Ten years after it was ordered to make reparations to victims of mass rape, DRC’s government still hasn’t paid a cent.
- By Lauren WolfeLauren Wolfe is a journalist and director of Women Under Siege, a journalism project on sexualized violence based at the Women's Media Center in New York.
In 20 years of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, reports of mass rape have become depressingly commonplace — and so has the utter lack of justice for the women being violated. Which is why a 2006 decision by a court in Congo’s northeastern Equateur province to pay reparations to at least some of the victims of a mass rape that occurred in a place called Songo Mboyo came as such welcome news to so many.
But what at first appeared to be a chance for actual healing in a country grappling with deep physical and psychological scars ultimately proved to be the worst kind of bait and switch.
On the night of Dec. 21, 2003, former rebel forces awaiting integration into the national army rose up against their commanders, who had not paid the men their full salaries. The former rebels looted houses and attacked women across Songo Mboyo and in the nearby village of Bongandanga. At least 119 women were raped, some reportedly children.
“They were heavily armed,” one survivor told a U.N. panel on remedies and reparations for victims of sexual violence in Congo that reported to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights. The victim continued:
“I begged them not to kill me. They told me to take off my clothes. My son was crying. They threw me down on the bed and tore off all my clothes. I was naked, and they started to rape me. They smelled of alcohol, and they were drunk. They did many bad things. I don’t know how many there were, there were so many. When they started I knew there were three but then I lost consciousness. There was another woman, and they were raping her. She was two months pregnant, and after the rape she lost her baby. All the women in the village were facing the same thing at that time.”
It would take more than three years, but eventually a military court convicted seven men for the rapes committed that day, handing them life in prison in what was the first instance in which Congolese military men were found guilty of crimes against humanity, as defined by the Rome Statute.
And there was more good news for victims in this case: The court ordered damages to be paid to 29 of the 119 women — something that rarely happens in Congo. They would get $5,000 each, and $10,000 would go to the mother of a woman whose daughter died after being raped while eight months pregnant.
Ten years later, however, damages in the Songo Mboyo case have not been paid to any of the victims. And, even worse, no monetary reparations have been paid out to any woman who received court-ordered payments in any case of rape in Congo — ever.
Cases of rape in North and South Kivu, both in eastern Congo, also resulted in court-ordered payments of reparations to victims in 2012, according to Julienne Lusenge, head of Female Solidarity for Integrated Peace and Development (SOFEPADI), a coalition of Congolese women’s rights groups. But the ministries of budget, finance, and justice — all of which must sign off on reparations to rape victims — have dragged their feet on the payouts, alternately requesting additional copies of court orders and disputing their veracity, Lusenge said. The ministries of budget and justice have even protested that they can’t pay, saying they don’t have the money. One participant damningly told the U.S.-based advocacy organization Physicians for Human Rights in a 2014 roundtable discussion: One “can’t eat judgments.”
But it gets worse.
After years of negotiations within the ministries of justice and finance in Kinshasa to get a total of $155,000 to the Songo Mboyo survivors, the payments were finally authorized in September 2014.
And then they were paid out to the wrong people.
A lawyer named Me Paulin Kamba, who had never represented the victims of Songo Mboyo, forged power-of-attorney documents on behalf of the victims so that he appeared to be their counsel, according to Track Impunity Always (TRIAL), a Geneva-based NGO that fights against impunity in crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other major cases. Thirty fake “victims” presented themselves to collect payments from the government — and no one batted an eye, it seems, that all 30 had lost their identity cards.
It is perhaps indicative of the incompetence of the Congolese justice system that these payments never reached their intended recipients. But it also reflects the total lack of regard the government has shown the victims of its wars. For while it has consistently treated survivors of sexual assault as afterthoughts, often claiming it doesn’t have the funds to help them, the Congolese government has spent lavishly on bizarre attempts to make itself look good in the eyes of the world.
Take the office of President Joseph Kabila’s advisor on sexualized violence and child recruitment, which declined to respond to specific questions about the Songo Mboyo case. Speaking on behalf of the advisor, Jeanine Mabunda, spokeswoman Gladys Mambulu said that payment of reparations “is an issue which we remain committed to addressing” and that “our office is working to address the many logistical and bureaucratic challenges presented by the reparations.”
