Researching sexual violence in the armed conflict of eastern DRC
October 2012. Lake Kivu. The boat takes us from Bukavu to Goma. Lively Congolese rumba music comes from ‘la boîte/disco’ in the lower deck. Balmy weather, light breeze, the magical beauty of the Lake, on moments like these it is hard to believe I am in ‘the worst place on earth to be a woman’, as the DRC has been called before. I am sitting on the deck reading Lieve Joris’s travel accounts to Zaïre in 1997. ‘Dans van de Luipaard/Dance of the Leopard’ writes about her arrival in Kinshasa at the moment Kabila’s AFDL and his army of kadogos (child soldiers) enter the capital and oust Mobutu. I am particularly captivated when she describes how soldiers of the East pillage on a massive scale and one of her acquaintances cries out: “This is not Congolese!” (Joris, 2001, 109). On numerous occasions do my Congolese informants point to Rwanda when explaining the violence. Time and again when asked about sexual violence do they argue that rape is something that has been brought in with the war by the Rwandese. This local explanation leads to a general perception amongst the Congolese that sexual violence is an ‘imported crime’ (Douma & Hillhorst, 2012, 22).
Goma, Quartier Kyeshero. I interview a Congolese community-based NGO. I am told that sexual violence dramatically increased in the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide when the Interahamwe fled into neighbouring eastern provinces of Zaïre. Hunted down by Kagame’s RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front), both parties committed sexual violence on a massive scale. One informant explains: ‘In 1994 Rwandan refugees came in, then in 1996 the first war/ ‘guerre de libération’ started. It was at that moment we started hearing talk about sexual violence incidents committed here in the DRC. Studies that were done at that time state that a large percentage of the rapes were committed by armed men in uniform who spoke Kinyarwanda.’ Indeed, during the First (1996-1997) and Second Congo war (1998-2002) the main perpetrators were identified as the Interahamwe/FDLR (Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda) and Burundian rebel forces.
Undoubtedly, the Kivus mirror in many ways the ethnic and political problems of Rwanda. Alternative readings of the conflict stress the interconnectedness of the Kivus with Rwanda’s ethnic and demographic contradictions and the genocide that unfolded there (Reyntjens, 2009; Lemarchand, 2011; Prunier, 2009). However, it is important to note that the Rwanda genocide and the pursuant exodus of refugees and militias into the eastern provinces did not cause the protracted conflict in the DRC. I refer here to the words of Prunier: “It [the Rwanda genocide] acted as a catalyst, precipitating a crisis that had been latent for a good many years and that later reached far beyond its original Great Lakes locus” (Prunier, 2009, xxxi).
‘Ils sont là/They are here’ is by far the most common phrase used by locals when referring to the Rwandese and the numerous problems the Congolese face. Even though the nature of the conflict has changed dramatically since the aftermath of the genocide in 1994, the regional dynamics of the conflict are crucial. However, this is but one of many different intertwined sets of dynamics. Deeper local and national explanations to the violence should not be ignored (Vlassenroot in Kaarsholm, 2006). Therefore it would be wrong to represent sexual violence in eastern DRC as a pure spill-over effect from Rwanda.
When asked if sexual violence occurred before the war, all informants assert that this is brought in by the war. I point out that currently the Congolese national army, the FARDC, is the main perpetrator of the violence (also sexual violence). My informants argue the (re-)integration of rebel forces and ‘des éléments rwandais’ into the FARDC, a process known as brassage, explains the high levels of violence by the FARDC. True, the merging of fighting forces of all (ex)belligerents into the FARDC is an important strategy of the Congolese government, supported by the international community, but has proved to be detrimental to the peace process (Verweijen, 2013). It has led to “a vicious cycle of army integration and disintegration that has become a major factor in sustaining the ongoing violence in the east” (Baaz & Verweijen, 2013, 1). However, whether the presence of ‘Rwandan elements’ in the national army, as my informant claims, can be considered the primary cause for the violence it commits, is an entirely different matter. Listening to these arguments, I find myself on the slippery slope of ‘truth-seeking’ again. How much ‘truth’ can I ascribe to these local explanations of sexual violence? How important are local notions of ethnicity and tribalism?
When pointing out to my informants what I consider are contradictions in their stories, I am looked upon as an outsider who does not understand the reality on the ground. Here again I am confronted with the difficulty of my positionality as a western female researching sexual violence in an African conflict.
Clearly, the narrative of sexual violence as an ‘imported crime’ enhances the local perception that ‘the Congolese would live in peace and harmony if they were just left to themselves’ (Vlassenroot in Kaarsholm, 2006, 53). It is my contention that this is part of a Congolese ‘collectively created narrative about trauma’ (Wilson & Mitchell in Pottier, 2007, 840). In a society that is characterised by profound tribalisation, local explanations for the prevalence of sexual violence as a crime inherent to Rwandese militias and brought in by the war expose the principal fiction of identity: ‘the fiction of difference’ (Boose, 2002, 75). Informed and motivated by Spivak’s demand for a ‘hyper-reflexive’ attitude, I decide it is best to keep an open mind.
Charlotte Mertens is a doctoral candidate at the University of Melbourne. She researches the framing of sexual violence within the discourse of the United Nations and how this is translated on the ground in the context of the armed conflict in eastern DRC. Additionally, she conducts research into the local conflict dynamics that cause war-time rape.