Painting by Cheri Samba

Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi. Lies come up in the elevator; the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually. - Koffi Olomide

Ésthetique eboma vélo. Aesthetics will kill a bicycle. - Felix Wazekwa

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Mass rape reveals the fragility of rebel integration process

Over the past few days, information has come trickling in about yet another case of mass rape in the eastern Congo. According to Doctors Without Borders, local health centers, and the UN, anywhere between 121 and 170 women may have been raped on June 11 and 12 in Abala and Nyakiele, two villages in Fizi territory, South Kivu.

Why? In most reports on the incident, the essential context is missing. In this case, the context is the simultaneous integration of armed groups and the formation of new regiments out of existing brigades. This twin process - while probably necessary  - has been rushed and has produced a volatile and often violent situation, of which this mass rape may be a symptom.

So what happened in Fizi? This is what we know so far. 
The Congolese army is undergoing a process of troop consolidation, regrouping their brigades - which are often desperately understaffed, with only 400-800 soldiers - into regiments of 1,200 soldiers. So far, four regiments have been formed in South Kivu, and another five are on their way. Soldiers are being pulled together in training centers, where they are consolidated and placed under new command. 

On June 7, the commander of the 10th military region, General Patrick Masunzu, ordered all weapons in the Kananda training center to be stockpiled. This infuriated Colonel Kifaru Niragire, who had been commanding the 43rd sector. Col. Kifaru alleged that Gen. Masunzu was going to name Colonel Ruterera, a Munyamulenge officer from the FRF armed group, as the commander of the newly formed regiment. As Kifaru was the previously the overall commander of several brigades, he felt he was being passed over in favor of an officer from Masunzu's ethnic community.

A stand-off ensued in the training center, and Col. Kifaru deserted along with around 170 soldiers, climbing into the mountains of the High Plateau that rises up to the west of Lake Tanganyika. According to some sources, he was later joined by a small group of around 20 FDLR Rwandan rebels. Col. Kifaru is a Hutu from North Kivu and a former commander of PARECO, which had links to the mainly Hutu FDLR.

On the night of June 10, Col. Kifaru's group passed through Abala, a small village of around 300 people, mostly from the Bembe community. According to diplomatic sources who investigated the incident, Col. Kifaru's men ransacked the village for food and valuables. In the course of this pillage, his soldiers allegedly raped 15 women (some sources are higher).

The following day, the soldiers continued towards Nyakiele, a larger town 17 kilometers away, also mostly inhabited by Bembe. There, again according to diplomatic sources, Col. Kifaru's men supposedly asked for food from the population. They then proceeded to ransack the village before leaving the following day, June 12. After their departure, 31 women reported to the health center that they had been raped. When a team from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) arrived on June 22 and 23, a further 80 women came forward to state they had been raped. 

Since leaving the training camp, Col. Kifaru has been in touch with the Congolese regional commander, Gen. Masunzu regarding reintegration. Masunzu reportedly acknowledged that Col. Kifaru was right in asking to be a regimental commander, and the deserters were ready to came to the Luberizi training center when news broke out about the abuses in Nyakiele and Abala. Col. Kifaru has maintained his innocence, suggesting that the local Bembe population has manufactured these reports for political reasons. A local Mai-Mai commander from the Bembe community, "General" Yakutumba, had listed Col. Kifaru as one of his principle enemies in a document he published in February this year. Congolese army spokespeople have also dismissed the allegations of abuse. 

A joint team composed of officials from the UN peacekeeping mission, the governor's office and the Congolese army went to Nyakiele this week to investigate the rape charges and is due to report back soon. Congolese officers are worried that a rape scandal will make it more difficult to reintegrate Col. Kifaru's men into the army, as they will be pressured to arrest him, which could lead to another stand-off.

