The people of the Democratic Republic of Congo are strong, resourceful and resilient. Like the people of many other war zones, they live in the moment: they love to dance and have fun. They get on with their lives, displaced, insecure and volatile as they may be.
But insecure and volatile they are. Since 1998 more than six million people have been killed in an ongoing war in eastern Congo. Goma, the principal city of North Kivu province, has been called the rape capital of the world. At the height of the conflict, in 2006-7, 48 woman were being raped every hour.
Congo is one of the most resource-rich countries in the world, with coltan – a metallic mineral refined for use in electronics – gold, oil and diamonds. But despite this natural wealth it has been ravaged by war and dictatorship. There is a chronic lack of infrastructure. The harvest in Congo could theoretically provide food for all of central Africa, yet the country imports $1.3 billion in food.
My first trip to eastern Congo was in 2012. Since then I have interviewed more than 60 survivors of rape and more than 50 perpetrators, including high-ranking army commanders, foot soldiers and rebel leaders. The aim was to discover why these men had raped.
Most told me that they did not think they were doing anything wrong at the time. One former rebel told me that he had raped more than 50 women, sometimes whipping them with wire. He said: “We needed it. Our life was hell living up in those mountains.”
A 19-year-old man said he had joined the rebels at the age of 12 because his choice was to join the rebels or have his family’s crops stolen. At least as a rebel, he reasoned, he would have some status. He said his commanding officer ordered him to rape, so he did – many times. He said: “It became normal. At night you entered villages, stole food and raped. If she was good looking you brought her to the commander to rape.”
Another former rebel told me that he felt he had no value: “Our families were dead. It was like we were dead already.”
I met these young men in a camp for internally displaced people. They are also victims of war. Many have no families or education and had been recruited as child soldiers.
Rape victims who survived the ordeal had to deal with a different set of problems. They experienced not just the physical violence and violation of the rape itself but also a secondary impact: the stigma imposed on rape victims. Many told me that they were rejected by their families and husbands after they were raped.
A 16-year-old girl who was raped in a mass rape attack in the village of Minova, in South Kivu, in 2013 said, in tears, that her family was angry with her, that her mother had not spoken to her since she was raped by two soldiers. The girl was pregnant; it was not clear how she would cope once the child was born.
When I asked these women and children if they had reported their rapes to the police, they shrugged, one asking: “No, why? To get raped again?’’
In remote regions the roads are often impassable, and a 50km journey to a police station or to seek medical attention could take a day.
Many said they hadn’t the money to travel to report their rape and that if they had left home their families would have gone hungry while they were away.
Many rape victims in Congo do not report their rapes, creating a growing impunity.
In the region around the town of Beni, in late 2014, rebels from the Islamist Allied Democratic Forces-National Army Liberation of Uganda, or ADF-Nalu, killed local men, women and children with machetes. We were in one village that had been attacked when the community found the body of Jean-Paul, a father of five; his head had four deep machete wounds.
In its attacks ADF-Nalu has also abducted women and girls whom it forced into marriage or kept as sex slaves.
Rebecca Masika Katsuva, known as Mama Masika, ran an orphanage for unwanted children born as a result of rape, and a safe house for rape survivors.
She told me: “All men rape – even the police, pastors, rebels and soldiers. Everyone rapes.”
Masika, who died in February, was inspired to help other women as a result of having been raped herself. When she spoke out about the atrocities she was raped again, as punishment.
In 2012, 126 women and children were raped by Congolese soldiers in Minova, a small town across Lake Kivu from Goma. Masika’s safe house was attacked, and the rape survivors were raped again.
A year later the government held a trial in Minova: 48 men went on trial for rape; two were found guilty. Masika described it as an unfair trial. She said the government and the army should apologise to every woman in the country.
Dearbhla Glynn is a documentarymaker. Her film War Against Women in the Congo will be on TG4 on May 23rd, at 10.30pm
This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund