But the new survey of rape cases at one of only two specialist clinics in the Kivu provinces of eastern Congo shows that although the majority of attacks are perpetrated by armed men there has been a disturbing 17-fold increase in rapes by civilians.
“This study confirms what has only been reported anecdotally until now: sexual violence has become more normal in civilian life,” said Susan Bartels, a researcher at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative which analysed 4,311 rapes committed between 2004 and 2008.
According to the study 60 per cent of attacks are gang rapes and most are carried out by armed men breaking into the victims’ homes after dark leading the researchers to conclude that women, “are not safe anywhere”.
“Rape of this scale and brutality is scandalous,” said Krista Riddley, director of humanitarian policy at international aid agency Oxfam. She called on the Congolese government to improve medical care for rape victims, to reform its security and justice sectors and to ensure the protection of civilians.
Protecting civilians from rape, murder, exploitation or any other depredations will be more difficult as the United Nations puts in sequence plans to withdraw its 20,000 peacekeepers.
President Joseph Kabila has demanded the troops leave, insisting that Congo’s security forces – responsible for many well-documented atrocities – are capable of providing security.
Sexual attacks in eastern Congo are perpetrated in particularly brutal fashion often leaving the victims suffering from fistula, a tear between the anus and vagina that causes incontinence and can lead to infertility.
Assailants have been known to use sticks, knives or gun barrels to violate their victims, to rape women in front of their family members and to deliberately mutilate the victims afterwards.
There has been growing attention on the issue recently, including a visit last year by US secretary of state Hilary Clinton who described the rapes as, “evil in its basest form”. Nevertheless, in 2009 there was an increase in the number of rapes and sexual attacks.
Last year the UN backed an attempt by the Congolese army to root out an ethnic the FDLR, an ethnic Hutu militia led by some of those responsible for the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.
The offensive failed but left around 9,000 raped as the unruly army swept through villages and the rebels launched retaliatory attacks on communities.
“It is clear that the increase we saw last year was directly related to the escalating conflict. In some conflict zones we documented a doubling or tripling of rape,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Eastern Congo remains one of the most shocking ongoing examples of rape as a weapon of war,” she said.
When The Times visited a clinic for rape victims in eastern Congo, prepubescent girls lay recovering in hospital beds alongside grandmothers.
Speaking through a translator a slight 13-year old with wide eyes, neat cornrows and stick thin legs that dangled from a chair, not quite reaching the floor, recounted what had happened to her.
“I had bought bananas in the morning and was coming back from the market when I met four armed men,” she said. “Two of them took my bananas and started to eat them, the others grabbed me from behind and took me in to the bushes. All four raped me. They put a banana in my mouth to stop me crying and they raped my until I was bleeding,” she said.
The gang of rapists was arrested and then released after bribing the authorities, an all too common scenario in a country with a dysfunctional and easily corruptible judiciary. “Rape continues because there is no justice, no punishment,” said Ms Van Woudenberg.
Her attackers’ release left the young girl hopeless. “I have been raped by four men so I’m not a girl anymore, anyone can have me,” she said.
At the end of the interview the girl’s counsellor who had been acting as translator whispered in English so that her patient would not understand: “How are we supposed to tell her that she has HIV?” – The Times,UK