Congo’s War, Women’s Holocaust

WHICH CURRENT WAR has taken more lives than the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Darfur put together?

It’s the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a brutal conflict whose elements include the “dirty diamond” trade and other minerals — including gold, copper, tin and cobalt — as well as spillovers from the 1990s genocide in Rwanda, and the ruinous legacy of the decades-long western-backed Mobutu dictatorship. It is estimated that over the last decade there have been four million deaths.

As frequently occurs in wars anywhere in the world, noncombatants including women and children suffer the greatest death and mutilation. A report by Anderson Cooper of CNN and a CBS 60 Minutes team found:

“Fighting has broken out once again in Eastern Congo and the region threatens to slip into all-out war. Each new battle is followed by pillaging and rape; entire communities are terrorized. Forced to flee their homes, people take whatever they can, and walk for miles in the desperate hope of finding food and shelter. Over the past year, more than 500,000 people have been uprooted. A fraction of them make it to cramped camps, where they depend on UN aid to survive.” (CBS News, January 13, 2008,

In this climate, over the past decade “hundreds of thousands have been raped, many of them gang-raped ... In some villages as many as 90 percent of the women have been raped,” according to the same report.

Anneka Von Woudenburg, senior Congo researcher for Human Rights Watch, stated that rape is a method of terror:

“This is not rape because soldiers have got bored and have nothing to do. It is a way to ensure that communities accept the power and authority of that particular armed group. This is about terror. This is about using it as a weapon of war.”

Von Woudenberg described the justice system in the Congo as “on its knees” and pointed out:

“I can count on one hand the number of cases that we’re aware of that have been brought to trial. Literally here people get away with rape, they get away with murder. The chances of being arrested are nil.”

Judith Registre of Women for Women explains:

“When a woman is raped, it’s not just her ... It’s the entire community that’s destroyed. When they take a woman to rape her, they’ll line up other members of the communities to actually witness that. They make them watch. And so what that means for that particular woman when it’s all over, is that total shame, personally, to have been witnessed by so many people as she’s being violated.”

Those who are forced to watch the rape are often filled with humiliation at their being unable to prevent the sexual assault; for the women and children who are raped and often mutiliated, they have to face the possibility of pregnancy, and rejection by their men.

Only a fraction of those who have been attacked, raped and forced to flee make it to a UN refugee camp, but there is no adequate protection for women even in the overcrowded refugee camps. Rape is no longer the exception, but the norm.

Dr. Denis Mukwege, director of Panzi Hospital in Eastern Congo, performs five surgeries a day for women who have suffered not only rape but mutilation by broken bottles or bayonets inserted in their vaginas. Many are shunned because of fears they have contracted HIV, or are incontinent because of the violence of the rapes.

War is hell for everyone. For women, it’s a holocaust.

To sign the international petition supporting the Congolese Women’s Campaign Against Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, go to

ATC 133, March–April 2008