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Combat the terror of rape in Congo

The world must act to stop this weapon of war.

By Marc Sommers, Kathryn Birch / January 27, 2009

Medford, Mass.; and San Diego, Calif.

Long overshadowed by conflicts in the Middle East, Darfur, Iraq, and Afghanistan, extensive, predatory terrorism – largely of a sexual nature – continues to attack the heart of Africa. The idea that the international community has a "responsibility to protect" innocent civilians must be given meaning, and nowhere is this more important than in eastern Congo. Military groups there are using rape as a devastating weapon of war.

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Make no mistake: these are not isolated incidents involving rogue soldiers. This is an organized campaign of sexual terrorism – and the global community must respond forcefully.

Sexual violence haunts its victims long after the initial attack. Each act of rape humiliates its victims; emasculates men who are unable to protect them; and traumatizes victims, their families, and, in times of war, entire communities. The chronic physical conditions that rape can cause may be considered family humiliations and result in the banishment of victims from their own homes.

Rape during wars also bolsters the esprit de corps of its perpetrators and helps maintain troop levels by reducing desertions, since soldiers who become rapists may be unable to return to their family homes.

Probably no war zone in recent times has employed rape as sexual terrorism as extensively as the various military forces in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Rebecca Feeley of the Enough Project recently noted that its sickening reputation as the "rape capital of the world" overlooks rape's utility as a war weapon.

Even the anecdotal commentary is frightening. Three years ago, a Western donor official in the eastern province of Ituri shared what she'd heard from survivors about the fighting. Men and boys from one ethnic militia attacked the village of their ethnic rivals. Once there, the attackers didn't kill anyone. Instead, they raped, over a period of days, nearly everyone – males and females – in the enemy village, from infants to old people.

South of Ituri, in North and South Kivu provinces, doctors can often tell which militia raped someone by the particular type of mutilation that he or she sustained; a depraved "mark of Zorro." According to the United Nations, 27,000 sexual assaults were reported in 2006 in South Kivu Province alone. Human rights groups estimate that hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been raped in DRC since 1998.

Though the war in Congo officially ended in 2003, hostilities have continued, and today it stands as the world's deadliest conflict since World War II. More than 5.4 million have died since 1998.

It has featured at least 25 military groups vying for control over a resource-rich but largely lawless region. Civilians bear the brunt of the military assaults.