"The rapists roam the streets"
"The rapists roam the streets; [local] customs allow them to pay a goat [as recompense to the victim's family] without serving prison terms. Even worse, some of the rapists are HIV-positive or old and rape girls of around 12 and 13 thinking they will be cured [of illness] or live longer," Marie Pacuryema, the coordinator of a local NGO, Solidarité Féminine pour la Paix et le Développement Intégré en Ituri, said.
A November 2007 report released by Médecins Sans Frontières-Suisse said that since 2003, between 30 and 500 patients reported sexual assaults each month in Ituri. At least 2,708 people were also raped in an 18-month period, with 7,000 more having been raped in a four-year period, according to the report.
"The statistics do not give the real picture on the ground," Marie-Louise Uronya, head of the Office for Gender, Family and Children in Ituri, said.
"Many have been raped but fear reporting it due to shame, fear of reprisals or rejection by society, among other reasons," Uronya said.
"There are mothers who were raped three or four years ago who are continuing to visit us," she said.
While in the past the victims of sexual violence were raped by two or more aggressors or sometimes in the presence of a third party, from early 2007 rape tended to be carried out by a single assailant.
"It does not stop; we think that the same rapists of yesterday who were released from the armed groups into the community are still carrying on with the habit," Francine Mangaza, an officer with the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), in the district of Ituri, said.
At least 23,000 ex-combatants, in addition to 11,000 child soldiers, have been reintegrated into the community under a national disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programme.
The main perpetrators of the crimes include the military, the police, civilians, ex-combatants and even children.
"The military and the police are supposed to know the law, which is well explained in training centres. But I have come to realise that they rape to defy the law. None has claimed ignorance of the law. In court cases they claim not to have known the age of the victim, which cannot be right because a 13-year-old is easily identified due to her physical development," Maj Innocent Mayembe, the judge and chairman of the military tribunal in Ituri District, said in the regional capital, Bunia.
The forms of sexual violence being perpetrated are more violent and dangerous than before, according to the judges.
In February 2007, the commander of one of the regular army battalions in the town of Bavi, 60km south of Bunia, François Molessa, alias Bozizé, was sentenced to life imprisonment along with some of his staff for killing 30 civilians, whom they then buried in a mass grave. The female victims, both women and girls, were systematically raped first.
"The perpetrator of rape behaves like an animal. The aggressor is transformed into a beast which attacks the prey. The rapist, once sated, abandons the victim," Mayembe said.
An 18-year-old woman, who was raped by soldiers in March 2007, agreed.
"At about two o'clock in the morning my husband heard someone pushing the door. We thought they were bandits. They continued to push the door and we also started to push the door from the inside," she testified.
"My husband opened the door holding a knife, but the attacker had a gun. He told my husband that was going to be the last day of his life and shot him in the neck. My husband fell and died on the spot.
"We called out for help from our neighbours but they did not come. When my husband fell, I opened the door and saw a FARDC [DRC army] soldier with a rifle and wearing army uniform.
"He told me he was going to kill me if I refused to sleep with him.
"He raped me, then asked me for food. My lower abdomen is painful; I am worried because my husband had money but this was looted. I was left a widow."
The military tribunal in Bunia has sentenced the perpetrator, who was charged with murder and rape, to death.
"We render severe judgments to discourage the men in uniform. We refer the rape cases to the army and sentence perpetrators to life imprisonment if the victims were murdered. We reject [any claims] such as [the rape was due to] provocation by the victim or the morals of the victim," said Mayembe.
but slow progress
However, Mayembe said the impact of the strict sentencing had not been very significant as few cases came to court compared with the number of crimes reported.
"It is difficult to objectively say there has been progress with the [rape] statistics remaining constant. In 2007, we rendered 17 judgments in the new military tribunal; it was difficult for the military justice system to flush out all the cases of sexual violence," he said.
In a bid to reduce cases of rape and sexual violence, the UN Mission in the DRC, MONUC, conducts inquests into all reported rape cases involving agents of the state (police, military, FARDC) and takes the perpetrators to court. In addition, the mission is also involved in awareness-building among the military.
According to the human rights division of MONUC, there had been a decline in the number of state agents committing rape, with current cases mainly involving civilians and minors.
At least 30 boys of about 14 and 15 have been detained on rape charges at the central prison in Bunia.
Culture of impunity
One of the causes of the chronic rape was the culture of impunity, Mangaza of UNICEF said.
UNICEF had helped at least 110 rape victims in Ituri although 80 judgments have not been rendered.
According to Mangaza, this was sending a wrong message to potential perpetrators of rape that they would not serve sentences or pay fines.
At least 50,000 people died in the five-year conflict, which began in 1999, with 150,000 others still displaced due to security concerns, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Bunia.