This episode reveals the fragility of the integration and regimentation exercise. Col. Kifaru is not the first commander to desert - other, smaller groups have been defecting in North Kivu, as well. This has several causes: Units are asked to consolidate, which inevitably results in some commanders being demoted while others are relegated to tedious, ill-paid jobs at headquarters. To make matters worse, the integration of groups like the FRF and Mai-Mai Kapopo has stirred up ethnic resentment and created even more rank-inflation to fulfill rebels' demands. 
Finally, impunity, once again, risks becoming the (somewhat brittle) glue of the ramshackle army. The integration process is all carrot and no stick. Commanders are rarely vetted for past abuses and - as this example shows - the government has often been reduced to kow-towing to rebel demands.

As for the motives of the rapes - initial reports are inconclusive. Some officials I have spoken with cast doubts on the scale of the rapes, pointing to the suspiciously similar and forthcoming testimonies of the women in Nyakiele, along with the increase in rape claims when MSF arrived.

But everyone seems to agree that a large number of rapes did take place. The hypotheses vary between ethnic tensions between the Bembe and Hutu communities and the theory that a large number of deserters needs to be fed, and the looting operations often provoke a frenzy of brutality that then results in rape.


Andrew said...

Great unpacking of this complex issue, Jason. There's been way to little reporting on the complexities and consequences of the integration process. How are you judging the CNDPs position in the new integrated brigades?

Rich said...

Jason -

Dr Mukwege has always given an interesting insight on the relationship between male sexual violence on women.

Dr Mukwege demonstrates how various army integration processes have failed to live up to the expectation of those who advocated them and more seriously failed to protect Congolese women in the great Kivu. According to him, most of the soldiers and ex rebels who were integrated have never been propely vetted, yet through the integration process they were allowed near big cities with their weapons and their mental problems. It has to be said that most of these young soldiers who have been integrated in the army have never had proper psychological assessment to find out if they are traumatised due to the prolonged exposure to the pervarsive effects of things they were up to during the war.

He also pointed out to interesting issues such as how through time it became possible to identify the area a specific rape may have occured simply by looking at the lesions and other injuries presented by the victim of rape. They came to know, for instance, that if the victim presents fire burns around or on her private parts the attack could be from Hombo, if they (victims) had gun wounds or presented bruises from being tied with ropes the attack occured in Lwinja etc...

With this kind of knowledge, I wonder why advises from people like him are never taken into account when conceiving and implementing policies such as those around the intgration process?

It is true that any peace process has a price tag but allowing flawed policies such as the various integration processes is simply wrong especially when early evidence shows that the policy has opposite effects from the expected ones.

Alex Engwete said...

BTW, this Thursday, June 30 (coincidentally Congo's Independence Day), Dr. Denis Mukwege alongside Undersecretary of State and others will be discussing at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in DC Sexual Violence and the Political and Security Implications in the Congo.

Alex Engwete said...

P.S. Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero.

Rich said...

Alex -

Unfortunately we will not be able to attend.

Any feedback via Jason's blog or any other support would be very much appreciated.


Alex Engwete said...

Rich -

Follow the link above. There will be a live webcast streaming of the event.

Sasha said...

Do you think that this related at all to the Kibibi trial - i.e. revenge against the communities who testified against Kibibi?

Jason Stearns said...

@Andrew - Good question, but I would need to know more about current CNDP positions to give a decent answer.

@Rich - Vetting (both here as well as in general) has been raised on numerous occasions by MONUSCO and human rights groups, but have never been seriously taken up by the government because (a) they have hard enough time keeping their army together without accusing their officers of abuse - the last thing Kabila needs is a new insurrection of military officers; and (b) they just don't care enough about it.

@Sasha - Good question. I believe Kifaru was Kibibi's commanding officer. Then again, he has been on the record with some fairly anti-Banyamulenge statements. Not sure.

@Alex - Merci.

Rich said...

Alex -

Many thanks,

Jason -

Fair point! I guess there is a price to be paid despite our occasional legitimate impatience/frustration.

Rich said...

