Congolese Women Suffer As Rwanda Squashes Dissent

The recent arrest of an American lawyer by the heavy-handed Rwandan government has human rights implications for the resource war in neighboring eastern Congo. Eve Ensler, who wrote “The Vagina Monologues” and is now a major advocate for Congolese women suffering sexual violence, says the Rwandan government is part of the problem when it comes to ending the violence against women.

The US government has turned its back on an American lawyer who was jailed by the Rwandan government on charges of “genocide denial,” claim activists following the situation.

The US lawyer, Professor Paul Erlinder of William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota, was in Rwanda to help with the legal defense of Victoire Ingabire who is seeking to run for president of Rwanda in upcoming elections against incumbent President Paul Kagame. Ingabire was arrested in April but freed on bail.

The arrests, claim activists, further exposes a Rwandan government with an ongoing history of muzzling opponents and squashing any signs of dissent. The lack of action by the US is also telling, considering Rwanda is widely believed a proxy for the US in this volatile region of central Africa that is rich in gold, copper and coltan.

“The US government is not intervening on [Erlinder’s] behalf, nor has the US State Department taken any action,” said activist Eve Ensler at a June 4th protest at the United Nations that was seeking to raise awareness about the long-running resource war in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Many believe a resource war was ignited by neighboring Rwanda in order to destabilize the mineral-rich eastern Congo so gold and other resources could be cheaply looted by Rwandan-backed militias, and ultimately shipped to off Western-based customers.

Ensler was also at the UN to shed light on one of eastern Congo resource war’s worst side-effects: the ongoing brutal sexual violence against Congolese women.

“You can’t even believe your mind what you’re witnessing,” said Ensler, who has devoted herself to help Congolese women by founding the V-Day movement, which has set in motion the creation of a half-way house called the “City of Joy” in eastern Congo, scheduled to open later this year. Ensler said on any given day at Panzi Hospital in the eastern Congo city of Bukavu, “300 to 400 Congolese women are there” due to sexual violence.

Meanwhile, American lawyer Paul Erlinder was denied bail on June 7th, a move expected on the part of President Paul Kagame and the Rwandan government, which has held power since the end of the 1994 ethnic genocide that pitted the Tutsis against the Hutus.

Erlinder is part of an increasing number of experts and Congolese who refute the official line for the 1994 tragedy. They believe both Tutsis and Hutus committed atrocities, but it was the Tutsis, led by Kagame, who actually ignited the 1994 genocide as part of a plan to help Western mining companies and metal brokers pillage eastern Congo of its minerals. A plan, they add, influenced by the US. A main tenet supporting this, claim the so-called “genocide deniers”, is the fact President Paul Kagame is ex-US military, trained at Fort Leavenworth.

Another reason stoking the theory is the lack of action the West has taken to end the eastern Congo resource war, which by some estimates has lasted for 15 years and taken the lives of 4 to 5 million, said Professor Yaa-Lengi at the UN protest. Yaa-Lengi directs the New York-based Coalition for Peace, Justice and Democracy in the Congo, which sponsored the UN event.

“Why won’t the US government talk negatively about Rwanda?,” he said. He believes is it because Rwanda is ensuring that the mineral wealth of the Congo goes to Western-based mining companies and other companies, such as SONY and Nextel which need the resources to make electronics.

The US government, Yaa-Lengi admits, has taken some small steps to end eastern Congo’s resource war. For example, there is the Congo Conflict Minerals Act of 2009 currently making its way through Congress which calls for Western corporations to verify whether minerals were dug from conflict mines of the eastern Congo. When it comes to the current White House, even Yaa-Lengi believes Obama’s intentions are good. Back in 2005, when Obama was a Senator for Illinois, he was lead sponsor for the Democratic Republic of Congo Relief, Security and Democracy Promotion Act, which was signed into law by President Bush.

“Obama talked about security. He talked about Democracy. He talked about stopping the raping and killing of the Congolese people, and strengthening the Congolese Army,” Yaa-Lengi said.

Obama’s Congo legislation has now put a small number of American troops into the eastern regions of the Congo. In the eastern Congo city of Kisingani, US troops are helping train and professionalize a battalion of Congolese troops (roughly 900 men) to deal with nearby violent militias that are deeply involved in the resource war.

Tragically, renegade Congolese soldiers have been some of the worst of sexual predators of Congolese women. At the UN rally, Ensler said one of the most insidious reasons why many are indifferent or unaware of the plight of Congolese women is because, in the eyes of the international community, these victims are “faceless black people, and they go unnoticed, untold, and unresponded to.” She continued, “It’s so shocking to see the complete indifference by the UN, the US government, the British government, the French government, the Canadian government, and in particular the Obama administration, which has been asleep at the wheel, and not only does not support the Congolese, but celebrates [Rwandan] President Kagame who is at the heart of what’s going on in the eastern Congo and responsible for the genocide in the eastern Congo.”

The following is a survivor story from Claudine in Bukavu (an eastern Congo city) given during an event attended by Ensler on September 19, 2008,

My aim is to denounce rape. I am 52 years old. I have nine children. We are suffering a lot even if they say we have peace. We do not. I will tell you what happened. I was selling beer in the market. We met some Interhamwe. They stopped us. They were talking Kinyarawnda. There were 12 of us. They said. “Today you will see. Today you will have other husbands.” They told us to lie down. They started beating us with sticks. They all started raping us. They took us into the forests. They beat us more. They raped us again. They walked us again to another camp until one in the morning. Then they tied us to trees. They tied us so tight. There were six women then and two husbands. They raped us in front of them. All the misery of the world was in our heads. We woke up so hungry. They said we had to wait for guests. New sex slaves. They came with a pregnant woman. They told me to cut her open with a knife. I couldn’t do it. My hands were trembling. They opened the belly of the woman and threw the baby on the ground. The woman died. Then they chopped up the baby and cooked it. Everyone peed on it with urine and put feces in it. Then they said we had to eat it. They bought bananas. They made us eat it. They said. “You fucking Congolese. You are eating your own sisters.” Then the husband of the woman who had been pregnant came looking for his wife. They took him to show where his wife gave birth. He gave them his small dollars. Then another soldier came and hit him and then they killed him. They kept us for two months. They said now soon you are going to die. Oh God, we said. They said, we don’t know God. In the morning we heard Congolese soldiers. They screamed for us to lie on the ground. There was lots of shooting. Then they told us to stand and we went to Panzi hospital. We were treated. We were not HIV. After a few days at home, the Interhamwe came again. They killed my uncle, my son, the wife of my brother. I could hear them cutting their heads.

Click here to learn more about V-Day, a global movement to stop violence against women and girls, funded in part by benefit productions of “The Vagina Monologues.”

John Lasker is a freelance journalist from Ohio.