Nearly five years after Congolese rebels introduced rape as a psychological weapon in the Central African Republic (CAR), individual victims and the nation as a whole are still dealing with the fallout.
Despite the anguish, victims or witnesses of rape in the capital, Bangui, are willing to talk about their trauma. One such person is secondary school teacher Bernadette Sayo, who was widowed in 2002 when rebels of the Mouvement de libération du Congo (MLC) killed her husband while she watched, and then raped her.
The MLC, headed by Jean-Pierre Bemba, had been invited by President Ange-Felix Patassé to shore up his government against André Kolingba, who tried to unseat him in a bloody, abortive coup on 28 May 2001. Bemba's fighters ran amok - looting, killing men and raping women in Ouango in the eastern area of the capital, where Kolingba and his Yakoma people were based.
The situation worsened in October 2002 when rebels headed by Francois Bozize - then army chief of staff, now president - successfully seized power. Again Patassé received Bemba's support and the latter's men claimed the "spoils" of war: again, they raped women like Sayo and sodomised men in the northern sector of Bangui, predominantly a Bozize stronghold. It was a barbaric episode that Sayo has found hard to forget.
"Despite my unceasing efforts to talk about it and get some [cathartic] release, I am still upset," she said.
Women and girls of all ages - some younger than six years, some older than 60 - were not spared. Now, many married women face divorce; others have contracted HIV-AIDS; some have had babies.
Sayo is the founder and chairwoman of OCODEFAD (L'Organisation pour la Compassion et le Développement des Familles en Détresse), which aims to take legal action against rapists and their accomplices, create income-generating activities for the victims, and advocate women's dignity. She says the NGO has registered 800 victims of rape and 16 conflict-born babies, and has been the only organisation caring for victims since Kolingba's attempted coup. OCODEFAD has also documented 140 men, such as Jacques Sanzé, who were sodomised or forced into sexual intercourse with female MLC rebels: acts intended to humiliate, debase and stigmatise them.
Photo: Joseph Benamse/IRIN
|Jacque Sanzé, a victim of sodomy at the hands of MLC rebels|
Most rape victims say they are still shamed and rejected by their communities, and many try to avoid humiliation by staying indoors; many girls have dropped out of school because insensitive classmates laugh, rather than sympathise, with their ordeal; older victims feel ostracised by their neighbours, husbands and relatives.
Fana Moussa, 26, says she can no longer marry because men avoid her and she is viewed as the "wife of the Banyamulenge", as the MLC men are known in CAR.
"I feel rejected by those around me," she said. "In fact, I am ashamed when people see me."
As a Muslim, Moussa says her rejection is near total - her husband no longer wants her, and other Muslims say she has violated the Koran, even though she is a victim of rape.
"This woman, like all others in this neighbourhood, committed adultery, which is forbidden by the Koran," said Hassan, a businessman and Moussa's neighbour, who did not reveal his surname. "She is impure and there is no question of marrying her or even having sexual relations with her - it would be sacrilege for a good Muslim to live in marriage with her."
Such sentiments have forced Moussa and other Muslim women in a similar situation into reclusive lives in the northern end of Bangui.The ordeal of rape victims is being
Photo: Joseph Benamse/IRIN
|A child born out of rape|
perpetuated: ostracism has forced households to break up; family support structures have fallen apart - rape victims often have little or no money and find it difficult just to get food; some children have dropped out of school because parents can no longer pay the fees. Their needs are great.
"We want free psychological, medical and social care for the victims first; free schooling for the children, and state protection because we are very vulnerable people and we have no security," Sayo said.
However, Georges M'Baga, director of cabinet at the Ministry of Social Affairs, said, "The Ministry of Social Affairs and of the Family is fighting to provide social, financial, medical and sociological care to the rape victims."
LITTLE HELP AVAILABLE
According to Sayo there has been no recent tangible aid to rape victims from a government that owes its civil servants 40 months in salary arrears. The government has said it is trying to have the International Criminal Court in The Hague review the case of rape victims.
With the exception of help from the UN Development Programme in 2003, no international organisation had so far paid attention to the plight of the victims, Sayo said. As a result, HIV-positive rape victims are dying because they cannot afford antiretroviral medication.
The public had thought rape would end with Bozize's seizure of power in mid-March 2003, but the practice continues - this time by Central Africans. Victims have often blamed soldiers, saying they rape with few or no legal consequences, and this is backed up by police reports showing that regular army soldiers are to blame, said a high ranking police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity. Thus, rapists appear to be undaunted by President Bozize's request that the judiciary deal severely with the culprits.
In 2004, a group of soldiers found guilty of rape were discharged from the army and imprisoned, but for the most part perpetrators either escape police custody or are freed by fellow soldiers and other security agents.
Photo: Joseph Benamse/IRIN
|These men and women, raped by Congolese rebels in 2001 and 2002 , meet weekly to discuss their problems|
Despite her lack of trust in the military, Elisabeth Mayongo, 50, still believes in the judicial system.
"We only want justice, and only this will console us of this humiliation inflicted on us by the killers [Patassé and Bemba]," she said.
OCODEFAD has filed a complaint against Patasse and Bemba at the International Court. However, the NGO says it needs money to initiate legal aid on behalf of individual victims, and to help improve their lives. M'Baga, of the Ministry of Social Affairs, said help may come in the form of a US $55,000 World Bank emergency aid project grant, called LICUS.
"OCODEFAD will be the main beneficiary of this grant under the LICUS project," he said.
M'Baga said he hoped the grant would open the way to another 200-million-franc CFA (approx $377,323) grant by the World Bank, which is likely to be negotiated in September. The money is earmarked for sustaining profitable income-generating activities initiated by any NGO caring for rape victims, such as Sayo's.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions