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

Monday, April 15, 2013

Was the Congolese army ordered to rape in Minova?

Maria Eriksson Baaz is Associate Professor at the Nordic Africa Institute and the School of Global Studies, Gothenburg University. Judith Verweijen is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Conflict Studies at Utrecht University and the Faculty of Military Sciences at the Netherlands Defense Academy.

A BBC reportage that aired this week asserts with conviction that the rapes committed last November by the Congolese army (FARDC) in Minova were ordered, claiming they have “uncovered evidence” for this. Yet, the basis of this “evidence” is rather thin. But that is just one problem with  this BBC reportage, which is a glaring example of irresponsible, sensationalist journalism that hampers, rather than facilitates, the efforts to tackle the problems of large-scale sexual violence and army indiscipline in the DRC.

So why is this piece of journalism problematic? Let us start with the nature of the “evidence” presented, which is based on the testimonies of a few soldiers (whom we can only assume were indeed those present in Minova).Their stories are neither cross-checked, nor put in context, or subjected to thorough analysis. Rather, the BBC reportage “reflects the ease with which media headlines turn ‘testimony’ into ‘confirmation’”, as observed earlier by Johan Pottier in relation to reports on cannibalism in the DRC. The reporting fails to recognize that all accounts and testimonies, regardless the story-teller, are also performances informed by various interests and assumptions.  Importantly, they are often shaped by what the storyteller believes the interviewer wants to hear. This general feature of story-telling is not in any way less prominent in conflict settings, on the contrary. As concluded by Danny Hoffman in relation to Liberia and Sierra Leone, following the growing role of media in war zones, visibility has become increasingly important for combatants, as “to be seen is known to be profitable and becomes an end in itself”. This often entails quenching the thirst for stories of brutal, savage African warriors, featuring outrageous atrocities.

We are not claiming that the soldiers in the BBC reportage are necessarily fabricating “untruths”or that one of them did not -  as he states -  rape 53 women.  These soldiers’ narratives, no matter how much induced by the camera (and perhaps the expected or real related fee), are one perspective, one possible truth among many, and they should be valued as such. But they do not allow for drawing conclusions spread in screaming headlines as authoritative, unquestionable truths (“DR Congo Soldiers ‘ordered to rape’ women”).

Moreover, the soldiers’ narratives appear somewhat contradictory to the analysis of the context made by a human rights researcher at the beginning of the reportage. The latter tells us that there was total disorder and chaos, as the withdrawing FARDC fell apart in bands of uncontrolled soldiers, looting and raping. This seems to indicate that the command chain had broken down.  Indeed, as concluded by The Guardian, “commanders had disappeared and the battalion and regiment structures had disintegrated”.

But then one soldier refers to “the colonel who ordered him to rape”. This evokes numerous questions. Most importantly, one can wonder how, in a situation of a breakdown of the command chain and on-going chaotic movement, an order given by what we presume is a regiment or battalion commander (given the rank of colonel) can be somehow passed down to a foot soldier (via company and platoon commanders, who can often only communicate via mobile phones that quickly run out of battery at the frontlines)?

We certainly do not claim that no orders were given; we simply do not know. It might not even be possible to uncover the “truth” in such complex situations as Minova in the first place, in light of the obvious difficulties with self-reporting and eye witness reports, as established by an important body of research (see also here and here).  However, we do think that any analysis of the events should take the nature of the FARDC into consideration. Most importantly, it must consider that what is called in military sociological terms “vertical cohesion”, or the bonding and trust between soldiers and their superiors, is extremely low in the FARDC. This reduces the overall capacity of commanders to control and motivate their troops, while lowering the threshold for the breakdown of discipline.

The reasons for low cohesion in the FARDC are many. One factor is the constant restructuring and breaking up of units, causing soldiers to frequently face new superiors.  In the span of only three years (2008-2011), we have seen the disbanding of the Integrated Brigades, the creation of the Kimia II/Amana Leo brigades and then regiments. However, none of this restructuring has been followed by extensive training. Yet, training is widely recognized as one of the most effective tools for fostering cohesion in armed forces, as highlighted recently once more by Anthony King;  it contributes to the socializing of troops into routinized command procedures, which fosters the standardized and predictable behaviour that is at the core of discipline. None of this is present in the FARDC, where command styles vary per commander and troops very seldom engage in any training, since they are deployed permanently at the frontlines.

