Seeking justice for victims of rape in Minova, DRC (VIDEO)

by Elaisha Stokes 

Editor’s note: This story is the first in a Special Report titled “Laws of Men: Legal systems that fail women.” This year-long series looks at the breakdown in legal systems created to protect women’s rights around the world, and begins in the Congo at an unprecedented rape trial. The woman featured in this video, who in the courtroom is referred to only as ‘F64,’ has bravely decided to share her story. The alleged victim and GlobalPost have considered the ramifications of showing her face on camera, and we have been careful to protect her identity to whatever extent possible.

MINOVA, Congo — When she entered the courtroom, it was mostly empty. Visitors were not permitted inside, as the testimony was considered sensitive. The prosecutors sat on one side, the defense on the other — both facing a row of judges dressed in full military uniform. In the corner, the woman referred to only as ‘F64,’ could see all 39 of the accused soldiers through a black veil draped over her face.

“I know it’s a soldier who raped me,” disclosed ‘F64,’ a code name used in court that is meant to conceal her identity. All of the women who testify before the court are given a code name, and wear veils to protect their identities. “I can’t tell you which soldier raped me. But I know that I saw the military uniform.” Even at night, in the dark, she explained, the uniform of the Congolese army is unmistakable.

The ongoing trial about the events in Minova is the first of its kind for the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is the first time the Congolese government has taken financial responsibility for running the judiciary process in war-related rape cases such as these. There are 39 defendants on trial before the military court, including 28 low-ranking infantry and 11 senior military officers and commanders. The case is the largest rape trial in the country’s history.

Since 1998, when war first erupted in the east, rape has been used as a weapon of war against Congolese women. In 2008 the United Nations security council passed resolution 1820, declaring that “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide,” in part as a response to the ongoing conflict in the DRC.

But rape in the DRC is more than just a problem of war. A report released last month by the United Nations human right’s office in Congo estimated that, in the last four years, 3,600 people had become victims of sexual violence. Another estimate claims that as many as 46 women are raped every hour in the DRC. Despite unprecedented political attention, impunity remains common.

The current proceedings, supported by the American Bar Association (ABA) Rule of Law Initiative (ROLI), aim to establish what happened in 2012, when Congolese soldiers allegedly committed mass rapes against the women of Minova. Since 2008, the ABA has been involved, to varying degrees, in most of the sexual violence courts that have occurred in the country. While a ruling is expected on May 5, difficulties with collecting evidence and getting some of the accused to appear before the court has complicated the trial, according to advocates from the ABA.

In November of 2012, the M23 rebel movement took the provincial capital of Goma in North Kivu, located in the eastern region of the DRC. Thousands of Congolese soldiers, known as the FARDC — a French acronym for Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo — fled south to the town of Minova.

When they arrived, villagers allege, they raped the local women and pillaged whatever they could get their hands on. After pressure from the international community, the Congolese government organized a military court to determine exactly what happened and who was responsible.

It’s impossible to know precisely how many women were raped in Minova.

In Congo, speaking about rape is considered shameful, so many women choose to suffer in silence. Lawyers for the ABA office in Congo suggested that the number of victims in Minova could be as high as 1,000. A report released by the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC, known as MONUSCO, stated that “at least 102 women and 33 girls were victims of rape or other acts of sexual violence perpetrated by FARDC soldiers.” To date, the court has heard from just 56 women—those whose cases have been deemed most likely to result in a conviction, based on the evidence that was collected and their willingness to testify before the court.

“You must always look for a strategy,” explained Maitre Nadine Saiba, a lawyer who works with the ABA in Goma. “You can’t defend someone without her participation.” Women who testify as victims or witnesses are subject to intense cross-examination from the military judge, which they must be prepared to withstand. The prosecution spent almost one year interviewing and re-interviewing witnesses and victims in Minova to gather evidence for the trial, an expensive process funded primarily by the ABA. “Victims who have a strong story, those who do not have fear to speak before the court, they are the ones who pass before the court.”

