Rape as a Weapon of War

Heart posted an announcement about The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, a groundbreaking documentary distributed by Women Make Movies that exposes the systematic rape and torture of thousands of women and girls happening in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), being used as a weapon of war. The broadcast premiere will air on HBO, April 8, 10pm.

The civil war in the Congo was supposedly over, but tell that to the women tortured by gang rapes so vicious the vaginal wall loses its integrity, shootings in the vagina carefully so as not to kill, or piercing labia to padlock their vaginas. These men are carrying on a competition to invent the most fiendish forms of torture they can imagine. Instead of battling each other directly, women are used as pawns in an endless cycle of revenge.

Heart posted an article by Suki Falconberg about these unspeakable atrocities against women. 60 Minutes did a special report January 13, 2008. New York Times did a story on the Rape Epidemic last fall.

Rape Epidemic Raises Trauma of Congo War

“The sexual violence in Congo is the worst in the world,” said John Holmes, the United Nations under secretary general for humanitarian affairs. “The sheer numbers, the wholesale brutality, the culture of impunity — it’s appalling.”

Newsweek did a story on fistula rape over a year ago. Those stories do not mention padlocking vaginas. This may be a new or previously unreported tactic in the competition of revengeful men to inflict the most pain on women. Mainstream reporters may have found it too difficult to believe, since ritualized female genital mutilation is not prevalent in Congo, but Ms. Falconberg linked a photo. She writes:

Of the many rape zones on Rape Planet Earth, the Congo is currently the most savage. After gang raping women and girls, soldiers are piercing their labia and padlocking their vaginas shut. Hot plastic as well as sticks and bayonets are being inserted into the women. Six-month-old girls have been raped to death.

Gang rapes are so severe that many women are suffering from fistula (the tearing of the vaginal wall so that the contents of the colon and urine seep in). Unable to reach medical care, some women are dying of massive infections. Even if the women do reach a doctor, fistula is very hard to repair—few practitioners can do it.

To intensify the cruelty, soldiers are even shooting women in the vagina, destroying their systems so completely that numerous operations are necessary—and even then repair may not be possible.

More Vicious Than Rape

The atrocity reports from eastern Congo were so hellish that Western medical experts refused to believe them—at first.
By Rod Nordland | Newsweek Web Exclusive
Nov 13, 2006

This is about fistulas—and rape, which in Congo has become the continuation of war by other means. Fistulas are a kind of damage that is seldom seen in the developed world. Many obstetricians have encountered the condition only in their medical texts, as a rare complication associated with difficult or abnormal childbirths: a rupture of the walls that separate the vagina and bladder or rectum. Where health care is poor, particularly where trained doctors or midwives are not available, fistulas are more of a risk. They are a major health concern in many parts of Africa.

In eastern Congo, however, the problem is practically an epidemic. When a truce was declared in the war there in 2003, so many cases began showing up that Western medical experts at first called it impossible—especially when local doctors declared that most of the fistulas they were seeing were the consequence of rapes. “No one wanted to believe it at first,” says Lyn Lusi, manager of the HEAL Africa hospital (formerly called the Docs Hospital) in the eastern Congo city of Goma. “When our doctors first published their results, in 2003, this was unheard of.”

It had been no secret that nearly all sides in the Congo’s complex civil war resorted to systematic rape among civilian populations, and estimates were as high as a quarter million victims of sexual assault during the four-year-long conflict. But once fighting died down, victims began coming out of the jungles and forests and their condition was worse than anyone had imagined. Thousands of women had been raped so brutally that they had fistulas. They wandered into hospitals soaked in their own urine and feces, rendered incontinent by their injuries. “Pastors would say to me, ‘Jo, I can’t preach because the church is too smelly,” says Dr. Jo Lusi, a gynecologist and medical director at HEAL. (He and Lyn Lusi are husband and wife.) “No one wanted to be around them. These women were outcasts even more than rape victims usually are. They would say to me, ‘Dr. Jo, am I just a thing to throw away when I smell bad?’ ”

The rapes—and new reports of fistula damage—have not stopped. Even now, “It is still happening, even today,” says HEAL’s medical director, Doctor Lusi. “Every space we have in the hospital is very, very busy with people.” Most of the dozen or so militias in the country have signed on to peace terms, and their battles with each other and with the Congolese Army have mostly stopped since the arrival of United Nations peacekeepers. But many of the armed groups—even those that have made peace—continue to attack civilians, especially in rural areas. “They won’t go ahead and fight each other, [but] they attack that village that supports the other group,” says Lyn Lusi. “This is a horrible perpetual movement of militias. They join after their families are killed, sometimes right in front of them. They see their women raped, and then they go and do the same thing. It’s a cycle of violence.”

