By James Stairs
Goma, DR Congo – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrapped up a two-day visit to war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo Sunday, repeatedly lashing out at those responsible for the epidemic of sexual violence and rape in the vast Central African country.
Standing in the Kibati II refugee camp, 10 kilometres outside the provincial capital Goma, Ban expressed his anger and pledged that the UN would prioritize the issue.
‘(This visit) has allowed me to meet with many sexually abused and internally displaced people and it has given me resolve,’ he said.
As many as five million people have died in the wars that have ravaged the region since 1998. Humanitarian organizations estimate that millions have fled their homes and hundreds of thousands raped.
The Kibati II camp is home to 20,000 Congolese displaced during recent fighting in North Kivu.
On Saturday, the secretary general visited the Heal Africa hospital in Goma, the site of thousands of fistula repair surgeries for rape victims.
‘I am humbled, saddened and shocked by what I have just seen,’ a visibly-shaken Ban said, moments after meeting rape victims inside the hospital.
The visit came mid-way through the UN leader’s five nation African tour, which began in South Africa and concludes March 2 in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
‘Last Monday alone there were ten cases of rape (treated at the hospital). I am shocked and angered by this. Rape is a crime against humanity.’
Ban said that he had discussed the issue with Congolese president Joseph Kabila during a private meeting Saturday, urging him to confront the ‘culture of impunity,’ that he said was rampant in the country. ‘Offenders must be prosecuted,’ he declared.
Those suspected of rape should be barred from serving in the army or the police and government leadership is required to address the crisis, he argued.
Both the army and the police have been accused of widespread sexual abuse throughout the war. Prosecutions have been virtually non-existent.
Sunday’s visit ended a eventful week in the troubled North Kivu province.
On Wednesday, nearly five weeks after quietly slipping over the border to fight Hutu militias in the region, Rwandan troops withdrew.
The Rwandans had been at the fore of the joint military operation against rebels who fled over the border during the 1994 Rwandan genocide and regrouped under the banner of the Forces Democratiques pour la Liberation du Rwanda (FDLR).
War-weary Goma residents cheered as thousands of Rwandan troops marched through the border city, marking the end of a secretive and controversial campaign.
‘All we want is the war to end,’ Julia Wandimoyi, a Goma resident said as she followed the troops in to the buffer zone between the two countries’ borders. ‘With the Rwandans in our country, there would never be peace.’
Rwanda has invaded the DRC twice since 1994, ostensibly to attack the FDLR, whose leadership has vowed to return and overthrow the Rwandan government, restoring political power to the Hutu majority in the country.
Several UN reports examining the war, the latest in December 2008, have accused Rwandan officials and businessmen of profiting from the invasions to secure concessions in the Eastern Congo’s lucrative mining industry, a charge Kigali strongly denies.
FDLR fighters, many of whom participated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, have staged numerous attacks over the border since they arrived in the DRC.
The group allegedly has 6000 soldiers and are financed by their own control of mines throughout the DRC.
Since late January, Rwandan and Congolese forces have attacked the FDLR throughout Eastern DRC, attempting to disperse them and eliminate their financing network.
MONUC, the United Nations peace keeping mission in the country, was initially excluded from the planning, but later joined, providing logistics and equipment.
Congolese and Rwandan authorities report that 90 FDLR fighters have been killed and over 5000 Rwandan exiles have been repatriated.
But others fear that the new stage of the operation, led by the Congolese and supported by MONUC, will allow space for retribution killings in FDLR occupied areas – not unlike those which have occurred in the Northern DRC where Congolese, Ugandan and South Sudanese troops are currently pursuing Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
Over 900 civilians have been slaughtered by LRA fighters since mid-December.
Earlier in the week, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees warned that FDLR reprisal killings were on the rise, reporting that 32 people have been killed and 3000 displaced during recent attacks.
On Sunday, Ban supported the ongoing operation. ‘The biggest concern in the DRC is the lack of security. Even though the displaced want to return, they know they may be attacked by the FDLR. We must ensure this does not happen.’