Infrequently Asked Questions

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Mon Nov 1, 2010

Paula Donovan Answers Infrequently Asked Questions: Mass Rapes in the Congo Made the Headlines in August

By Paula Donovan

What distinguished that atrocity from the vicious, relentless rape of Congolese women throughout the conflict?

ANSWER: Media attention. That’s all.

The tragic truth is that nothing else was unusual. The UN has been failing to protect women against rape ever since peacekeeping operations were established in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Eleven years into the $1-million-per-day mission, the UN itself describes the country as the worst place in the world to be a woman, and that’s an assessment based on details of unimaginable rapes that are sent to UN headquarters with bone-chilling regularity. But it wasn’t until August 2010 that the Secretary-General switched into emergency mode – entirely in reaction to global media reports that, unbeknownst to peacekeeping units stationed nearby, hundreds of civilians had been raped during a 4-day-long militia attack in North Kivu province’s Walikale region. Suddenly energized by public scrutiny, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon first dispatched his second-ranking peacekeeping official to the area, and then sent a Special Representative (both delivered to the interior by UN helicopters that were nowhere to be seen during the militia invasions), with a list of questions falling under the heading “What went wrong?”, including:

Are media reports true: was the UN aware that the area was under siege, and did they send text messages on the first day warning staff and NGOs to avoid the area – texts that specifically mentioned rape?

With peacekeepers stationed in the immediate area precisely because it was a region in imminent danger, and soldiers posted within one day’s journey at most, why didn’t the UN move to protect the civilians at any time during the four-day attack?

But the most important questions – the ones that must be asked about the UN’s overall failure to fulfill its civilian protection mandate in the Congo at any time, rather than simply during this one horrible but representative case – still aren’t being asked.

During any four-day period in the DRC, an average of 184 rapes will be reported.  The word “reported” cannot be over-emphasized: by all accounts, the 17,000 rapes reported in 2009 were a small fraction of the rapes committed.

The fact that the mass rapes in Walikale were designated “breaking news” by the media because they occurred en masse should be irrelevant to the UN. The attack in Walikale was not unique. The strategic use of rape by various militias terrorizing the area was not unexpected. The attacks were not more brutal or serious than the conflict-driven, strategic rapes committed every single day.

For the hundreds of thousands of eastern Congo civilians whose pasts include being raped during the tenure of the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission, the political categories of the crimes perpetrated against them don’t make a big difference. A woman brutalized on her way to the marketplace a week before the mass attack did not bleed less, suffer less, fear less or sustain less damage to her mind, body and spirit because she was alone when it happened. She will feel – and should feel – that she is also a victim of 'crimes against humanity', and as much a part of a widespread group subjected to planned, systematic sexual crimes as the villagers nearby who were raped within sight of one another and suffered en masse. She will feel – and should feel – that her own solitary ordeal, along with the ordeals of hundreds of thousands raped before her, and the constant terror experienced by all who live in wait should have spurred the UN to send high-ranking officials to ask their investigative questions long ago: What is going wrong? Where are we failing? How can we prevent more rapes?

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