What Happened in Luvungi?

On rape and truth in Congo.

Sarah Elliott
Sarah Elliott

LUVUNGI, Congo — In August 2010, the respected Los Angeles-based aid group International Medical Corps (IMC) went public with a shocking account of horrific mass rapes perpetrated by rebel troops over a period of four days in and around Luvungi, a small town in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s embattled and lawless east. The media reports that followed described a “brutal spree of raping and looting,” as the Associated Press put it. Some victims were very young children; one, according to the AP, was a “110-year-old great-great-grandmother.” While United Nations sources told me that the initial count of victims IMC provided was around 60 or 70 women, by early September the organization had revised its figure upward, saying in a statement that it had provided medical care to more than 242 survivors of a mass incident of sexual violence.

A month later, the New York Times‘ Jeffrey Gettleman arrived in Luvungi, where he wrote a powerful front-page story describing the anguished cries of the town’s women and faulting U.N. peacekeepers, based just 11 miles away, who failed to respond. Gettleman’s reporting noted the rape tally as “at least 200 women.” The horror of Luvungi seemed to confirm what Margot Wallström, then the U.N.’s special representative for sexual violence in conflict, had dubbed the country in April 2010: Congo, she said, was the “rape capital of the world.”

Suddenly, that phrase was everywhere. Congo — a poster-child failed state, the worst place on Earth to be a woman — now had another horror added to its long rap sheet. A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that more than 1,100 women are raped in Congo every day — some 48 rapes per hour, as news outlets were quick to report. If anything, many analysts said, the true numbers could be much higher, as the pervasive stigma against rape victims in Congo likely suppressed the reporting of such crimes.

No one would claim that life in eastern Congo, embroiled for almost two decades in conflict, is anything but perilous — especially for women. The country is justifiably infamous for its high incidence of rape by rebels, soldiers, and husbands alike. But statistics are notoriously hard to come by in Congo. The last census was conducted in 1984; there are few roads, paved or otherwise, in a country nearly the size of Western Europe. And even those areas that are physically accessible are often off-limits due to violence and insecurity. Human rights advocates and researchers in Congo have long had to use “baseline” estimates to determine the costs of conflict. The oft-cited death toll from Congo’s decades of war, for example, now stands at more than 5 million. But this figure isn’t a count of bodies piling up at morgues; it’s an estimate of the difference between civilian mortality rates and the regional “baseline” historical average, last calculated in 2007. Likewise, the American Journal of Public Health study, the most authoritative report to date on rape in Congo, surveyed 3,436 Congolese women and extrapolated the findings across a population of more than 35 million women. The findings were horrific — nearly one rape a minute, the authors estimated — but the point is that it’s hard to count anything there.

Even in Luvungi, ground zero of Congo’s rape epidemic, things aren’t exactly what they’ve been made out to be.

TUCKED AWAY IN the double-canopy rain forest of eastern Congo, Luvungi, a village of roughly 1,000, is a two-day excursion from almost anywhere. The journey from Walikale, the largest town in the area, is a bone-jarring two-hour trip by motorbike taxi. The rocky, rutted road winds up into the hills — past pristine waterfalls, women coming from the terraced fields bearing hand-woven baskets piled with vegetables, and men weighed down by bundles of wood, machetes at their side. This is the turf of the notorious FDLR rebel group, whose leaders were involved in the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda and have spent the past 19 years living in the bush of eastern Congo, preying on the population. On this visit in April 2011, one of three recent trips I made to Congo for this article, the motorbike driver pointed out places along the road where the FDLR tended to attack. From clearings in the thick jungle, the view to the horizon was all dense green hills, mist, and layers of purple mountains. Cell phones were useless.

Eventually, the narrow dirt road cut a straight line through Luvungi. Mud footpaths led off into the hills between clusters of houses and small garden plots. Simple structures made of wood and covered with loosely woven dried leaves served as the central market. A meager array of local vegetables and a few dozen pungent dried fish the size of one’s palm, a local delicacy, was spread out on wobbly tables.


I had come to Luvungi with a Congolese colleague — not to talk to rape survivors or extract more details about the widely covered attack the previous year, but to speak with village elders about how the community had fared since. Still, our hosts were insistent. A couple of elders led us to a small house and promptly brought three women, one on her own, two in a pair, to speak to us.

It was “systematic rape,” one woman said, adding that the rebels had sealed off the town. “They came on Friday and left on Tuesday,” she said. “They came to the doors of the houses at around 11 p.m., and they forced themselves in,” another woman said. “They put their hands into my stomach.” All three described in graphic detail what the armed men had done to them.

When the interviews were over and we were out of earshot, my colleague and I stood in confused silence. I had interviewed survivors of rape in eastern Congo before; a psychological element seemed to be missing in these interactions. Before I managed to articulate the uncomfortable feeling that we had just been lied to, my Congolese colleague spit it out: “Those women have been coached.”