Another reason for low cohesion is the distribution of command positions on the basis of political/patronage criteria instead of merit. The frustration engendered by placing troops under the command of officers and NCOs who are less experienced and less educated than their subordinates is profound. This also leads to subordination, since troops simply lack trust in commanders judged incompetent and may refuse to execute orders deemed life-endangering. A final factor are the bad service conditions in the FARDC and the enormous gap in income between superior officers and the rank-and-file.  This creates a strong resentment that is potentially explosive, especially when it gets mixed up with identity-based tensions, power struggles, and suspicions that superiors are in connivance with the enemy. 

The findings of our research, based on several years of fieldwork, indicate that due to this low cohesion (in combination with a number of other factors that undermine command and control) abuses in the FARDC are in many cases not explicitly ordered. Certainly, this does not apply across the board, since there are large variations per commander. Furthermore, what can be called “a permissive climate” (or the broad behavioural parameters of troops set by the commandment) plays an important role in all cases of abuse. In fact, it appears that commanders sometimes do not dare to intervene in case of misconduct, as they fear their troops might turn against them.

These findings do not in any sense imply that one embraces an apologetic position: the fact that no explicit orders are given does not diminish command responsibility for misconduct. However, it does indicate that punishing commanders and perpetrators is far from enough to improve the ways in which the FARDC acts on and off the battlefield.  When commanders’ grip over their subordinates is low, breakdowns in discipline might easily reoccur, especially in combat-related situations.

While we do not know whether orders in Minova were given or not, we do know that this incident has highlighted once more the dangers of the fragile cohesion and tenuous command and control in the FARDC. These are phenomena that cannot be solved with judicial action alone, but require prolonged periods of training, the re-establishment of meritocracy, the improvement of service conditions and an end to the on-going integration of rebel fighters.

Unfortunately, such important discussions get overshadowed by sensationalist media reporting such as this week’s BBC reportage. The latter is also questionable for interfering in on-going judicial investigations, since it establishes an interpretation of the events as “truth”, ahead of trial. Finally, it appears unethical in that it does not sufficiently protect the identity of the informants, as many of their personal details are revealed. In sum, this BBC reportage represents a true case of misguided journalism.  The money wasted on flying in the production crew could have certainly been of more use to the victims of the rape and looting in Minova.


Thomas Hubert said...

I reported on a very similar story for the BBC in 2011 - the Fizi rapes in the same South Kivu province and the subsequent conviction of the commanding officer for raping and leading his men to rape.
Her are some thoughts after watching the BBC report and reading this post (disclaimer: I no longer work for the BBC nor in the DRC).

1. Some criticism by Maria Eriksson Baaz is valid based on my experience:
- the headline and text accompanying the video on the website are sensationalist; though the TV report is not. That is no excuse, but it's important to understand that journalists working in the field in the DRC are under pressure from their HQs to file stories that scream "horrendous rape". The material wrapped around the actual material filed from the field tends to suffer from the same problem. The BBC is usually less prone to this than other media houses, but it is not immune;
- the soldiers' testimonies are indeed not sufficient to establish how rape was managed by the chain of command - but again only the written web intro seems to claim some "truth" about that. Judging the reporting of a field team on the basis of bad HQ editing/producing is a bit harsh - though I understand the public cannot be expected to sift through that. What I find more disturbing in this report is the lack of field research around the case: surely UN investigators, local NGOs, religious and administrative authorities, and other trusted contacts in the area have collected their own reports and cross-checking with them would give a much clearer picture;
- all of Maria's analysis on blurry chains of command, integration of rebel units, etc. is spot on and confirms what I have seen. When eyewitnesses report a ranking officer raping himself, he's certainly not leading by example - but the problem here is that we have only one or two soldiers accusing an unnamed "colonel", and they're clearly expecting this to shield them from responsibility.

(continues in next comment)

Thomas Hubert said...

2. This blog post fails to acknowledge the good this kind of reporting does, despite its shortcomings.
Rampant sexual violence by military units with more or less tacit approval and/or involvement from their superiors is a scandal of global proportions. Yet it is so under-reported that even the reporter on this story sounds unaware that I covered a similar case for the same channel two years ago (she seems to says that rape by regular army units is new). The BBC can be thanked for at least taking the time to talk to the victims and the rapists alike in a case like this and giving it 4'30" on Newsnight.

