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Originally published Saturday, October 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Congo rape victims tell stories

Honorata Kizende looked out at the audience and began with a simple, declarative sentence. "There was no dinner," she said. "It was me who...

The New York Times

BUKAVU, Congo — Honorata Kizende looked out at the audience and began with a simple, declarative sentence.

"There was no dinner," she said.

"It was me who was dinner. Me, because they kicked me roughly to the ground, and they ripped off all my clothes, and between the two of them, they held my feet. One took my left foot, one took my right, and the same with my arms, and between the two of them they proceeded to rape me. Then all five of them raped me."

The audience, which had been called together by local and international aid groups and included everyone from high-ranking politicians to street kids with no shoes, stared at her in disbelief.

Congo, it seems, is finally facing its horrific rape problem, which U.N. officials have called the worst sexual violence in the world. Tens of thousands of women, possibly hundreds of thousands, have been raped in the past few years in this hilly, incongruously beautiful land, and many of these rapes have been marked by a level of brutality that is shocking even by the twisted standards of a place haunted by warlords and drug-crazed child soldiers.

After years of denial and shame, the silence is being broken. Because of stepped-up efforts in the past nine months by international organizations and the Congolese government, rapists are no longer able to count on a culture of impunity. Of course, countless men still get away with assaulting women. But more and more are being caught, prosecuted and put behind bars.

European aid agencies are spending tens of millions of dollars building new courthouses and prisons across eastern Congo, in part to punish rapists. Mobile courts are holding rape trials in villages deep in the forest that have not seen a black-robed magistrate since the Belgians ruled the country decades ago.

The American Bar Association opened a legal clinic in January specifically to help rape victims bring their cases to court. So far, the work has resulted in eight convictions. Here in Bukavu, one of the biggest cities in the country, a special unit of Congolese police officers has filed 103 rape cases since the beginning of this year, more than any year in recent memory.

In Bunia, a town farther north, rape prosecutions are up 600 percent compared to five years ago. Congolese investigators have even been flown to Europe to learn "CSI"-style forensic techniques. The police have arrested some of the most violent offenders, often young militiamen, most likely psychologically traumatized themselves, who have thrust sticks, rocks, knives and assault rifles inside women.

"We're starting to see results," said Pernille Ironside, a U.N. official in eastern Congo.

The number of those arrested is still tiny compared with how many perpetrators are on the loose, and often the worst offenders are not caught because they are marauding bandits who attack villages in the night, victimize women and then melt back into the forest.

This is all happening in a society where women tend to be beaten down anyway. Congolese women do most of the work — at home, in the fields and in the market, where they carry enormous loads of bananas on their bent backs — and yet they are often powerless. Many women who are raped are told to keep quiet. Often, it is a shame for the entire family, and many rape victims have been kicked out of their villages and turned into beggars.

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Grass-roots groups are trying to change this culture, and they have started by encouraging women who have been raped to speak out in open forums, like a courtroom full of spectators, just with no accused.

At the event in Bukavu in mid-September, Kizende drew tears — and cheers. It seems that the taboo against talking about rape is beginning to lift. Many women in the audience wore T-shirts that read in Kiswahili: "I refuse to be raped. What about you?"

Dozens of activists are fanning out to villages on foot and by bicycle to deliver a simple but often-novel message: Rape is wrong.

Men's groups are even being formed.

But these improvements are simply the first, tentative steps of progress in a very troubled country.

U.N. officials said the number of rapes had appeared to decrease over the past year. But the recent upsurge of fighting between the Congolese government and rebel groups, and the violence and predation that goes with it, is jeopardizing those gains.

"It's safer today than it was," said Euphrasie Mirindi, a woman who was raped in 2006. "But it's still not safe."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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