"He's like the kid at the playground, who decides to take the ball, call it his, and go home when things aren't going his way. If he can't win, no one can play."
When thinking about the most recent case of mass rape in eastern Congo — carried out yet again by an aggrieved former rebel commander hiding behind the Congolese military and leading a patchwork of troops composed of former rebel groups — I can't get the analogy out of my head. However, instead of a self-entitled commander taking his ball and going home, he takes his men and rapes over 170 women.
Conflict has ravaged eastern Congo for nearly 15 years, resulting in nearly 6 million deaths and hundreds of thousands of cases of rape, and it has long been reported that militia units within the Congolese Army, or FARDC, are some of the worst perpetrators of the violence. A series of "peace deals" between the Congolese government and various armed groups have placed well-known perpetrators of crimes against humanity in official positions of power. Within the Congolese Army, accountability is rare, impunity reigns, and these "peace deals" are tenuous at best, if not at times a mechanism for armed groups to get ahead. When the deals break down, or when a soldier wants something a certain way, it is civilians that are caught in the cross-fire.
2010 was one of the worst years for sexual violence in the Congo. In August of that year, the mass rape of over 300 women near Walikale by rebel groups in North Kivu Province was a watershed incident that highlighted the deficiencies of state and military protection, international peacekeeping efforts, and the lack of resolve throughout the international community to end the scourge of rape as weapon in Congo. On New Year's Day, 2011, another mass rape occurred, this time in the town of Fizi, in the south Kivu Province. A bar fight between members of a local community and a rouge Congolese military officer ended with the officer's troops pillaging multiple villages and raping over 50 women. The military commander in charge of the offending officer and troops was Colonel Kifaru Niragire, a Hutu from North Kivu province and a former commander of the rebel group PARECO, which has traditional ties to the FDLR. The incident seemed to indicate that there was no progress in addressing the issue; and that those communities affected by the ongoing conflict–fueled by ethnic ego and competition for strategic mineral reserves–were destined to forever bear the brunt of the violence.
However, after the New Years Day attack, efforts to address the use of rape as a weapon in eastern Congo began to gain traction and show signs of progress.
For the first time, arrests were made of commanders responsible for ordering or leading those that carried out the rapes in the Walikale and Fizi cases. The Congolese military with support from the international community held mobile court hearings, and prosecuted a handful of the perpetrators of these crimes — sending strong signals that the era of impunity is coming to an end. In the Fizi case, nine soldiers, including Col Kifaru's deputy, Lt Col Kibibi Mutware, were later prosecuted and found guilty of crimes against humanity and jailed for up to 20 years. This case was seen as a landmark victory in the effort to end the environment of impunity.
Fast forward six months. Just last week it was reported that in mid-June 170 women were raped, again near Fizi by a group of defecting Congolese Army troops who had once been rebels in the area, led by no other than Col. Kifaru. During the attacks the armed assailants also stole livestock, burned homes, and looted health clinics in the area. So why did this happen again?
Recently the government of Congo and the FARDC has been engaged in a security sector reform initiative focused around the regimentation of existing military units. Through this process they are attempting to gather the various existing FARDC units in the often lawless eastern Congo, and consolidate them into central locations in an attempt rightsize the military structure of the region. In addition the FARDC has been negotiating with various rebel groups on"peace deals" to become regular national soldiers and in some cases have been successful. Up until two weeks ago this was the case with Col. Kifaru. Having been absorbed into the FARDC, he was involved in the regimentation process, until the Commander of the 10th Military Unit, General Patrick Masunzu, passed him over for a promotion that went to an individual of the same ethnic group as Gen. Masunzu. Infuriated by the perceived slight, Col. Kifaru orchestrated an armed standoff at a military base in South Kivu, and ultimately defected with roughly 200 loyal troops in tow. Just over a week later he led his troops through Fizi and while replenishing their supplies by pillaging nearby villages, raped 170 women.
What can be done?
The momentum built through the Walikale and Fizi trials must be perpetuated, and the era of impunity for armed actors must come to an end. In order to maintain momentum and credibility:
•The Congolese government, military and the international community must take immediate action to ensure that those responsible for these rapes are caught, tried, and prosecuted.
•Sentences in those trials must be enforced.
•Those civilians that testify must be protected.
•The FARDC must not accept Col. Kifaru or any of his men back into the regimentation process.
By arresting and prosecuting the worst offenders, the Congolese and their international partners can begin to create an environment that is conducive to peace-building, civilian protection, and economic development. If commanders like Col. Kifaru are allowed to throw temper tantrums that destroy the bodies, lives, and communities of our Congolese brothers and sisters without consequence then we are all to blame.
Photo: Congolese soldiers in North Kivu, Congo (Sasha Lezhnev/ Enough Project)