But while Mabunda’s office hasn’t secured a single payout for rape victims, it somehow managed to pay a Washington PR firm called KRL International to represent it for three months in 2015. The cost of burnishing its reputation in the United States while doing nothing to address the plight of rape victims back home? $20,000 for a three-month retainer plus $20,000 in expenses, according to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act archives, as reported by Jason Stearns, a former member of the U.N. Group of Experts on Congo. It also paid another shiny Washington PR firm called Crescent Consultants an undisclosed amount to represent it for a year beginning in mid-2014. Previously, in 2009, Mabunda paid Crescent Consultants, $290,000 for a year of work while she was minister of state-run companies, also according to the contract obtained by Stearns.
It appears that all Crescent Consultants did for Mabunda was reach out to media houses when she was appointed, put out a few news releases, and make itself available for “media inquiries.” When I asked the firm’s founder, Joel Frushone, how much he was paid for representing Mabunda’s office, he declined to answer but made clear that his contract with the government of Congo ended in “mid-2015.”
This is not the only example of expensive posturing by the same Congolese government that says it can’t afford to pay reparations to rape survivors. Just this February, after a triumph against Ghana at the African Nations Championship, a biennial soccer tournament, Kabila gave each member of the national team a Toyota Land Cruiser Prado. The BBC reported that the price of one Prado at a Kinshasa car dealership was $60,000, meaning that the total cost of the gift was around $2.16 million.
Winners of a football competition: $2.16 million.
Survivors of rape in Congo: $0.
The failure of the Congolese government to carry out court orders to compensate rape victims flies in the face of international human rights norms, which generally recognize a right to remedy and reparation. That right includes “restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition,” according to the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). In other words, victims have a whole range of restorative rights designed to help them recover psychologically and financially. But Congo has adopted a “narrow monetary definition” of reparations, FIDH said in a 2013 report, and “does not comply with the definition of reparation under international law, nor does it fulfill the obligation of the DRC State to ensure full reparation.”
Even by that narrow monetary definition, victims of rape in Congo face enormous obstacles to compensation — obstacles so great that no victim has yet managed to clear them.
The most obvious impediment is a conflict of interest. According to a report delivered to the U.N. Security Council this month, Congolese army, police, and national intelligence officials were responsible for 31 percent of rapes committed in 2014. In 2011-2012, that figure was 50 percent, according to the United Nations. In other words, victims must seek compensation from the same government that is often directly responsible for their rape. And considering the lengths to which that government has gone to avoid reputational damage, like hiring pricy PR-firms in Washington, it should not come as a surprise when it ignores the verdicts instead.
Then there are the administrative barriers. Unlike in the United States, rape victims in Congo must take additional steps to receive compensation even after a court awards damages. According to a November 2015 report by a coalition of justice organizations that included TRIAL and Physicians for Human Rights, victims must personally obtain a notification of judgment from the court and deliver it to the Ministry of Justice. Then they must pay what the report calls “excessive fees” for administrative processing and “are often asked to pay bribes.” Daniele Perissi, a legal advisor for TRIAL, called the procedure “a kind of mission impossible.”
Sadly, none of this should come as a shock in Congo. This is a place where nearly a third of men told researchers in 2012 that women “sometimes want to be raped and that when a woman is raped she may enjoy it.” In 2014, DRC ranked 137 out of 188 countries on the Gender Inequality Index, a measurement compiled by the U.N. Development Program. “It’s a very unsafe country for women,” said Irma van Dueren, the senior women protection advisor for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, known by the French acronym MONUSCO.
Sexualized violence brings with it a host of complications for survivors, including being abandoned by husbands and families because of the so-called shame brought upon them. Women are often left to care for their children alone, with no monetary support. Financial reparations would be of great help to these women, as would the other kinds of assistance that are now the international norm. The absence of payouts also means a lack of incentive for other women to attempt the laborious process of pursuing justice for their attacks.
Recently there has been talk in the government of building a memorial for the nearly 400 victims of a mass rape that occurred over four days in August 2010 in the town of Walikale in North Kivu province. But for the women who received no compensation after having their lives brutally upended, such a gesture is just that. To echo the survivor who spoke to Physicians for Human Rights: You can’t eat gestures.
Image credit: JUNIOR KANNAH/AFP/Getty Images
Correction, March 31, 2016: KRL International, a Washington public relations firm, was retained by the office of President Joseph Kabila’s advisor on sexualized violence and child recruitment for a fee of $20,000 plus $20,000 in expenses. A previous version of this article misidentified the firm as Crescent Consultants and misstated the figure as $40,000 per month.