Ordinary rapes, even violent ones, do not usually cause fistulas, although it’s not medically impossible. Doctors in eastern Congo say they have seen cases that resulted from gang rapes where large numbers of militiamen repeatedly forced themselves on the victim. But more often the damage is caused by the deliberate introduction of objects into the victim’s vagina when the rape itself is over. The objects might be sticks or pipes. Or gun barrels. In many cases the attackers shoot the victim in the vagina at point-blank range after they have finished raping her. “Often they’ll do this carefully to make sure the woman does not die,” says Dr. Denis Mukwege, medical director of Panzi Hospital. “The perpetrators are trying to make the damage as bad as they can, to use it as a kind of weapon of war, a kind of terrorism.” Instead of just killing the woman, she goes back to her village permanently and obviously marked. “I think it’s a strategy put in place by these groups to disrupt society, to make husbands flee, to terrorize.”

Benga, 16, and Masoro, 17, ask themselves the same thing. The two friends were abducted along with their mothers from the remote South Kivu village of Nzingu. Their captors dragged them to an Interhamwe camp. “When we got there,” Masoro recalls, “they said, ‘This is a horrible place where girls and women suffer, and you will suffer also’.” They were kept tied to trees except when they were doing domestic chores or being raped. Their mothers were raped in front of the girls. Benga bursts into tears recalling the experience. “Their purpose is simply to ruin people, to rape people,” she says. “I don’t know why.”

No one can say why. The answer is almost too awful to consider, and impossible to understand.

Impossible to understand, says this male author. Perhaps he does not want to understand. This is the logical extreme of the male sense of entitlement. These men see women as pawns, subhuman property, to be used to make a point, to get back at the men of rival tribes who did similar things to their women. For that purpose, the worse they can hurt the women of their rivals, the better. They can revel in their cruelty, the sickly sweet taste of revenge. Women are less than human to these men. When they fight directly, they fight to kill, but death is not sufficient for the women; they must be made to suffer, as much as possible, the more the better they like it, torturing women the means to its own end, for its own sake. What is it about men that allows them to sink to this? All is fair in war, even the most sadistic forms of torture they can enjoy?

Men like to dismiss male violence against women as the actions of a few, so why should they have any responsibility, ignoring the issue of who else could. Men may justify disassociating for all sorts of reasons, but they should have some clue about what can make men abuse women so horribly. Men abuse women in many ways, ranging from such torture as pawns of tribal warfare to violence to control women in relationships. However men justify any of this, notwithstanding all the variations, it is all the same principle, that women are sex objects who must be controlled, as property or objects for the cruelest revenge.

Men are not dumb brutes. Why is it so hard to find a way to negotiate differences? Money and male pride? What can drive a man to assault women so viciously? What? Hatred of women inflamed by attack on their women? War is supposed to be a rational way of dealing with enemies? Men have it all backwards, as usual. Peacekeepers are in the Congo, but they cannot stop this. The men of the warring tribes have to come to terms, or let their women forge a settlement, or the cycle will continue to escalate.

What will it take to stop ethnic cleansing, if such brutality can go on with impunity? It is said, war is hell, all is fair in war, but there is such a concept as war crime. This deliberate maiming of women goes well beyond that. Did men not once have more than the worst form of revenge in their minds, even in battle? More peacekeepers might help, but that misses the point. What goes on in male brains, that makes them think this is an acceptable tactic of warfare? Is this expressing their sense of manhood? Honor? Decency? Fair play? Justice? Is all that out the window in the hot pursuit of revenge, so torturing women as savagely as conceivable becomes the end, the instrument to revenge what was done to the women of their tribe? Men, I ask, seriously, how can men do this? A woman has her theories and rage, but men must know what it is in them that makes this possible. What kind of war is this, maiming defenseless women in a brutality contest? What makes gang rape possible? How do men get off on such brutality? Is that fed by imagery of sexualized brutality? Is that not a booming business on this Internet? Why do men patronize such images, so clearly not about any kind of healthy sexuality? What makes rape possible, usually justifiable in the eyes of the rapist and many with a sympathetic view? Boys will be boys, so the most savage forms of rape and mutilation are justifiable revenge?

It is all connected, in the dark recesses of male minds who enjoy cruelty to women, inferior sex objects men must keep under control, or abuse as proxies to top the viciousness to make a statement of revenge. War and revenge may be expected to bring out the worst in people. If there are worse ways to torture women, it seems there are men determined to find it. It is too easy for men to disassociate, disown responsibility. If a man can sensibly explain how men can do this, I will approve the comment. I think men have a lot of explaining to do about raping, humiliating, battering women, and about war, political reality, and the ways men run things.

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