The Rwandan rebels came down into the eastern Congolese town of Luvungi and occupied it for four days, systematically looting local homes and gang-raping more than 150 women and children.
Less than 20 miles away, two dozen soldiers from the world's largest United Nations peacekeeping force sat apparently unaware, seemingly unable to come to the village’s aid. The peacekeepers even made mobile patrols through some of the villages surrounding the occupied town of Luvungi itself, only to find that the rebels – the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), whose members are blamed for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda – simply ran into the woods to hide, only to return when the UN forces were gone.
The attacks, which occurred in late July and were confirmed this week by the UN peacekeeping mission, have raised questions about just what the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo is supposed to accomplish.
"During the attack [the rebels] looted [the] population's houses and raped several women in Luvungi and surrounding areas," Stefania Trassari, spokesperson for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) was quoted as saying by Al Jazeera’s English service on Monday.
"International Medical Corps [a private aid group] reported that FDLR systematically raped the population during its four-day stay in Luvungi and surrounding areas," Ms. Trassari said. “A total of 179 cases of sexual violence were reported.”
In eastern Congo, rape is so prevalent as a method of war, both by armed militias and by the Congolese Army itself, that the UN calls it the “rape capital of the world.” It's also now become much more common among civilians in the war-torn areas.
The lingering violence in eastern Congo is one of the reasons the UN deployed some 20,000 peacekeepers in what is the most expensive peacekeeping mission in the world.
Yet, as the UN peacekeeping mission winds down – at the insistence of Congo's government – it is cases like the Luvungi mass rapes that raise questions about whether the government is ready to pick up its “primary responsibility” for security and protecting Congolese civilians from still-present armed groups.
If it is not ready, human rights activists ask, then what is the purpose of the UN peacekeeping mission?
“The situation in the [Congo] is getting more and more horrific, and this is just one case that we know about in which rape is used as a weapon of war,” says Sipho Mthathi, the office director of Human Rights Watch in Johannesburg. “The issue of civilians being attacked is there whether the UN attacks these militias or not. So as far as we are concerned, this requires urgent action. Either the UN figures this out, or they must be disbanded and something else should be put into its place.”