3. Some of Maria's criticism is unwarranted and discouraging for journalists trying to do a good job on those stories:
- the BBC report is "interfering in on-going judicial investigations, since it establishes an interpretation of the events as “truth”, ahead of trial". If journalists are to wait for a credible and final ruling by a Congolese court before they report the facts in any legal case in the DRC, they might as well retire now (not to mention those investigating corruption, etc. in the Western World);
- "the expected or real related fee" - I watch the BBC because I know from experience it has a strict ban on paying sources. If Maria has evidence to the contrary, she should make it clear. Otherwise this kind of innuendo just destroys journalists' reputation in general;
- "it does not sufficiently protect the identity of the informants" - I'm not sure. I would be able to recognise the rape victim in the blue dress only if she was wearing the same again and I had a still from the video next to her. People very close to the sources may be able to recognise their voice or silhouette - but that is their choice. BBC journalists have strict rules on making it clear to their sources how their interview is going to be used. And in mass incidents (certainly in the Fizi case), the stigma attached to individual rape may be replaced by collective indignation and a willingness to speak, even openly. None of the victims I interviewed in Fizi requested anonymity, even after I explained to them that their story would be all over TV, radio, the Internet, including in their area and in Swahili. We chose to anonymise them all the same, in case they did not realise the full implications - so BBC source protection rules are pretty solid;
- "The money wasted on flying in the production crew could have certainly been of more use to the victims of the rape and looting in Minova": what a sad, populist ending to an otherwise well-informed and thoughtful article. Sure money is always spent on something better than journalism (starving children, social housing, you name it). The Conservative government in London will probably quote from this to justify its next budget cuts. Why don't we just pull the plug on what's left of BBC funding and follow our favourite celebrities on Twitter instead?

Feels funny to be writing about all this months after stopping work on those stories - thanks for an interesting discussion!


blaise said...

I completely agree with you about the article and it's shortcoming.I think that in the chaos that followed the Goma debacle, a lot of things happened. It's possible that undisciplined soldiers took to themselves to attack civilians. It also possible that a commander ordered to his escort(one that can be really large) to commit those atrocities by leading by example.
Whatever happened, what I think it's really important to take away here is that the worse enemy of Congolese is themselves:
-nobody is preventing us to organised the army
-nobody is interfering to make the army cohesion happened
We can blame the whole day foreigners but as long as we don't look ourselves in the mirror and decide to take another direction, the whole world will not be able to fix us.

sema wapi said...

Thanks to Maria Eriksson Baaz and Thanks to Thomas Hubert, also Thanks to the BBC for reporting. I think, talking about this FARDC-problems is fundementally precondition to solve the conflicts in the Eastern Congo.

Unknown said...

While in Goma W. Hague promised a big “buzz” on “rape as weapon of war” during G8 meeting. Back in London W. Hague delivered. Remember that the famous BBC report was aired as the G8 convened and launched the famous “rape fund”. What a coincidence! And the CongoSiasa resident Congo-bashers with self-accorded attributes could not waste a second to splash to the world the ultimate scoop on the fatalism of Congolese predicament. It is just sad that such a prestigious institution like BBC can be enlisted by politicians for their agendas. And it is no surprise that it was once more the disgraced “Newsnight magazine” that was used.

Let’s give credit to Prof. M.E. Baaz and Judith for their courage and intellectual probity. She is not a “journalist”and especially not any of now “discredited Western journalists in Africa”who have built an enduringly harmful negative “stereotype” for Africa, especially in Congo the “Heart of African Darkness”.

In other words Prof. Baaz doesn’t need to sensationalize other people’s suffering to earn a living. She is a respected researcher-scientist who has worked on the subject long enough. But more importantly, journalists’ sensationalism or the invention of sexy phrases like “rape as a weapon of war”, or “DRC world capital of rape” may boost journalists’ popularity , but do more damage to the situation and solve nothing. However Prof. Baaz’s research helps us understand the situation better and therefore devise appropriate solutions.

Lastly, sensations aside, the phrase should be not “rape as weapon of war” but rather “rape as a consequence of war”. The world would be surprised to know that there is no mass rapes on 90% of free-peaceful DRC territory where the same FARDC soldiers are deployed. WHY? The world was shocked to see the evil limb amputation in Liberia and SieraLeone, where is it now? PEACE. In short, atrocities (like rapes, limb amputation, deaths…) are the by-products of war, how do you stop the latter without preventing the former?


Thomas Hubert said...

Sorry I forgot to acknowledge Judith Verweijen in my comments - I went back to the start of the intro text to get the correct spelling for Maria's name and left Judith out in the process. My comments were intended for both authors of the post.

sema wapi said...

muanacongo, thanks for your new post of insulting. Furtunatally you are well known as a basher of any opinion that doesn't go with yours and the opinion directed by central gov. in Kinshasa. YES WE ARE ALL KAGAMES PEOPLE AND CONGO BASHERS.
Congo could be a real paradise, only with Kabila, his army and the chinese investors!
Everybody else must be wrong.

blaise said...

