KINSHASA — The UN confirmed Wednesday the arrest of a man suspected of leading a group of Democratic Republic of Congo rebels who raped hundreds of civilians, after earlier concerns he had been misidentified.
The arrest “is a very clear signal to other perpetrators that sexual violence is unacceptable and that justice will win,” said Margot Wallstrom, the UN’s special envoy on sexual violence, during a press conference in capital Kinshasa at the end of a week-long visit to the country.
The arrest is good news, but like all stories of war, there are complexities worth devoting our time to. Here is a journalistic report from American Amy Ernst:
I wanted so badly to hate this man. He’s extremely handsome, with soft eyes, thick, curling lashes, and a nervous glance. It doesn’t fit with the dirty green uniform and rickety gun hanging from his shoulder.
The soldier, whom I’ll call Adonis (he did not want his name used), is part of the Forces Armées de la Republique Democratique du Congo (FARDC), the governmental forces, that are just as out of control as the rebel forces. When I ask if he has killed or tortured anyone, he says emphatically, “so many.” Civilians? “Sometimes.” I ask him if he has ever raped a woman, but before he can respond, his superior, who is also speaking with us (and like Adonis, prefers to keep his name to himself), jumps in.
When Adonis was 10, living in a village called Masisi with his six brothers and sisters, he was captured by the CNDP, Rwandan rebel forces previously led by the infamous Laurent Nkunda (Nkunda’s forces and the FARDC have always been on opposite sides of the constantly changing conflict). Adonis pulls up his sleeves with dirty hands, and shows me several thick scars in the creases of both of his arms. “When they started cutting off my arms, I accepted,” he says.
Adonis continues to shake his head. Child-soldiers are used often by all military groups, particularly the Mai-Mai (community-based) rebel groups. They are forced to rape, kill and torture other human beings before they have even hit puberty. When they are demobilized (pulled from their stations of war), they rarely know where their families are, have no system of support and have done things a child should never even have to think about. Even after being demobilized, many of these children are lured back to the military camps by the promise of food and a relative sense of security. If they are not lured back willingly, they are often forced back with more violence.
The Congolese organization I work with, COPERMA, helps victims of sexual violence as well as demobilized child-soldiers. Child-soldiers receive the same type of help as all victims of the war, a foster family, vocational training and the opportunity to complete primary, if not secondary school. One of the biggest struggles with the victims of rape is that they will engage in prostitution to find food for their children. With child-soldiers, the problem is returning to the fighting. COPERMA can’t do everything, and even with their help the children are still stuck in extreme poverty and instability.
Hearing that some of the boys helped by COPERMA had committed crimes as horrible as those the young girls were simultaneously telling me about, I was conflicted and confused. I was angry at COPERMA for assisting rapists. But the more I speak to people, the more I see that victims of war come in all forms.
I wanted so badly to hate Adonis; it would be easier to hate him. But now I see he needs help too.