Below is what General Oleko Komba, Chief Inspector of police, City of Kinshasa, suggests to bring order within the Kinshasa traffic police special branch. Quote from digital Congo,

"L’inspecteur divisionnaire adjoint Oleko Komba, fervent chrétien, croit percevoir dans tous ces comportements répréhensibles, un esprit maléfique qui s’est emparé de la Police spéciale de roulage et a peut-être envoûté bon nombre des policiers.

A cet effet, il envisage d’affecter auprès de cette unité spécialisée, dans les tout prochains jours, un aumônier qui aura pour double tâche d’organiser d’abord, des séances de prières de délivrance et par la suite, de désenvoûter les policiers. Car, pense-t-il, il est incompréhensible qu’il revienne toujours sur les mêmes conseils et qu’il ne soit pas suivi dans ses exhortations."

He suggests the appointment of military chaplain in order to conduct instense deliverance prayer sessions to cure bad behaviour within the trafic police!

That was not meant to be a joke!

I just wonder how much of this is, perhaps, needed for the whole Congolese police, Army and why not population?

Anonymous said...

I can assure you there is no link between the Kifaru looting/rape episode and the Kibibi trial, other than that the trial made precious little impact on the behavior of the troops of the EM of the 43rd sector. Kifaru was indeed Kibibi’s boss (the latter was 2nd in command of the 43rd sector, while Kifaru was sector commander, and there was definitely no close contact between the two) and it appears that the handful who were selected and tried in Baraka were all linked to Kibibi, and did not belong to Kifaru’s patronage network. With the current state of the justice system in the DRC and the workings of patronage politics, we can be sure that those who were put on trial were completely unimportant, just like Kibibi was a very small fish, and could easily be sacrificed. The DR gov is currently under pressure to put up high profile rape cases in order to create a semblance of justice, but this does not fundamentally alter the nature of existing accountability systems and the workings of patronage (although it does sometimes have a bit of a deterrence effect to the rank-and file). Rather, justice becomes an instrument of it. Therefore, the Kibibi trial made little impact on Kifaru and his ex-PARECO men, as they were let off the hook and therefore believed they could continue to behave badly, as they had an ‘umbrella’, or powerful protection. The behavior of the 43rd sector as a whole has been outrageously bad since the start of the Kimia II ops, when they put up their HQ in Lulimba, especially in the gold mining area of Misisi , where they created a reign of terror, causing a substantial part of the population to flee towards northern Katanga. Arbitrary arrests, the most atrocious forms of torture, summary executions, looting, robbery, road blocks; you name it, they did it. However, rather than correcting their behavior, the military hierarchy simply decided to rotate the 43rd sector to Fizi. Unsurprisingly, they continued their bad behavior there unmitigated. In April 2010, after fighting broke out with the Mai Mai Yakutumba, they systematically looted the town of Fizi, causing dozens of small-scale economic operators to lose all their investment and belongings (remember, something like insurance does not exist in the DRC). However, the commandment of the 43rd sector never was put under real pressure to ameliorate the behavior of their troops. This guaranteed impunity culminated in the January 1st 2011 atrocities, which should not be seen as a one-time incident, but more the outcome of a longer trend. As there was now ‘rape’ involved, the case suddenly attracted international attention, made the headlines and it came to an internationally funded trial.

Anonymous said...

Whereas it might be positive that (parts of) the 43rd sector were finally corrected (although Kifaru himself should have been held responsible too, he was absent at the time of the January 1st incidents but he has been responsible for the overall climate of human rights abuses in the 43rd sector), I sometimes wonder why international attention and pressure are only forthcoming when there is sexual violence involved. No matter how bad such violence is, the forms of abuse I have witnessed in the 43rd sector, the beatings, the killings, the desperate shopkeepers and traders who are now out of business as they fell victim to looting, all these people whose lives have been ruined, would have merited earlier attention. However, torture, looting and summary executions are apparently of marginal interest, especially to donors funding military justice. Finally, as Jason rightly point outs, we have reason to be careful with rape statistics. The figures that circulate in the media are those of self-declared victims, (usually those that come to the mobile clinics of MsF or local heath care centres and human rights orgs), and there is no verification of those claims unless it come to a trial. MsF just registers people and treats their injuries/illnesses when needed. It is certain that with the present heavy international attention to (and funding for) sexual violence, rape gets instrumentalized (which of course does not mean that it does not happen), but this is another issue……

Jason Stearns said...