I will love to see that those who JUST talk the talk will ALSO walk the walk.There is no courage insulting people on a blog, true courage is to be true to one words and do something about it.
We know what Dizolele is doing.We know what the young Kambale is doing as well.What are others,the only Congo lovers are doing?Prove us,horrible Congo bashers and grow some balls and go fight for your Country. Don't coward abroad,protected by other men like old ladies. Will you walk your talk brother? If not, I advise you to back off. This ndjilois can be as nasty as you!!!!!

Unknown said...

@Sema wapi

I am sorry if ever any of my words offended you. But where am I insulting “you” or supporting JK-DRCgov in this my latest statement? I will always respect any of your opinions even if I may not agree with them. Have we not politely locked horns before?

Dear “sister-in-law”, we come a long way with many and CongoSiasa is such a chronological archive of this conflict. How can people who claimed M23 were fighting for some “Tutsi homeland” in the Kivus be trusted in anyway? The rest is masquerade, like Burundians or Angolans, majority of Rwandan elite is educated in DRC. They may know Kin-L’shi or Gomz streets names, some have been Chief-of-Staff in FARDC now they are busy slaughtering Congolese infants in the Kivus!

To you I ask: don’t you think it so childish that I order all 80mil Congolese to go to the frontline and leave today’s all-important social media to anti-Congo messengers? Can “bravery” be proved on the Internet? Don’t underestimate this august blog CongoSiasa for shaping views on this conflict. Why are people uncomfortable that at long last a different “view” on this conflict is given, as Prof. Baaz, Mr Hege and others do? THANK YOU JASON!

Forget the rest, lets debate the issues at hand. I raise some conceptual points in my statements, can you contradict those?

Take care


Judith said...

@ Thomas Hubert. Thanks for your comments. Happy you found our piece informed and thoughtful. Just a few reflections on your comments:

- To make it clear: our intention was certainly not to critique the individual journalist, but the drive for sensationalism in general, here (as you point out) mostly reflected in the packaging of the story.

- Certainly, investigations from journalists into human rights abuses are very valuable, in particular in order to make them visible, and contribute to pressure that action is taken. However, the Minova case is already well known, it has received plenty of international media attention, has been investigated by the UN and is under judicial investigations by the military prosecutor’s office. Moreover, some people have already been arrested. In such a context, we fail to see the added value of this type of quite superficial journalistic reporting, particularly since it makes detailed suggestions about the course of events and sells these as “truths”. In combination with the fact that a trial is coming up soon, we believe there is a risk that this could interfere with ongoing judicial investigations

- We do not entirely agree with your analysis of the protection of the identity of the informants: one victim is shown full face, and there have been numerous reports of reprisal actions of military and rebel groups against victims who testified. Furthermore, one soldier gives ample biographical details, for instance that he started his career in the Mai Mai in Shabunda, which makes it very easy for him to be recognized by fellow soldiers, and might put him into danger. Hence, we think for both victims and perpetrators there are elevated risks.

to be continued

Judith said...

- This brings us to the “expected and real fee”: even if no actual fee is paid (and we certainly believe you if you say the policy of the BBC is not to allow this), one should be aware that in a context of absolute poverty like in the DRC, the hope for future financial gain certainly influences people’s decisions to participate or not, and makes them take great risks. And we know of other cases where documentary makers and journalists did actually pay. Moreover, even if no fees are paid officially, interviewees often do get some kind of compensation through the “fixers” tasked to arrange the interview – with or without the knowledge of the expatriate journalist her/himself.

- Finally, yes, we agree, that was a quite populist ending. However, let us point out that we certainly do not want to argue that “money is always spent on something better than journalism” (whether starving children, health care, wildlife protection-or academic research; it should be emphasized that research is in no way immune to the problems we raise here). There are many stories that are certainly worth their costs – and plenty of examples where funds are better spent on journalistic investigations than anything else.

- However, sensationalist and superficial reporting of events that already have received a lot of media and investigative attention, is not one of them. That said, we certainly welcome investigative journalism that is thorough, uncovers new facts and looks into neglected areas and domains. It would in this respect be great if more journalists would cover, for example, the events in Shabunda (see Jason’s latest blog post).

Maria Eriksson Baaz and Judith Verweijen

blaise said...