The Minova case is considered unprecedented in the fight for justice for women in Congo. Last year in Mupoke, a town to the south of Minova, only one soldier stood accused of rape. The others fled before the trial started.

“Given the situation here in the DRC, I think a strong message is important,” said Guy Makonga, the head of mission for the ABA in the DRC. “But exactly what that message is, I’m not able to say.”

The camp for internally displaced people, where the woman known as F64 lives, rests about a mile down the road from Minova’s town center. Tents fashioned from plastic tarps and wooden thatch sit along a river that empties into Lake Kivu. F64 arrived in this camp many years ago, fleeing the conflict in neighboring Masisi. It was supposed to be a fresh start.

But on November 22, 2012, F64 heard gunshots in the distance. She was aware of rumors that there was trouble in Goma and the military was retreating. Her husband begged her to run with him, but she was certain the safest place was right where they were.

“I thought the soldiers would not come into an IDP camp,” she explained. “They know we are poor. Why would they come here?”

By 8 p.m. the soldiers had arrived in the camp speaking Lingala, a language not common to the region, and one that distinguished them from the local rebel groups. They entered many of the small huts, taking rice and maize when they could find it. F64 waited in quiet terror until two soldiers entered her hut. She didn’t have anything left to give them, and so, she said, one of the soldiers raped her.

“He said he needed to put his baby in my body,” she whispered.

F64 was two months pregnant at the time.

The other women who have testified before the Minova court all tell a similar story. They are seeking justice from a government that has in the past turned a blind eye to sexual violence cases. Prior to the Congolese government’s decision to stage trials, American interests had lobbied hard to make prosecuting sexual violence a priority.

Last year, US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, met with Congolese authorities.

“The Congolese people have for years been the victims of armed groups who have been killing and raping their way through eastern Congo,” Power told Reuters, referring specifically to the events in Minova. “The government must show it practices what it preaches by punishing those officers and soldiers responsible.”

MONUSCO threatened to pull its support for the 41st and 391st battalions, both of which included soldiers who were accused of rape in the Minova case. According to the US Africa Command website, the unit responsible to the US Secretary of Defense for military relations with African countries, the 391st battalion was trained by the United States in 2010.

For its part, the Congolese military has avoided the media. Repeated attempts to reach military officers for comment were denied. One commander who stands accused before the court confirmed that there was panic among the rank and file.

“This is not the first time the FARDC has been accused of these crimes. It’s embarrassing. And in some cases, it’s not true,” he said.

What makes the case in Minova difficult is that the alleged crimes were perpetrated at night, and there is little evidence to link victims to perpetrators. Some victims recall details of their attackers – a missing thumb, a scar on the face. But for the most part, the only thing about which they are certain is that the perpetrator was a member of the Congolese army.

Traditionally, women in the Congo and throughout Africa have been reluctant to report cases of sexual violence. That means that collecting evidence through western methods, such as original hospital records or rape kits, is unusual. In Minova, as in much of eastern Congo, there were no hospitals near the scene of the attack. With limited financial resources and continued stigma, many victims waited days to be transported to a local clinic to receive medical attention, evidence of which might also be useful in these kinds of trials.

The initial identification of the perpetrators by the military court was based primarily on the alleged perpetrators’ absence from a military roll call following the retreat of FARDC troops from Goma. Those who were present at the roll call were considered innocent. Those who were absent are now in prison, awaiting an outcome to the trial. The prosecution of these individuals is based on witness and victim testimony, as well as available evidence.

“The lower rank officers are in prison,” explained Saiba, the lawyer for the prosecution.

There was fear that the officers would flee, as was the case in Mupoke, and there would be no trial.

“But the military officers who stand accused, they are free,” Saiba added.

Saiba has been working on building a case for the Minova trial since December of 2012, first collecting evidence and then representing victims in court. Convincing the free military officers to show up has proved challenging. Violence continues in much of eastern Congo, and the government wants the officers on the front lines to fight. Saiba and her colleagues were concerned about their absence in the courtroom. They questioned how there could be justice if the accused were not required to attend the trial. They brought the matter before the court.

