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Military shake-ups could worsen Congo's mass rape problem

Shuffling and regrouping among Congo's troops is creating a volatile environment that encourages violence and potentially mass rape, as shown in the rape of at least 120 women in early June.

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The following day, the soldiers continued towards Nyakiele, a larger town 17 kilometers away, also mostly inhabited by Bembe. There, again according to diplomatic sources, Col. Kifaru's men supposedly asked for food from the population. They then proceeded to ransack the village before leaving the following day, June 12. After their departure, 31 women reported to the health center that they had been raped. When a team from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) arrived on June 22 and 23, a further 80 women came forward to state they had been raped.

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Since leaving the training camp, Col. Kifaru has been in touch with the Congolese regional commander, Gen. Masunzu regarding reintegration. Masunzu reportedly acknowledged that Col. Kifaru was right in asking to be a regimental commander, and the deserters were ready to came to the Luberizi training center when news broke out about the abuses in Nyakiele and Abala. Col. Kifaru has maintained his innocence, suggesting that the local Bembe population has manufactured these reports for political reasons. A local Mai-Mai commander from the Bembe community, "General" Yakutumba, had listed Col. Kifaru as one of his principle enemies in a document he published in February this year. Congolese army spokespeople have also dismissed the allegations of abuse.

Since leaving the training camp, Col. Kifaru has been in touch with the Congolese regional commander, Gen. Masunzu regarding reintegration. Masunzu reportedly acknowledged that Col. Kifaru was right in asking to be a regimental commander, and the deserters were ready to came to the Luberizi training center when news broke out about the abuses in Nyakiele and Abala. Col. Kifaru has maintained his innocence, suggesting that the local Bembe population has manufactured these reports for political reasons. A local Mai-Mai commander from the Bembe community, "General" Yakutumba, had listed Col. Kifaru as one of his principle enemies in a document he published in February this year. Congolese army spokespeople have also dismissed the allegations of abuse.

This episode reveals the fragility of the integration and regimentation exercise. Col. Kifaru is not the first commander to desert – other, smaller groups have been defecting in North Kivu, as well. This has several causes: Units are asked to consolidate, which inevitably results in some commanders being demoted while others are relegated to tedious, ill-paid jobs at headquarters. To make matters worse, the integration of groups like the FRF and Mai-Mai Kapopo has stirred up ethnic resentment and created even more rank-inflation to fulfill rebels' demands.

As for the motives of the rapes – initial reports are inconclusive. Some officials I have spoken with cast doubts on the scale of the rapes, pointing to the suspiciously similar and forthcoming testimonies of the women in Nyakiele, along with the increase in rape claims when MSF arrived.

Jason Stearns blogs about the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Great Lakes region at Congo Siasa.

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