Life sentences for militiamen who raped children in DR Congo

An eastern Congolese court's life sentences for 11 militiamen for raping children is a breakthrough, according to rights groups. They say the verdict is a victory against those who "thought they were invincible."

A Congolese military tribunal imposed life sentences on the militia fighters, including their leader, provincial lawmaker Frederic Batumike, describing the rapes and several murders as crimes against humanity.

Between 2013 and 2016, the militia kidnapped and raped at least 37 girls in the village of Kavumu, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) north of Bukavu city in the Democratic Republic of Congo's South Kivu province. 

Prosecutors said Batumike, whose immunity was waived to stand trial, had hired a spiritual advisor who told fighters that raping very young children would give them mystical protection.

Compensation awarded

The mobile court, concluding the trial which began on November 9, awarded $5,000 (4250 euros) to each victim of sexual violence and $15,000 to families of those killed for criticizing the militia's actions.

Africa | 27.09.2013

"Following years of silence, motivated by fear and denial, their suffering has been brought to light and recognized publicly," said Charles Cubaka, spokesman for lawyers representing the victims.

The attacks took place in South Kivu province between 2013 and 2016

Not invincible

"For too long those who commit rape in the Congo have thought they were invincible," said Physicians For Human Rights on Wednesday.

"This trial demonstrated that justice can be served in the Congo, when an investigation is effectively carried out and evidence is methodically collected, even when the accused wield significant power and are highly organized," said the group's spokeswoman Karen Naimer.

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It was now the responsibility of Congolese authorities to use similar measures to "rigorously pursue other cases of sexual violence" across the vast Central African nation, she said.

Many of the sexual assaults happened at night, according to Congolese surgeon Denis Mukwege, who had sounded the alarm.

Militia members, including Batumike, were also convicted of membership in a rebel movement and illegal weapons possession.

Violence pervasive

Regional wars in eastern Congo between 1996 and 2003 claimed millions of lives, mostly from hunger and disease.

Dozens of armed groups continue to prey on local populations and fight for control of the region's rich natural resources.

Several high-level militia and army commanders have been prosecuted in recent years, but experts say sexual violence remains pervasive.

Democratic Republic of Congo: The displaced people of Kalemie

Evening at an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp

Two children run around at dusk in the Kalenge refuge camp for IDPs. Thousands of people were forced to flee their homes after fighting broke out in the province of Tanganyika in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Now, many live in camps in the city of Kalemie and its surroundings. Among them are many children, who were separated from their parents.

Democratic Republic of Congo: The displaced people of Kalemie

Flammable buildings

The IDPs at the Kalenge refugee camp live in huts made of straw. Frequent fire outbreaks often spread rapidly from house to house. The situation is similar in other camps in the region. In June alone, the Moni, Lukwangulo, Kabubili, Kateke and Katanyika camps burned down. In August, half of Kakinga camp burned down, resulting in the death of a child.

Democratic Republic of Congo: The displaced people of Kalemie

School becomes an emergency shelter

These children are in the Circle Filtsaf Primary School in Kalemie, but they are not here to learn. They were placed here after being driven out of Tabacongo in early May. Some of them suffer from diseases and malnutrition.

Democratic Republic of Congo: The displaced people of Kalemie

Bacteria in blood

Employees of the medical charity Doctors Without Borders are testing for malaria in this provisional clinic. 70 to 80 percent of the population in the Kalunga refugee camp is said to be carriers of the Malaria bacteria. The doctors also treat children who are malnourished or suffering from measles.

Democratic Republic of Congo: The displaced people of Kalemie

Fleeing as a family

"Our children and old people are dying," said Kisompo Selemani [In photo: 2nd from left]. The chief of the Twa people has been living with his wife and four children in Kilunga since November. The family had to leave their village when it came under attack by another Twa faction. "The government has to do something so that we can return to our villages," said the 64 year old.

Democratic Republic of Congo: The displaced people of Kalemie

No education

Throughout the camp, there are no schools or other activities for children.

Democratic Republic of Congo: The displaced people of Kalemie

Making a living

A woman sells cigarettes, flashlights and manioc with her children at the Kilunga refugee camp. Many of the displaced persons eat only one meal per day, mostly manioc flour and leaves.

Democratic Republic of Congo: The displaced people of Kalemie

In search of clean water

While children in Mukuku play football, women transport water canisters. There is a lack of clean water. This increases the risk of contagious diseases such as cholera, which is transmitted via contaminated water.

Democratic Republic of Congo: The displaced people of Kalemie

Looking for work

The security situation in the region is still volatile. Many displaced people are seeking safety in and around Kalemie. To earn some money, they work on the fields in the surrounding villages or collect firewood for sale.

Democratic Republic of Congo: The displaced people of Kalemie

Temporary settlement or a new beginning?

Life in the refugee camp is not easy. Yet, it is much better here for many of the displaced persons. Most of them witnessed serious violence before they fled. According to Doctors Without Borders, there is a desperate need for psychological care.

Democratic Republic of Congo: The displaced people of Kalemie

Mosquitoes a deadly threat

In the Kalonda refugee camp, 69-year-old Kabeja Kanusiki cares for her sick grandchildren. The mosquito net in the background is intended to protect them against malaria, which can be dangerous for children in particular. Altogether about 210,000 displaced persons live in about 17 non-official camps around Kalemie.

ipj/se (AFP, Reuters, AP)