“The court responded that they will be arrested if they don’t come to testify,” explained Saiba. The ideal situation would be to have all officers attend of their own free will. “We’ve been sensitizing them,” Saiba added.

At a recent hearing, all officers were present. It remains to be seen how the court will address absent commanders during the verdict.

To date, all of the major sexual violence trials have been conducted by the FARDC’s military courts, where the accused are always its soldiers, although it’s widely acknowledged that mass rape war crimes are regularly committed by the various rebel groups in the region, as well. Three Congolese rebels have been charged with sexual violence at the International Criminal Court in the Hague; so far, none have been convicted.

A recent report by the United Nations stated that in the 18 months from July 2011 to December 2013, there were 187 convictions by military courts for sexual violence. Of the convictions, 136 were from the army but only three were senior officers, 47 were from other state bodies, and just four were from rebel groups.

These kinds of figures have led some to argue that the court, by focusing so strongly on Minova, has unfairly targeted the Congolese military while doing little to prosecute other incidences of sexual violence.

Makongo insists this is not the case.

“We don’t have a special target,” he said. “We are working for rule of law. We are supporting the rule of law. We are fighting against sexual violence and impunity.”

But just another mile down the road from F64’s camp there is a rape crisis center where leaders say women outside of Minova have not been extended due process as generously.

“The government takes seriously what happened in Minova,” said Gilbert Mudumbe, the crisis center’s program manager. “But for other women, accessing justice is not easy.”

Mudumbe pulled out a blue book thick with names of women who had come to the center from the Minova area. Just the day before, another woman had come to this office, looking for support after she was raped. They sent her to the general hospital in Minova, but resources to assist in other ways were tight.

Twenty-one year old Desange Malimingi, who works as a trainer at the rape crisis center, said she arrived at the center many years ago, after rebels raped her and killed the rest of her family. The event left her with a child, who she lives with at the crisis center. She said that she wanted to see her perpetrators brought to justice but there wasn’t enough support.

“When we see this situation,” she explained, referring to the attention bestowed on the Minova trial, “it makes our heart break. We want to know why the government is only interested in these dates for justice. Are we not victims too? Where is our justice?”

But Makonga, from the ABA, does not accept the argument that there is no justice for women in Congo.

“We have received over 15,000 persons looking for justice in our legal aid clinic,” he said.

“We are not only working on the Minova trial. We have a number of initiatives that address the issues of sexual violence every day,” Makonga added.

Even with the substantial international attention that the Minova process has received, conviction is not guaranteed.

In March, the International Criminal Court was unable to convict infamous Congolese warlord Germain Katanga of sexual crimes, even after the court acknowledged that there was “sufficient evidence to establish substantial grounds,” that rape as a war crime and sexual slavery were committed by persons under his command. Katanga would have been the first warlord to receive a conviction on charges of sexual crimes.

In the past, the general public was in support of these kinds of trials. Congolese have always been suspect of their army at best, and victims at worst. But since the military defeated the M23 rebels, that support has dwindled, as people celebrate the success of the FARDC.

In Minova, a group of men sat on the steps of the post office, overlooking Lake Kivu, following the trial closely.

“Many women were raped here,” said one young man in a yellow shirt. He didn’t want to give his name – conversations about what happened in November of 2012 remain sensitive. “We don’t understand why this process is moving so slowly. I think the state will forgive them. If this happens, it will put all our victims and witnesses at risk.”

“We live with the FARDC,” said one of the other men. “It’s the only army we have. We wish the police would protect us instead, but they won’t. We hate the FARDC for what they did to this town.”

A third man expressed distrust.

“The court doesn’t have the real story,” he said. “It’s a military court, and many witnesses don’t trust it. They’re afraid, and so they don’t testify. We might never know what really happened in Minova.”

A verdict is expected May 5th.

Elaisha Stokes is a 2014 International Women’s Media Foundation Reporting Fellow in the Democratic Republic of Congo.