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Sexual Brutality Accompanies War in Congo

The United Nations says the prevalence of sexual violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is the worst in the world. Since fighting erupted in the region six weeks ago between rebels and the Congolese army, women in eastern Congo say sexual brutality has risen to new heights. Noel King has more in this report from Goma, in eastern Congo.

Grace was born just two weeks ago; and she was orphaned on the very same day.

The women at Mugunga camp, home to 80,000 displaced Congolese, are very protective of the infant.

A member of the camp's leadership council, Banza Mazamba, tells VOA of the horror that befell Grace's parents when they fled their village September 23.

"Her mother and father were fleeing the village of Karuba when Nkunda's soldiers caught them," said Mazamba. "They killed the father immediately. The mother was very pregnant with this baby. They killed her and cut the baby from her stomach. An old woman, a Good Samaritan, found the baby on the ground and brought her here."

The elderly woman caring for Grace said she was running out of the milk that had been donated by others in the camp.

Aid groups and U.N. agencies could not confirm this specific incident; but say similar incidents have been reported.

The conflict in eastern Congo is as complex as it is brutal.

In late August, dissident General Laurent Nkunda and the Congolese army clashed in towns and villages across North Kivu province. Ninety thousand people fled their homes in six weeks, trying to escape the fighting.

Civilians are not being killed on a mass scale, say humanitarian workers. But they face the threat of atrocities by militia groups when they flee their homes.

Women are particularly susceptible to violence.

Patrick Lavand'homme is the head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Goma.

"When you have an increase of insecurity, an increase of displacement, women are put at risk and more vulnerable to sexual harassment," said Lavand'homme. The little rule of law that exists completely disappears. It is rape with violence and physical degradation. Very young girls and even young boys [are] being raped."

The most disturbing aspect of sexual violence in Congo, say many, is the brutality that accompanies rape.

Beatrice Misat is another resident of Mugungu camp. She explains what has happened to thousands of women across eastern Congo.

"One man holds your hands, the other one grabs your legs, and one puts his hand over your mouth," said Misat. "If you are lucky, they leave you after they rape you. But often they torture you with wooden sticks when they are finished. Then you start bleeding."

Misat told VOA that men from all armed groups in the region are responsible for rape.

Along with Nkunda's forces and the Congolese army, there are many other militia groups in eastern Congo.

The Mayi Mayi are rag-tag bands of guerilla soldiers who stalk the dense forests. Some observers say they are little more than killers for hire.

The FDLR are a Hutu militia groups with links to the perpetrators of Rwanda's 1994 genocide.

Those in the region say rape became a tool of war about 15 years ago when Hutu militias responsible for the Rwandan genocide poured into Congo, sparking a devastating five-year conflict.

Angela Kishabagasifa works with the U.N. Population Fund in Bulengo site, a camp outside of Goma that is home to 13,000 people.

She told VOA that the eldest rape victim she had counseled during the past two weeks was between 65 and 75 years old.

The youngest was four years old.

"There is no respect for age," she said. "The old and the young are both victims. I think it is more a desire to destroy rather than getting any pleasure out of this act. It is not about destroying an enemy. It is about destroying women. There is no respect anymore in eastern Congo."

Humanitarian groups say it can be difficult to determine how many women have been raped in eastern Congo. The United Nations World Children's Fund says 18,000 cases of rape were reported in 2006, in three Congolese provinces including North Kivu.

But the numbers are probably much higher. UNFPA's Angela Kishabagasifa explains.

"Women are ashamed to speak about it or to come forward," said Kishabagasifa. "Sometimes when we walk around the site, the women will ask us to come quietly in the house. But they think if they go to the health center they will be suspected of being a rape victim."

Despite a tense ceasefire holding in eastern Congo, military activity is again on the rise. Congo's armed forces and Nkunda's are said to be reinforcing their positions and stockpiling weapons.

Many fear a new eruption of violence any day. No one fears a return to the fighting more than Congolese women and girls.