Dozens of female infants and girls in a single town have been abducted and raped in the middle of the night. Could witchcraft be to blame?
- 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.
The men come during the night. They choose a house, smash a hole through a wall, and take a child away to do terrible things to her. They return her to her bed, or to her family’s yard, by morning. If she has survived, she’ll need to be rushed to a doctor because her organs have been shoved up deep inside of her by a penis or other objects.
When I visited Kavumu, a poor town in eastern Congo, in 2014, I heard about these stories in whispers. Kavumu is just across Lake Kivu from Rwanda and near an office of the U.N. stabilization mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). The town’s inhabitants include a number of people from the marginalized Twa ethnic minority (known as Pygmies), individuals who have relocated from small Congolese villages in regions dominated by militias, and a sizable population of demobilized soldiers. Kavumu has a high crime rate and a low literacy level, according to human rights activists. It also has the ignominious reputation of being the site of dozens of rapes of young girls and female infants over the past two years.
Some of these victims have wound up for treatment in local clinics, where they’ve often been washed and, unfortunately, disinfected of forensic evidence before being sent on to Panzi Hospital in the nearby city of Bukavu. Panzi, led by physician Denis Mukwege, is at the forefront of treating survivors of sexualized violence. At least 35 girls from Kavumu requiring “heavy surgery” entered the hospital in the past year or so, Mukwege said during a visit to the European Parliament in March. Some of the girls, whose ages range from 6 months to 11 years, have spent months in Panzi recovering from severe trauma. One source on the ground told me about a girl who lay face down on a bed, unable to bring her legs together due to pain.
To date, no one has been able to determine who is responsible for the rapes. This is due in large part to a dysfunctional legal system. Very few of the assaults have been examined individually — only seven cases had been opened as of the end of 2014, according to Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). Experts from PHR and other human rights organizations have suggested that a formal investigation into all the rapes as part of a single mass crime is necessary, but sources on the ground say that Kavumu’s prosecutor, the town’s highest-ranking justice official, has resisted launching one for unknown reasons. The police in turn argue that they can’t begin their work without the prosecutor’s authorization. Even if the police could start, however, legal experts at MONUSCO and PHR say the police would have to close cases after 10 days unless they could produce probative evidence — a tough hurdle to pass in a place with limited investigative resources and in which law enforcement is routinely bribed to get work done. (A number of human rights and legal advocates told me the prosecutor is sometimes called “Mr. Hundred Dollar” because he’s known to drop a case for that much.)
Karen Naimer, director of PHR’s program on sexual violence in conflict zones, describes how her organization, MONUSCO, U.N. police, Panzi Hospital, and local civil society activists have offered technical assistance, such as training in collecting evidence, that could help track down the perpetrators — to no avail. “The whole arsenal has been waiting to be deployed, but nobody seems to be deploying it,” says Naimer.
On Monday, April 6, the office of Congo’s personal representative to fight sexual violence and the recruitment of children into armed groups — a presidential appointee — announced it is “working with national authorities to launch an investigation into allegations of sexual violence” in Kavumu. This is a welcome step forward, but it also remains to be seen how pledges of action will be put into practice. Many activists in Kavumu are skeptical.
Meanwhile, in the absence of legal progress, those distraught about the rapes have been left to speculate about who is behind the crimes and why. Some of the answers are stranger than one might think.
A prevailing rumor among many locals is that witchcraft is to blame. Beliefs in the supernatural, especially sorcery, are not uncommon in Congo. Children specifically are sometimes accused of being sorcerers and even exorcised. In other cases, harming children is seen perversely as a potential source of wealth. Stefano Severe, regional representative of UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, describes a practice known as kabanga, which “involves strangling a baby with a rope and then selling the rope.”
In Kavumu, Georges Kuzma, a former PHR advisor on sexualized violence who is based in Bukavu, explains that some locals think the perpetrators of the nighttime rapes are harming the children in order to find fortune. “They think the torturers want to extract the genital or reproductive organs from babies or children,” Kuzma says. “It’s to have more luck.” Neema Namadamu, a gender and media activist in Bukavu, says the rapes may be related to a superstitious belief “that if you sleep with virgin girls, you will be rich with red diamonds.”
UNICEF and MONUSCO seemed to agree with the witchcraft assessment, at least initially. In June 2013, when the first rapes were documented — and after two victims had died — the organizations released a joint statement saying the extreme sexualized violence was related to “harmful traditional practices.”