@Anonymous - Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I hear Kifaru is now hanging out in the moyen plateau, refusing to join integration process until the rape charges have been dropped. Other ex-PARECO commanders have apparently repeated this demand.

I sympathize with your frustrations regarding the exclusive focus on sexual violence. However, the pillage of a 100 cows and murder of 5 people does not hack it for a story in the press.

As for the exaggeration of the scale of the rapes in Nyakiele - entirely possible. Hopefully the UN investigations will tell us more (although they won't be published).

What do you think the motive for the rapes was?

Anonymous said...

Here’s my two cents.
1) The troops were in a condition of overall irregularity, as under a freshly deserted and angry commander getting into a highly risky and uncertain adventure, therefore likely to be more agitated than usual and keen on taking revenge (civilians usually becoming the primary target in the absence of the ‘real enemy’, in this case the DR gov/military hierarchy), a common displacement mechanism among military
2) During their stay in the 43 sector, the ex-PARECO Rwandophone troops had come to see “civilians” (a discursive construct), no longer as such, but as “Babembe” equaling “collaborators of the Mai Mai”, hence enemies. This different representation, embedded in a different discourse, activates a different type of behavior (hostile)
3) The internal norms of this specific military unit (which are to a high extent determined by actual norm-enforcement by the commandment) are known to have verged towards tolerating civilian abuses, including rape, as is clear from earlier behavior of these troops (see comment posted earlier)
4) This combined with the general frenzy unleashed by a looting spree or military attack, has led these troops to commit abuses against civilians, including rape.

In brief, rape appears to be more part of an overall pattern of abuse than an objective in itself. However, it is difficult to draw any conclusions as the statistics are so unreliable. For example, there are little reported rape cases that occurred during the two days of massive looting in Fizi in April 2010, which caused almost the entire population of Fizi to flee . A roughly similar incident happening on January 1st produced around 50 cases, leading to the Kibibi trial. Is this because there were really more rapes, or because MsF did put up a mobile clinic in the second, but not in the first case? In other words, as long as approach distorts the amount of reported cases, it is difficult for an analyst to draw any conclusions on the reasons for rape. I personally suspect that rape gets sometimes underreported (no international NGO presence, isolated areas etcetera) and sometimes overreported, as indeed, populations may have come to use rape accusations a last resort in order to remove abusive army units, and as there are individual motivations for declaring oneself a rape victim, like access to certain forms of health care.

Finally, a perhaps very wild thought that I would like to share nevertheless. Could it be that the more the attention is focused on rape, hence the more ‘taboo’ the subject gets, the more enticing it is for commanders who want to embarrass the DR government, or put themselves on the agenda, to engage in it?

Jason Stearns said...

@Anonymous - I'm glad I have intelligent and informed people reading this blog. It makes me look good.

I tend to agree with the non-instrumental dynamic that can produce sexual violence and with its socially contingent nature. "Hii ni philosophie ya baraia," I often here soldiers say dismissively.

The scary thing about that is that - if soldiers do not rape to extract something from the population, be it retribution or resources - it may be much harder to get rid of. In other words, if soldiers do not see rape as an instrument but as an end in itself, then sexual violence will persist even in non-conflict situations. This may be a trend - both the Kibibi and Kifaru mass rapes apparently took place on the periphery of a conflict dynamic, which is different than in Luvungi, for example, where it appears the rapes may have been retribution for collaborating with the perceived enemy (CNDP/FARDC). According to your description - which I find plausible - Kifaru's troops perceived the population of Nyakiele as worthy of punishment not because they were actually collaborating with the Mai-Mai (they are quite a way from Yakutumba/Kapopo territory, I believe), but because they had become part of a general category of "enemies."

This is speculation, but would bring some much-needed nuance to the cryptic "weapon of war" category.

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