To my right are fields of newly planted banana trees and cassava, with rich soil stretching across acres of peaceful-looking land. On my left are a jumble of windowless wooden houses with blue doors, tin roofs, and each with a nearby outhouse. Women and children trudge or run up and down the paths, carrying water and provisions. Every now and then, a plane flies low overhead, aiming to land or take off from the headquarters of
MONUSCO, the world's largest international peacekeeping operation, just a few kilometers away.
But here in Kavumu, during the past three years, almost 40 toddlers and young girls have been abducted
in the pre-dawn hours by unknown assailants, who steal into these tiny homes, whisk away their victims, and brutally rape and mutilate them, sometimes returning them to their beds by dawn, or often leaving them on the village paths or nearby fields.
Many of the victims are taken to the Panzi Hospital, a two-hour drive from Kavumu, where Dr. Denis Mukwege and his team of pediatric surgeons and gynecologists
try to piece together the reproductive organs of the small children. In a recent documentary, the doctors can be seen throwing off their surgical masks in disgust after an operation reveals that the patient will never be able to bear children due to the brutal way in which objects were thrust deep into her little body.
Even for this country that has suffered decades of war
, accompanied by massacres, rape and pillage, the Kavumu events shock the conscience. Local civil society leaders have organized public meetings, reached out to anyone who will listen, and pleaded for an investigation and prosecutions that will bring an end to the terror and suffering. Press releases issued by MONUSCO and Panzi Hospital have documented and decried these unsolved crimes. Rumors abound about the perpetrators and their motives: a witchcraft cult; grotesque acts by young disarmed militias camped out near the fields; drugging of victims; political intimidation.
And yet three years after the first attacks, the abductions persist. The latest assault came just this month when a 9-year-old girl was taken from her home and raped. And ominously, a local civil society activist who had reported on these crimes was killed this month in Kavumu.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has received tens of millions of dollars in aid and international efforts to support its tattered judicial system
. Its leaders have pledged to banish the country's terrible epithet, "rape capital of the world," through investigations and prosecutions for rape, and support to victims. The highly touted mobile courts that bring justice to remote areas where the war-related violence has been most severe have indeed prosecuted and convicted a handful of perpetrators of mass atrocities, including officers of the armed forces. But for the families of Kavumu, justice seems far off. We were told that many parents no longer want to take their cases to court because they have given up hope.
Yet there is finally cause for hope, delayed as it is, as a group of committed and competent Congolese professionals may finally be able to bring their skills and the full force of the law to these cases.
For four years, my colleagues and I have worked collaboratively in South Kivu province to support an unprecedented network of doctors, police investigators, lawyers and judges who respond to victims of sexual assault. Our Congolese medical partners have strengthened their techniques and practices for forensic exams and documentation, and have developed strong working relationships with the specialized police who focus on sexual violence and child protection. They have also collaborated with prosecutors to assure that evidence is relayed effectively and that the correct terms and medical forms are used and understood. They've promoted practices to ensure that, at every stage of a prosecution, the survivors of sexual assault are treated with dignity and in safety.
Together, they represent a small but growing group of engaged medical and law enforcement professionals who are pioneers in this collaborative effort to obtain justice for victims such as those in Kavumu. But they need to be empowered to take on these complex cases. At a special meeting this month of civilian and military prosecutors from the entire province, the serial rapes in Kavumu were designated as a top priority. Such a decision can at last bring the sorely needed political will and investigative resources to bear in these appalling cases.
When parents put their daughters to bed at night, they should expect to find them there in the morning, safe and whole, in Kavumu, and everywhere.