Another possible explanation is perhaps more mundane but equally tragic. Men demobilized from the Congolese military and various militia groups rarely receive any kind of psychological care. Violence is often ingrained within them. “Even if they return to normal civil life, they have an incapacity to adapt and from time to time perpetrate barbaric acts, atrocities,” Mukwege told the European Parliament. (He also recently told Agence France-Presse that it’s important to remember that these men have also been objects of violence: “We have all ignored the way these people were themselves destroyed. They were both executioners and victims.”) In March 2014, I spoke to a United Nations Population Fund representative who said there had been a drastic increase in civilian rape since 2011 due to demobilized fighters being prone to violence. More than 77 percent of all sexualized attacks registered in eastern Congo in 2013 were perpetrated by civilians, he said.
Some in Kavumu believe demobilized soldiers are the ones raping the girls. Severe says there are even rumors that a network or group of men is making money by selling the opportunity to others, which would mean that the attacks can only be halted by “apprehending the real authors and the potential ‘clients.’”
Yet no matter the explanation for the attacks, a tricky question remains: If small homes are being broken into and girls abducted, are families seeing or hearing the perpetrators? If so, are they trying to stop them? PHR staffers have talked to victims’ families. “It’s not clear what’s going on,” says PHR’s Naimer. She wonders, like some other sources I spoke to, whether the families might somehow be involved in the assaults. Or perhaps for some reason they are fearful of speaking out or trying to impede the attackers. “I feel like there’s a lot of information we’re missing,” she adds.
Alejandro Sánchez, the former coordinator of MONUSCO’s South Kivu province unit on sexual violence, says he believes the families are not involved. They are the ones taking their children to get help after the attacks. “And, sincerely,” Sánchez says, “when you see the ages and sizes of the kids, it’s very unreal to think that a mother could lend her kid for anything that brutal.”
Speaking out about what’s going on, however, is a different story. Parents might be afraid to report what they know, Sánchez says. “In [Congo], going to justice always entails some kind of risk for victims or witnesses,” he explains. “Protection programs are nonexistent or perform poorly.” And if perpetrators aren’t captured, “they will still be hanging around the community.”
Fear and pain have spread not only through the community in Kavumu, but also among those working to stop the rapes. “This has been incredibly traumatic for even the first responders” — namely medical personnel — “dealing with these cases,” Naimer says. Some international aid workers have even told me they’ve left Congo because of the inaction around the cases. “We feel their frustration,” Naimer says. “They want to be able to do more.”
In November 2014, a delegation from PHR traveled to Kinshasa, the capital, to meet with various government officials about the Kavumu rapes. The delegation members urged that a national investigation be opened. They were roundly met with incomprehension — no one had heard of what was going on. One of the officials they met with was Jeanine Mabunda, the recently appointed presidential special representative tasked with fighting sexualized violence. Afterward, PHR sent her information about the attacks so she could use the power of her office to do something, anything. There was silence for many weeks.
Finally, at the end of this past March, Mabunda traveled the 900 miles to Bukavu and met with the civil society groups working to stop the Kavumu rapes. On April 6, she announced that her office is calling for an investigation by the Interior Ministry. In other words, what PHR and others have been seeking — a coordinated investigative effort of national prominence — should be launched soon. “The population is rightfully angry that these perpetrators are still at large,” Mabunda said in a news release.
Another possibility for furthering justice would be to bring a mobile court to Kavumu. The idea would be that, once evidence has been gathered in the national investigation announced this week, a mobile court could be used to try those named as alleged perpetrators. Experts at NGOs in Bukavu say this may or may not be useful; it would depend on the experience and integrity of the people involved. (In the past, mobile courts have been effective to some degree in Congo, in terms of bringing perpetrators of sexualized violence to justice.) But Sánchez warns that a mobile court could, in the end, prosecute people without enough evidence, just to “show results” to the international community.
Sánchez also says that while the promise of a national-level investigation is welcome news, it’s coming at a “very late stage.” His experience in the area of Congo around Kavumu has shown that if perpetrators are not captured at a crime scene, there are usually enormous challenges to overcome in order to prosecute. And in 29 of these rape cases, he says, no witnesses have come forward, while the very young victims can’t identify their attackers.
“A national investigation needs to have a clear strategy,” says Sánchez, echoing PHR’s and others’ call for treating the cases as part of a single crime, not as individual incidents. “If this doesn’t happen, that investigation will be doomed as well.”
Marc Hoffer/AFP/Getty Images