Last week I received a message from a colleague in eastern Congo. Sylvain wanted me to know that there had been a mass prison break and among the hundreds who’d escaped was a man we had interviewed three years ago. Sabre was a second lieutenant in the Congolese army before being stripped of his rank. He was the only person to be found guilty of rape as a war crime in a landmark trial in May 2014.
In November 2012, Congolese soldiers had gone on the rampage in the market town of Minova, nestling on the banks of lake Kivu. They’d been ordered to withdraw from the regional capital when Rwandan-backed rebels, the M23, attacked. Angry, frustrated, with few senior officers to control them, the troops had gone into civilians’ homes, raping and stealing. Figures vary but at least 76 women and children were raped over several days, the UN puts it much higher. It was well reported and brought international condemnation.
I have been filming in this area since 2009 and was making a feature documentary about a survivor of multiple rapes, Masika Katsuva, who had set up a centre close to Minova. She created a holistic programme for survivors – debriefing them, recording their testimony, taking them to the hospital as well as encouraging them to testify should a trial take place. This was always difficult she told me: “You prepare the victim through counselling. You tell them that life is worth living, worth forgiving. Only to see, within a week, the rapist back on the streets again.” Sadly, Katsuva died last year.
In eastern Congo, an area that’s experienced war, conflict and fighting for more than 20 years, a culture of impunity has prevailed. But with such a bright light shining on the region after the Minova rapes, people thought a chance had arisen to change this culture and impose the rule of law.
I returned to eastern Congo to find out what had happened and met *Rachel. She had identified Sabre as the man who raped her. She told me she’d tried to stop him, telling him: “You are no different from my father, I can’t have sex with you”. But he hit her, beating her to the floor and then raped her for over half an hour. During the attack she had noticed that he was missing his thumb.
The next day she courageously went to report the rape and was taken to the nearest army base. The commanding officer (CO) lined up all the troops and she was told to look for the perpetrator. He wasn’t there but then she saw him trying to hide behind a wall. He was the man missing a thumb plus he had a bottle of her moisturiser in his pocket. He was arrested.
Some soldiers agreed to talk to me about why they had raped in Minova. One young man in his early 20s had an innocent, unmarked round face. He showed no trace of remorse, and provocatively told me: “When we rape we feel free”. The men I spoke to claimed they had raped after their COs had ordered them to. One CO allegedly ordered his men to surround him to protect him from stray gunfire while he raped a teenage girl.
The end of a culture of impunity?
When the trial was announced in 2013 and investigations began, expectations ran high. Could this be an end to the culture of impunity that women like Katsuva were so despairing of? Thirty nine soldiers, including 14 officers, were put on trial for a number of charges including the war crimes of rape, pillage, rape as an ordinary crime and various military offences.
Immediately both the prosecution and defence were faced with immense difficulties. Originally the trial was going to be held in Minova, where the crimes had taken place. But there was nowhere for the accused to be held overnight and they were forced to sleep in the prison van; there were no funds to pay for the judges’ petrol to get them to Minova and, like the prisoners, nowhere for them to stay. After 10 days, the trial was relocated back to Goma, putting huge stress on the witnesses. This was intensified when many of the women and later the prosecution team received death threats. The witnesses testified anonymously but Rachel had been paraded in front of all the soldiers, including Sabre. She was known.
During the trial, the region was still facing conflict and the senior officers accused of failing to keep their troops under control were deployed to the frontline. They never had to appear in court. After 40 days of hearings over five months, and with more than 1,000 people participating in testimony, the verdict was announced. Only two out of the 39 defendants were found guilty of rape and only one for rape as war crime. Second Lieutenant Sabre. He was sentenced to life imprisonment despite continuing to protest his innocence.
Now it seems he has escaped and has been spotted in the area where he committed the crime. Rachel has fled, fearful he will find her. There are many others. No one knows how many people – women, children, babies and men – have been raped in Congo. It’s estimated to be hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of people.
Joanna Roper, the newly-appointed special envoy for gender equality, tells me that the British government is very committed to the Prevention of Sexual Violence Initiative and has allocated £40m to support projects in 26 countries. The protocol first launched at the summit hosted by William Hague and Angelina Jolie in 2014 was revised earlier this year. It sets an international standard to provide a framework to gather evidence which will support prosecutions and reduce the level of impunity. “Congo is very much on our radar,” she says.
Yet what difference has it made to the hundreds of thousands of survivors, brutalised for the rest of their life? How does Rachel feel, hiding in the forest, fearful that the man she identified as her rapist will find her? I’m not convinced that this initiative has made a real difference on the ground in places like eastern Congo. I hope I am wrong.
Congo is a failed state, where impunity has become the rule not the rule of law. It is facing huge challenges as President Kabila refuses to step down, fails to call an election yet continues to plunder this country, a country rich with resources of both minerals and people, full of courage and resilience. Yet we rarely hear the voices of these women who are extraordinary survivors. When I go to commissioning editors they are unanimous in refusing the story because it’s “too bleak”. But they’re missing the point. These people are survivors, resilient even when they meet their perpetrator. Just for a moment today spare a thought for them. Let their voices be heard.