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Rape By Rebels, Bandits and Soldiers Has Sordid History in CAR


Former Congolese warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba is at the International Criminal Court in the Hague awaiting trial on charges related to violence committed by his troops in the Central African Republic. While raping sprees against women in the capital Bangui have been well publicized, sexual violence also took place in other parts of the vast, lawless country, and against men as well. And the sordid pattern continues. VOA's Nico Colombant reports in this the second part of a series on neglect and challenges in the mostly lawless Central African Republic.

Robert Souleymane, a former soldier in the French army during colonial times, shows the house where he says he was gang raped by a group of female Congolese rebels during heavy fighting in the town of Bossangoa in 2002.

Souleymane says they pushed him into his home, brandishing their weapons and forced themselves on him. Later he found out he was infected with HIV. He said his wife had fled to Chad, but that when she came back, he did not know he was infected, and that he is the one who must have infected her. He says his body has "melted" from a weight of nearly 90 kilograms before becoming sick to about 70 kilograms now.

Souleymane says he is very happy the former Congolese warlord Bemba has been arrested. He says when the Congolese mercenaries came through, everything was pillaged and burned to the ground.

Bemba has denied wrongdoing, or knowing what his forces were doing on the ground. The Movement for the Liberation of Congo was also backed by Uganda's government.

It was called in by then-CAR president Ange Felix Patasse to defend his elected government against fighters for then rebel-leader, Francois Bozize, who is now the CAR president, following a successful coup and subsequent elections.

But the entire north of the Central African Republic remains wracked with violence, some of it committed by former rebel fighters who say they were not paid enough after the coup, and who now terrorize civilians by acting as road bandits, looting vehicles and also kidnapping passengers and pedestrians.

New rebel groups also emerged in recent years, while militias have been formed to protect villages and roads. All armed groups, as well as the military, have been accused of using sexual violence as a tool of intimidation.

Toby Lanzer, who recently left his post as the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in the CAR says, in 2007, he heard of one group of rebels controlling a road, who were "taxing" women as they came through - in other words, raping them.

"We worked, I would say quite quickly, and hard with people to explain what is on and what is not on," he said. "And we have been able to make some headway. We are working in a place where violence unfortunately is too common and where women often bear the brunt of it. But it is not only women who have suffered from gender-based violence, it has also been young men and boys and we will continue to do what we can."

He says U.N. workers tried to end such practices on the 50-kilometer stretch of road north of Kaga Bandoro, where he says the situation was particularly bad.

"We essentially started going up and down the road and talking with everybody that we could find who had a weapon, who could force himself or herself onto somebody else, simply by the power of the gun," Lanzer said. "And there was a lot of advocacy, a lot of explaining, a lot of very delicate discussions going on, and the situation improved markedly over the last few months, so I think that is an encouraging thing."

Back in Bossangoa, a group of women who were raped during the fighting in 2002 and became ill with HIV, work together in a field, clearing land with machetes to grow vegetables.

One of the victims, Pelagie, says she was attacked by men while she came to Bossangoa's market to get food, not knowing fighting was taking place. She says she has heard rape is still perpetrated by rebels, unruly soldiers, and bandits in more remote areas of CAR.

Pelagie says if her association was given money, she could travel to these areas and warn women about armed men.

She says women need to know what has happened to others, and how best to avoid the same fate. She says women are also often viewed as being guilty if they have been raped, but that they should not be afraid to come forward with their stories and get tested to see if they have HIV. She says isolation and shame only make things worse.

When asked about Bemba, Pelagie says she is not into politics. But she says rapists and those who organize rapes during conflict should be put in jail, so that others may be afraid to do the same.

She shows her diploma as agricultural technician, which she completed after she was raped. But she says no one wants to give her a job anymore, because she has HIV.

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