Victims of sexual violence in eastern Congo, 2007
Denis Mukwege has been treating female victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1996. The subject of a new documentary by Thierry Michel, The Man Who Mends Women, Mukwege has dedicated his life to caring for victims of rape and other forms of sexual abuse in Africa. It is an epidemic that continues despite the supposed end of the Second Congo War in 2003.
Through the testimony and actions of these brave women, impressive progress has been made to mobilise support and build collective awareness of this tragic oppression. Yet 20 years after Mukwege began his work, the fact remains: no one is yet able to protect women in conflict zones and to end the use of rape as a weapon of war.
The coming of the second war
Knowing the region’s history is critical to understanding the gravity of the situation. In 1994, widespread attacks on civilian populations in the border provinces of eastern Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) led to an influx of hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees, defeated soldiers and militia members fleeing the Rwandan civil war. Two years later, the Rwandan Patriotic Army - the armed wing of the Rwandan Patriotic Front operating under the orders of Rwanda’s current President Paul Kagame - destroyed the camps, forcing the refugees to flee deeper into the country.
In conjunction with Congolese opposition groups, the Rwandan army pushed all the way to the Congolese capital, Kinshasa. In 1997 it brought down the regime of President Mobutu Sese Seko. Rwandan forces then occupied eastern Congo despite the hostility of the local population. By August 1998 when its senior officers were squeezed out of command positions in Kinshasa, Rwanda unleashed the Second Congo War.
By early 1999 the front line stabilised and the DRC was effectively partitioned. The strategists from Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi had essentially achieved their goal. Now began a war within the war. Senior commanders of the occupying forces worked to enhance their own power, while their armies took on the administration and economic exploitation of conquered provinces - each in their own way and according to their own priorities.
In a December 2001 statement, the United Nations Security Council noted that
the plundering of the natural resources and other forms of wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo continues unabated.It condemned activities
which are perpetuating the conflict in the country, impeding the economic developing of the DRC and exacerbating the suffering of its people.
Submission of populations
In the province of Kivu, the armies' task was made easier by the multiplicity of community and tribal affiliations, ethnic groups and cultural areas (Bashi, Bahavu, Bavira, Bafuliru, Bahunde, Banyindu, Batembo, Banyanga…), tensions between shepherds and farmers, rivalries between professional organisations and various associations.