I asked a Congolese health-care provider working for the Congolese Ministry of Public Health near Luvungi about the source of the mass-rape numbers. He wore a crisp, white medical coat with the dark-blue insignia of International Medical Corps. The clinic where he works — state-run but IMC-supported — is the only one in the immediate area. We sat in a small office with the door closed. He confirmed that between July 30 and Aug. 2, 2010, rebels had been in the area, pillaging houses and harassing people. But during the incident and in the days immediately following, he said, he treated only six patients who had been raped — not hundreds.

As rebels moved into Luvungi and surrounding towns toward the end of July 2010, the clinic started receiving patients for a variety of ailments, he said. Of the six rape victims, two indicated that their assailants were civilians, not the armed men occupying the village. But most of the 100 or so patients he saw between July 30 and Aug. 6, when IMC medical reinforcements arrived, needed treatment for maladies common to this region — malaria and diarrhea — or for injuries sustained while fleeing to the bush during the occupation.

The first outsiders to respond on the scene were members of the IMC team, who arrived four days after rebels left the area. The health-care provider said he was then reassigned to the pharmacy, leaving the treatment of patients to the IMC staff. Patients, men and women, began arriving in large numbers, he recalled, and the IMC registered every woman at the clinic as a victim of sexual violence, even those treated for other ailments; this, he said, included revising the log of the patients he had seen before IMC’s arrival. Asked why the team would do this, he hesitated for a few moments, then quietly offered: “I guessed that they were trying to bring up a high number, but what could I do?”

The IMC disagreed with the health worker’s account, saying in a statement to Foreign Policy that “no revisions were made to patient logs” and that the reason for the increase in the numbers was that “many reporting survivors did not come forward for weeks after the attack…. Up until that point, survivors were simply too frightened to walk the distances required to seek medical attention.” In response to questions about these numbers, IMC’s Los Angeles-based communications director, Margaret Aguirre, stood by the figures. “As a humanitarian, service-focused organization, IMC does not ever attempt to ‘verify’ reports of rape,” she said in an email. “We reported on the number of people we assisted with medical services who reported being raped. Our policy is to provide assistance that self-reporting survivors seek, without subjecting them to inquiry.” She added later: “We did not discuss internally or distort these figures in any way.”


As IMC’s numbers of reported victims grew and media pressure ratcheted up, the United Nations began its own investigation. Media accounts of the Luvungi mass rape gave the impression that the U.N.’s Indian peacekeepers based down the road from Luvungi were nowhere to be seen, despite their proximity. But a restricted report filed by the unit closest at the time and obtained by Foreign Policy describes an incident on Aug. 2, 2010, in which a U.N. patrol in Luvungi apprehended a member of the Mai Mai Sheka, a local militia, who was found to have an AK-47, two magazines, 49 rounds, and one handmade grenade. According to the report, the U.N. patrol that day stopped in two villages, and peacekeepers observed evidence of looting by the FDLR and Mai Mai Sheka — two of three rebel groups that the subsequent U.N. report claimed were responsible for the mass rapes.

Why did the villagers of Luvungi not tell the peacekeepers that rebels had committed rape en masse? And if there was indeed such widespread sexual violence, why did the peacekeepers report observing other criminal activity, while apparently remaining oblivious to or ignoring evidence suggesting that sexual violence of this horrifying nature and scale was occurring in this one-road town?

In the days immediately after the attack, peacekeepers nearby conducted an initial assessment, tallying between 37 and 42 rapes, according to those involved in the inquiry. Then followed three waves of civilian U.N. investigators. The first arrived in the area of Luvungi on Aug. 13, nearly two weeks after the rebel attack. As international pressure grew, the second investigation concluded in an internal report that 154 people had been raped, citing IMC records. Building on those visits, the U.N.’s local human rights division then carried out what it called an “in-depth investigation” during two trips in the fall, interviewing civilians and compiling all available reports from 13 villages around Luvungi. The report’s official tally, now cited as the definitive count, asserted that “at least 387 civilians were raped by these combatants.”

The United Nations says it stands by these final numbers, having cross-checked victims’ accounts with “other sources.” Asked how the U.N. investigative team confirmed the number of rape cases months after the incident transpired, U.N. spokeswoman Barbara Matasconi told Foreign Policy: “The verification of rape through medical sources is more pertinent for criminal investigators. For human rights investigators it is useful in terms of corroborating testimonies … but it is not a legal requirement.” Asked why the number released by the United Nations was higher than all the others, Matasconi added, “We moved around with [a] team of experienced human rights officers, experts in protection issues and in interviewing victims of sexual assault/rape. These are all factors that make victims open up to us.”

Clearly, the women of Luvungi opened up to the investigators. But how to reconcile the wildly disparate reports? Certainly, rapes were committed during the four-day occupation; the sources I spoke with all agreed on that. So why does it matter that the numbers may have been vastly inflated?

