201052671.JPG By Jeffrey Gettleman BUKAVU, Congo: Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist, cannot bear to listen to the stories his patients tell him anymore. Every day, 10 new women and girls who have been raped show up at his hospital. Many have been so sadistically attacked, butchered by bayonets and assaulted with chunks of wood, that their reproductive and digestive systems are beyond repair. “We don’t know why these rapes are happening, but one thing is clear,” said Mukwege, who works in South Kivu Province, the epicenter of Congo’s rape epidemic. “They are done to destroy women.” Eastern Congo is going through another one of its convulsions of violence, and this time it seems that women are being systematically attacked on a scale never before seen here. According to the United Nations, 27,000 sexual assaults were reported in 2006 in South Kivu Province alone, and that may be just a fraction of the total number across the country. “The sexual violence in Congo is the worst in the world,” said John Holmes, the UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs. “The sheer numbers, the wholesale brutality, the culture of impunity – it’s appalling.” The days of chaos in Congo were supposed to be over.

Last year, this country of 66 million people held a historic election that cost $500 million and was intended to end Congo’s wars and rebellions and its tradition of epically bad government. But the elections have not unified the country or significantly strengthened the government’s hand to deal with renegade forces, many from outside the country. The justice system and the military still barely function, and UN officials say government troops are among the worst offenders when it comes to rape. Large swaths of the country, especially in the east, remain authority-free zones where civilians are at the mercy of heavily armed groups who have made warfare a livelihood and survive by raiding villages and abducting women for ransom.

According to victims, one of the newest groups to emerge is called the Rastas, a mysterious gang of dreadlocked fugitives who live deep in the forest, wear shiny track suits and Los Angeles Lakers jerseys and are notorious for burning babies, kidnapping women and literally chopping up anybody who gets in their way. UN officials said that the Rastas were once part of the Hutu militias who fled Rwanda after committing genocide there in 1994, but now it seems they have split off on their own and specialize in freelance cruelty.

Honorata Barinjibanwa, an 18-year-old woman, said she was kidnapped from a village that the Rastas raided in April and kept as a sex slave until August. Most of that time she was tied to a tree, and she still has rope marks ringing her neck. The men would untie her for a few hours each day to gang-rape her, she said. “I’m weak, I’m angry, and I don’t know how to restart my life,” she said from Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, where she was taken after her captors freed her. She is also pregnant.

While rape has always been a weapon of war, researchers say that they fear that Congo’s problem has metastasized into a wider social phenomenon. “It’s gone beyond the conflict,” said Alexandra Bilak, who has studied armed groups around Bukavu, on the shores of Lake Kivu. She said that the number of women abused and even killed by their husbands seemed to be going up and that brutality toward women had become “almost normal.”

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Here are a few resources to help the beautiful women & children of the Congo…

The Swedish Pentecostal Mission — PMU
Contact person: Marie Walterzon
Tel in Congo (243)-81-318-6246

Contact person: Tilly Leuring
Tel in Congo: (243)-997-089-850

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