They will be heard: The rape survivors of Minova

by @DianaZAlhindawi March 14, 2014 2:59PM ET

Through veils, disguises and curtains, women testify in a DRC military court to sexual violence

Democratic Republic of the Congo
Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi

MINOVA, Democratic Republic of Congo — When it was her turn to testify, before entering the courtroom, she donned the head covering and gown designed to render her anonymous, a costume so complete that cloth covered her hands as she gripped the microphone.

Then she told her story.

On a November evening in 2012, around 8 p.m., Congolese government soldiers knocked on her door. Her five children scattered and hid in the bedroom. Her husband was already gone. He fled when he heard bullets fired earlier. When the soldiers entered the house, two of them threw her on the ground and began to rape her. The others began to pillage her home, carrying off the goods that her family had just received from an aid organization — sacks of rice and corn, cans of cooking oil. Her husband returned in the morning. When he learned she had been raped, he left. He never returned.

Her story wasn't a new one.

Those assembled in the military court in Minova last month heard versions of that story over and over again, as attorneys, judges and the accused sat in a temporary courtroom set up in this market town that hugs the shore of Lake Kivu in eastern Congo. The 39 Congolese soldiers on trial here are accused of participating in a 10-day run of violence in November 2012. It’s estimated that more than 1,000 women, children and men were raped in this town alone; 37 of the soldiers face rape charges. The attacks on civilians happened as the government soldiers, members of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC), were fleeing the rebels of the March 23 Movement (M23), who had gained control of the key eastern city of Goma.

In 2011 the United Nations representative for Sexual Violence in Conflict dubbed the DRC the “rape capital of the world.” The trial in Minova represented an advance in bringing justice to victims of rape — an unprecedentedly large number of government soldiers were accused, and they were tried at such a high level of military court that there would be no possibility of appeal.

Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi

All but four of the 37 soldiers accused of rape sat in the trial room in Minova. The four who were not present were on the front lines in the country’s struggle against Ugandan rebel groups in the north.

Twenty-five of the accused are lower-ranked soldiers, and 12 are officers in charge of those soldiers’ units. Last year in Mupoke, a town to the south of Minova, only one soldier stood accused of rape. The others fled before the trial took place.

Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi

The trial in Minova took place in the auditorium of a Catholic school, where the students flocked around a van carrying the women scheduled to testify. The women set to be in court were assisted by two psychologists, Pierrette Sivita Kasonia, above in blue, and Miracle Chibonga Zawadyi, in red.

The women who were to testify could not afford a trip to Goma, more than 30 miles away. So the court went to them.

Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi

According to psychologist Miracle Chibonga Zawadyi, many of the women still have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Here, a veiled woman about to testify had become afraid, her mind fixating on the events of the night she was raped.

To calm her, Chibonga tried to bring her back to the present, telling her, “Do you know where you are now? There is nothing to fear here. You are safe. Look at this egg in front of you. Look at the shell that I peeled off. Focus on the present. You are here now, and you are safe.”

To talk about their rapes and then to do so before the men who raped them could bring on strong symptoms, Chibonga said.

“Some had flashbacks when they were talking in front of the court,” she said. “Others were so angry and had psychosomatic reactions like vomiting, headache, sweating.”

Some were still afraid for their lives.

Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi

Micheline, now 18, held a picture of her son, Alain.

She was staying at a shelter in Minova for rape survivors when FARDC soldiers attacked in November 2012. She had her son with her, who was conceived during the rape that landed her in the shelter. The stigma and shame of rape is so severe in Congolese culture, it is not uncommon for a husband to abandon a wife or for a village to kick out a rape survivor.

“When they pillaged, they also stole my son,” Micheline said. “They put him in a suitcase and left. We found him a few days later in the same suitcase, abandoned near our center. He was so ill afterward. He died a month later.”

Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi

A 2-week-old infant cried in the shelter for victims of sexual violence run by the Association of Disinherited People United for Development in the village of Buganga, two miles south of Minova. Founded by activist Rebeca Masika Katsuva, a rape survivor, the center was home to more than 30 women and children during the attacks of November 2012. 

The child’s mother is 15. Both her parents were already dead from the ongoing conflicts in Congo when she was raped by guerrillas from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda in her home village of Karango, about 10 miles to the south of Minova, in the summer of 2013. After the rape, her village expelled her.

One mile south of Minova is Mubimbi, a small camp for those displaced by the conflict that has plagued Congo for nearly two decades. Eleven of the rape survivors who testified at the rape trial in Minova were living in this camp in November 2012 when they were attacked by FARDC soldiers who were moving from the army’s encampment in Minova to another town farther south.

Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi

A veiled rape survivor testified in court behind a curtain to further shield her from the eyes of those she accused. She held a microphone as she testified.

Special care is taken to provide rape survivors with disguises, curtains, veils, whatever they may need to feel secure when giving their testimony. The women are referred to by numbers instead of by name to maintain their anonymity. These methods of protection are provided according to a statute of the International Criminal Court.

Although more than 1,000 victims were identified from the 2012 attacks in Minova, only 47 testified in Minova in February. Another six were taken to Goma last week to testify. The proceedings were closed to the public.

Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi

A veiled rape survivor testified, while a member of the prosecution held the microphone. The defense attorneys sat to the left, and the accused soldiers were seated behind her.

One of the challenges for rape survivors when testifying is that they often have fragmented memories, so not every detail can be recalled, which frustrates them, according to Chibonga.

Another worry, she said, is that the women were held in a waiting room where they could hear the others’ testimony. Some women began to edit their testimony to sound more like the accounts of the women they heard before them, especially if a woman stated that only one soldier had attacked her. To be raped by multiple men is deemed an even deeper shame, and Chibonga heard women who had told her in private that they had been raped by more than one soldier tell a different story when they were on the stand.

When a woman testified in disguise or under a veil, she knew that while the court attendants would not know her identity, the other women in the waiting room would. Some women did not want to be shamed in front of the other survivors.

There were men identified as victims of rape during the 2012 attacks, but no men testified.

Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi

During testimony, a woman explained that while she had been raped at night and couldn’t clearly see her attacker’s face, she did recall a long scar on his forearm and that he had no thumb on one hand. When the judges asked if that man was among the soldiers on trial, she surveyed them. She hesitated. The judges then encouraged her, and she raised her arm and pointed out her attacker. He was then summoned to the stand for questioning.

Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi

At the end of proceedings for the day, the FARDC soldiers accused of rape piled into the truck that would transport them back to custody. Twenty-seven soldiers have been in custody since April 2013 in Goma at the Musenze Central Prison, a facility for civilian criminals. Many of the soldiers’ wives and children are at a military camp in Goma or elsewhere in the city. The 12 officers on trial are not in custody and are able to move freely. 

Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi

Amani Mirielle Kahatwa is an attorney assisting the prosecution. During a break in the trial, she stepped out behind the school auditorium to make a call. She is part of a team of 10 Congolese prosecutors employed and supported by the American Bar Association out of its satellite office in Goma. She and other attorneys assigned to the trial have received repeated threats to their security.

A ruling in this trial is expected to be announced in approximately a month.