Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Widows of Walungu Territory

There are many widows in Walungu territory south of Bukavu.

Some of their husbands were killed during war, and others died trying to protect them from sexual violence. Some of these women were disowned by their husbands after being systematically raped and tortured while the community was forced to watch. Although not technically ‘widows’, they call themselves that because their husbands are dead to them.

The majority of widows are subsistence farmers, scratching out a living on rented land, struggling to feed their children and grandchildren. They eat the same food every day: fou-fou (tapioca flour and corn meal made into a gooey ball), boiled cassava leaves, beans, bananas, eggs, and occasionally a chicken. Their larger stock-- goats, cattle, pigs-- are long gone, stolen years ago by scavenging armies.

With or without a husband, a woman is at great risk in DRC. Working in the fields here, she is vulnerable to attack by Hutu rebels living in the mountains.

Following the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the Interahamwe, or Hutu death squads, and their families were give asylum by President Mobutu, in what was then called Zaire. Over 1,000,000 Hutus fled to Congo and relocated in IDP camps. The Honorable David Mubalama, Senator to Province of South Kivu, estimates that only 20% of those refugees returned to Rwanda, many now living in the hills of Walungu territory.

(When I visited Bukavu last December, two Hutu women came down out of the hills because their children were sick. They were known to be Hutu, because they did not speak French, Swahili or Mashi, the language of South Kivu.)

It was after the Interahamwe relocated in Congo, around 1996, that the atrocities and brutal sexual violence against women and children began.

Working in the fields, the widows of Walungu are also vulnerable to the Congolese National Army, whose soldiers believe it is their patriotic right to rape any woman and steal whatever they can find. Most of these soldiers are simple, country people, kidnapped while young, child soldiers who are starving because the government never pays them; or if there are wages, it is taken by those out-ranking them. Basically, the national army is given guns and let loose on the Congolese countryside to rape and pillage.

It is well-known that officers in the national army condone sexual violence against women and children, even promote it by telling young recruits that raping a virgin will make them impervious in battle. Encouraging their men to rape and pillage, as well as to commit unspeakable atrocities, are the macabre means that military officers use to keep soldiers from defecting.

It is also a well-known, unofficial fact that when military commanders stand against raping women and children, their soldiers stop doing it. International pressure needs to be brought against President Kabila and his government to take to responsibility for the actions of his National Army and stop the atrocities against innocent men, women and children, or they may one day be brought up on charges by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

With love and gratitude,

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