Rape in Congo: What got me was the laughter

One man told me that we had to talk in hushed tones because other men would mock him if they found out that his wife and daughter had been raped.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff/FILE
For 15 years, war has raged in Democratic Republic of Congo, and armed factions, police, and common criminals have taken advantage of the climate of impunity and culture of violence to abuse women and girls. In response, Women for Women International has begun a leadership program, educating community leaders who reach out to other men and raise the awareness of the negative impact of sexual and gender-based violence.
Etienne Kokolo/AP
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives at the airport in Kishasa, Congo, on Monday.

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to victims of rape in Congo’s war-ravaged east today, I can’t help but remember my recent discussion with a Congolese Army colonel who raped women before his militia was folded into Congo’s military a few years ago.

After pulling his hat over his face while the video camera was rolling, he spoke in a deadpan, matter-of-fact way about how he used to rape. Now, he uses his position of influence to speak out against rape as part of program run in Congo by the Washington-based group Women for Women International. (Read the story from when I was in Congo and see the video here.)

It was tough hearing him recount how militiamen – and government soldiers – routinely rape women as a way to demoralize or dominate civilian populations in Congo’s ever-shifting ethnic battles for control of the country’s mineral wealth.

But I was prepared for the grisly details. What mattered, as always, was being impartial, listening, asking good questions, and taking notes to give readers a glimpse of how “one of mankind’s greatest atrocities” – as Mrs. Clinton characterized it on Monday – is playing out in the remote fields of Congo.

The images, his nonchalance … none of that shocked me.

And later, when we interviewed a man who was forced to watch with his family as militiamen raped his wife and daughter, I fancied myself unflinching as he told us how he felt during the episode and how he kicked his wife out afterward. (I surprised myself with how little I let stories like this affect me while reporting there, despite the fact that I’ve now got a baby daughter.)

But what did hit me –like a sucker punch to the gut – was the laughter.

This man told me that the reason we had to talk with him in hushed tones out of earshot of any villagers was that other men would make fun of him if they found out that his family was raped.

“They’d laugh at you?” I asked, incredulous. “Why?”

He shrugged. That’s just the way it is when you can’t protect your wife and kids from rape in eastern Congo.

You don’t just become shamed. People don’t just whisper about you and your family with pity. No, you actually become a laughing stock. Never mind that many of the men in the same village could be in the same position; like a fat kid on the playground, you’re the subject of ridicule.

I suppose it is not surprising that decades of brutal war leaves a society that callous. Journalist colleagues tell me it’s that way in places like Afghanistan. And I’d heard dozens of horror stories while reporting out of places like eastern Chad. I’d seen busloads of war survivors in Liberia who sported thousand-yard stares from the atrocities they’d witnessed. But to picture that man, laughed at for what he went through, really floored me.

When reporting from troubled areas, you never know which detail is going to grab hold of you emotionally. For some reason, that more than anything else brought home to me to depth of damage war can have on a society.

How will it all end?

"We believe there should be no impunity for the sexual and gender-based violence committed by so many — that there must be arrests and prosecutions and punishment," said Hillary Clinton during a press conference with Congolese Foreign Minister Alexis Thambwe Mwamba in the eastern city of Goma.

But in a vast, mountainous region where muddy tracks pass for roads, the underpaid and ill-equipped police forces do not have expensive four-wheel drives to get out to nab perpetrators of sexual violence. Even if they did, it takes hours to get to places just a few miles away. That’s if you don’t get stuck in the mud. Heavy rains make many roads impassable for weeks at a time. Also, police don’t even have the paper to file official documents. And their salary is only $25 a month – a sum that often goes unpaid for months at a time.

When police do make arrests, they rarely get convictions. This, many police and military officials told me, is because judges routinely are paid off or cajoled into releasing the suspected perpetrators.

Clearly, law and order is key. But no one who’s been to eastern Congo will be holding his breath for that. Until that becomes a reality, it appears that making a dent in the prevalence of rape will have to come from society saying: “Enough’s enough!”

But right now, people are so war-weary that they've become almost numb to the damage of sexual violence. This is why programs that aim to change the culture, like the Men’s Leadership Program, have so much promise.

Will it work? Only time will tell.

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