Ahahahahahah, excuses, excuses,excuses. What is more important than defending your country against the invisible Rwandans and their supporters?
People who actually have been in leadership position know that "you don't leave to the next shift the pleasure to clean your mess".
Our opinions are just opinions, pres Kabila don't give a rat about what we think. Almost Half of Congolese voted against him in 2006 and 2011,that's a fact!
People in Kivu are tired and humiliated by those poor managed wars,another fact!
The others of this guest post are telling us also what is wrong with the fardc,another fact.
We can even go back to previous blog entries to see that some people stupids predictions never happened.Fact.
By the way,I like Matata,seems to have good ideas but there is a parallel government also,another fact.
Media doesn't kill people,guns are.
You need a fight? Go fight for the motherland, that will change things,not fourth grader beefing.
Last warning my brother, this ndjilois doesn't back down from anybody, just live your life and don't mess with me as I advised you before.

blaise said...

btw,kid, I'm not asking 80 millions congolese to fight, most of them give a resounding "hell no" to the Government call for enrollment in the army.
In fact, I'm asking YOU, who love congo so much, to go fight for your government. People are not dying in Congosiasia but in Congo.
You remind me of those so called "combattants", who wear those stupid camouflage uniforms abroad and attack innocent men,women and kids.
You want to shut Kagame up?Do it yourself, it's simple. You either don't believe your own stupidities or you are just scare to died. In either case,it's tragic for a so called patriot!!!!

Thomas Hubert said...

@Judith - all fair points. Curiously, it looks like we haven't seen the same edit of the TV report. When I watch the video on the BBC's website, there is no full-face victim interview, no soldier saying he started in Mai Mai Shabunda. Actually there's no human rights researcher interview either that would match your description in your original post.
I haven't seen the TV edit. I think the BBC has put out several versions of the video and we haven't watched the same one - further proof that good reporting can be undermined by bad producing.
But the main points in our debate remain valid.

Thomas Hubert said...

Or maybe recognisable sources were edited out from the web version after your original post ;-)

Rich said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rich said...

Maria and Judith -

This is a very good piece indeed. I do like and agree with you on almost every single points you made in relation to cohesion and hierarchical surveillance within the FARDC.

Quickly on Thomas’ comment, I would expect a journalist to at least reflect on the basic notions of power, discipline and punishment when reporting on this case. Maybe the trouble is due to the fact that nowadays, broadcasting or indeed reporting on complex issues around armed conflicts is no longer the privilege of some. Here is a link to an interesting piece of work by Betty Medsger.

To paraphrase someone who said, bad statistics can be just as bad as the bad things they try to cover. In the same way, I can say, bad reporting can be just as bad as some of the bad things it tries to cover/uncover. Please, forgive my French. The BBC failed to help its case by putting a title that did not reflect the content we all saw in the video. Witnesses presented in that report are very easy to identify due to the fact that Minova is not a very big place and if someone has been visited by, or visited, BBC journalists in the past weeks or months the whole place will know the details of that visit. The accusations about a colonel sounded more like a well rehearsed script to me.

Back to the main topic. Yes cohesion and hierarchical surveillance – a whole system allowing a synchronised transmission of orders and the effect of power or coercion to armed men and women – within the FARDC is almost inexistent and this has been the case not only in Minova, Goma, Kibumba, Rumangabo, Bunagana or indeed in the hills around Tshanzu or Runyori. The problem started decades ago and it will probably take decades to fix it adequately.

Parallels can be drawn between the BBC report and what has been alleged about FARDC soldiers receiving orders to retreat from some positions as we saw from Bunagana all the way to Goma; and yet this could also be another case of disintegration in the command chain rather than specific orders to retreat.

The annoying thing is, if this (discipline and hierarchical surveillance) took decades to falter unchallenged. It may now take more than that time to be fixed because fixing is challenged both from within and from without. Militarily the challenge is not impossible and the DRC & its allies shan't be short of the needed expertise; the problem is POLITICAL WILL. Regimes like in Kinshasa are often afraid of having a strong army that is a genuine emanation of the people. Until then it will be very difficult to even start thinking about rebuilding discipline and hierarchical surveillance within the FARDC.

Nevertheless, change can start by consolidating the most homogeneous units, building around them (see cases of 321st and 322nd battalions) and as you said no more integration of rebel fighters. The integration schemes have shown their limits it is time to put a definite end to them.


H Stewart said...

The sad truth is that the DR Congo in reality has no Army. It is saddled with the clowns and rapists of FARDC masquerading as an Army and the fools of MONUSCO doing fairly much the same masquerade.

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