Because it distorts the nature of aid flows to Congo, say outside critics, as well as the concerned insiders I spoke with who were familiar with the various investigations. They worry that the numbers inevitably lead to a focus on the sensational, while ignoring the troubling underlying dynamics. While the military and civilian sides of the U.N. peacekeeping operation were internally at odds about the scale of the incident and the U.N. response to it, multiple sources on both sides, who asked for anonymity in order to speak candidly, said they were surprised by the number of rape cases cited in the final report. One peacekeeper deployed to the area at the time of the incident told me, “Ever since then I have held it in my heart. I want to understand what would motivate people to lie about this.”

“MOST EMERGENCIES CENTER around one story and one category of victims,” Congo researchers Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern wrote in an email to me. “In Liberia, it was the child soldiers, in Sierra Leone it was mainly the amputees, and in the DRC it was the raped women.”

There’s no question that the rape-as-a-weapon-of-war narrative has stuck. The prominence of this story about Congo’s long conflict is in many ways a testament to the success of advocacy efforts, including the personal attention directed at the issue by high-profile figures like former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and American playwright Eve Ensler, the creator of The Vagina Monologues. And the advocacy works: The month after IMC alerted the world to the Luvungi incident, the NGO announced it had received a $16 million grant from the U.S. government to provide services to sexual-violence survivors in eastern Congo, one of the largest-ever awards to an aid group working to combat sexual violence in the region. (IMC noted that the USAID grant was awarded in July, before the attacks in Luvungi, and was completely unrelated.)


No one suggests that giving millions of dollars to help this vulnerable, traumatized population isn’t warranted. But many aid workers quietly say the strong focus on sexual violence, over all other issues and crimes, has created a perverse incentive structure. Simply put, organizations know that their programs are more likely to be funded if their beneficiaries are victims of sexual violence — and women know that they will have a better chance of accessing medical care, school fees, microcredit, and housing if they report being a sexual-violence survivor.

In a 2012 report published by Wageningen University in the Netherlands, researchers Nynke Douma and Dorothea Hilhorst examined how funding to address the host of challenges Congo faces — from its predatory army and police to its abysmal judicial system and the massive internal displacement of its people — is apportioned. They found a disproportionate focus on rape. “[T]he sexual violence budget is nearly double the size of the budget for all security sector reform activities … and just under half the size of the entire peace building trust fund,” Douma and Hilhorst wrote. Funding for internally displaced people — there were an estimated 1.4 million in eastern Congo during the period they investigated — is less than half the funding for sexual violence.

Today, according to Douma and Hilhorst, more than 300 organizations in eastern Congo’s South Kivu province work on sexual violence; in 2002, fewer than 10 did.

FINDING THE SPACE for a quiet, candid conversation with a female resident of Luvungi, unorchestrated or unsupervised by village elders, is exceedingly difficult. In the flurry of attention following the four-day attack, citizens in this small town expected things to change. Perhaps a school would be built, the road paved, or maybe a tower for cell phones installed. None of that came to pass, leaving it now a place hostile to outsiders asking questions.

One night, on my second visit to Luvungi, after everyone had gone to bed, a middle-aged woman we had met that day slipped into the room where my interpreter and I slept. She pulled a small stool alongside the pallet where my interpreter was lying and quietly told her story. Not wanting to create a stir, I stayed across the room while they spoke in hushed Kiswahili. The next morning my interpreter explained: The woman said that the incident had been terrifying, worse than other bouts of fighting in the volatile area. People lost everything and were forced to hide in the forest. She said that a fighter caught her as she was trying to escape and raped her. But there weren’t many like her, she said. And after the rebels left the village, elders decided that the community would say that many women had been raped to avoid ostracizing those who were. It was for the sake of community cohesion, she said. Once aid groups came it was important to protect this story so that everyone could benefit from the assistance that would surely flow.

Here was an explanation. But of course it was just one possibility.

More than two years on, a definitive account of what transpired in Luvungi will likely never exist. The legal process to bring justice to the alleged perpetrators has all but collapsed amid funding and security constraints; the only person ever arrested and charged in the mass-rape case, Lt. Col. Sadoke Kokunda Mayele of the Mai Mai Sheka, died in jail in August 2012, reportedly of malaria. But a new, wooden inpatient wing is under construction at the clinic. “We never have shortages of PEP [post-rape] kits, even though we sometimes run out of other medicines,” said the Congolese health-care provider who treated patients during the four-day siege.

Last year, as I was on my way back to Luvungi for my third visit, the town was hit with a fresh wave of violence. Rebels had returned to the area, clashed with the Congolese army stationed there, and reoccupied several villages nearby. A rebel leader and Mayele’s former boss, Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka, was angry that he had been accused in the U.N. report of orchestrating the mass rape. He had come back to this forsaken place to clear his name — and perhaps exact his vengeance.

Laura Heaton is a Nairobi-based reporter.