victims again.

Now, a small number of legal clinics and aid groups, including one opened this year by the American Bar Assn., are striving to end Congo’s climate of impunity by putting rapists behind bars.

Their work is a drop in the bucket so far, with just a few dozen cases, compared with the thousands of rapes over the last 10 years. But there are promising early signs of change, including a military prosecutor who has doubled the number of rape charges against soldiers in the last three years and the 17-year-old girl who is facing down one of Goma’s leading businessmen.

“It’s slow, but we are seeing an increase in women coming to us for help,” said Mathieu Ndongo-Koni, director of the ABA’s gender-based violence clinic in Goma.

Along with the rebels, Congo’s unpaid and undisciplined soldiers account for much of the problem.

Upoki Kandoni, 29, sat recently in Goma’s central prison, accused of getting drunk after clashes with rebels and raping a woman in a displacement camp on the outskirts of town. He has a wife and child in a village 200 miles away, “but here I’m single,” he said.

More than anything, he appeared bewildered to be sitting in jail. Rape is common, he said, but punishment is rare. “As far as I know, I’m the first to be accused.”

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At first he claimed to remember nothing about the attack because he was drunk. Then he insisted that the woman had consented to sex in exchange for $2. Finally, he confessed to the rape.

“I don’t know what to say,” he said, his voice drifting off into an almost inaudible whisper. “Since that day I have no peace. I know it’s bad, but if God can help me get out of this prison, I will never do it again.”

Kandoni faces up to 20 years in jail, said Jean Blaise Bwa-Mulundu, the military prosecutor. This year Bwa-Mulundu has filed 33 rape cases against soldiers, which he hopes will serve as a deterrent.

Ndongo-Koni’s legal clinic has filed 35 cases since opening in the spring, with an additional 160 complaints pending. Ndongo-Koni, a former United Nations human rights officer in the Darfur region of Sudan, also tried Rwandan genocide suspects at the international tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania. Now, he is bringing international legal standards to the group’s quickly growing caseload.

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Medical exams are used to provide evidence of forced sexual contact. There’s no DNA lab, but occasionally traces of the attacker’s blood link him to the assault.

The legal unit set up an office at the town’s major hospital to advise women about their rights. It conducts seminars in major towns to educate and sensitize judges, attorneys and police investigators.

Another local charity, Justice Restoration for the Democratic Republic of Congo, is targeting rural areas that have no courthouses. The group this month plans to set up a mobile courtroom in a remote village north of Goma, paying to bring in judges and attorneys for one month to prosecute 14 rape cases against soldiers.

Prosecutions of sexual assault cases have been aided by a 2006 federal law. Among other things, the law doubled the usual maximum sentence to 20 years and provided for life sentences under special circumstances. Rape investigations were given priority, to be completed within three months.

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Sex between an adult and a girl or boy younger than 18, even if consensual, is also now considered rape and subject to the same penalties.

Some judges and attorneys criticized the law, which was copied from an international model of best practices in various Western countries. Critics said it conflicts with existing Congolese statutes, such as one that permits girls to marry at age 15.

“It’s a law that was imported,” said Floribert Kimanuka, a judge in Goma. “The law presents many contradictions with realities on the ground.”

Instead of capturing violent rapists, he said, many of the cases he is now seeing involve young couples in which the girl is younger than 18. Many of the girls resist pressing charges against their boyfriends, but often parents insist in hopes of winning a cash settlement.

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“Generally it’s just for the money,” Kimanuka said.

He added that he thought Congolese women shared some of the blame for the increase in sexual attacks because they “walk around today wearing almost nothing.”

Such comments exemplify how far Congo’s courts have to go, said Justine Masika Bihamba, who runs a rape counseling group in Goma.

“Congolese justice is sick,” she said.

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Under the current system, victims must pay for justice: $5 to file a case, $10 for the investigation and $35 for the hearing. If victims win a cash settlement, they are required to first pay the government 15% of the award before the government will enforce collection. Since many victims are too poor to pay upfront, they never collect their settlements, she said.

Bihamba said pursuing court cases is crucial to holding rapists responsible and giving women a sense of vindication.

“Psychologically, it’s a comfort,” she said. “Women are treated like objects, so the rapists deserve to be treated in the same way.”

Her group and others are also working to bring more women into the justice system. The ABA-funded clinic has scholarships for 10 women getting their law degrees in Goma.

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Wivine Sitala Kingombe, 26, graduated two years ago and focuses entirely on sexual violence. Most often she’s still the only woman in court, but she said she has an advantage.

“Victims trust me more because I’m a woman,” she said. “And I feel more engaged and committed to the work.”

She expressed optimism that attitudes are changing. In one case, she is representing a 5-year-old girl allegedly molested by a 65-year-old soldier. After reviewing the case, the judges, on their own accord, increased the charge from “attempted rape” to “rape.”

But the 17-year-old girl is still waiting for her day in court. Because she’s underage, the case should be open-and-shut. She said she found out a couple of months ago that she’s pregnant from the attack.

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But local police are reluctant to confront the businessman, who reportedly bought his way out of a similar rape charge involving another girl, her attorney said.

She said she’s not giving up, even though her family has kicked her out, saying they can’t afford to help raise the baby.

“I was rejected by everybody,” she said. “But there is strength in justice.”

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edmund.sanders@latimes.com


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