JOHANNESBURG – Rwandan and Congolese rebels gang-raped nearly 200 women and some young boys over four days within miles of a U.N. peacekeepers' base in an eastern Congo mining district, an American aid worker and a Congolese doctor said Monday.
Will F. Cragin of the International Medical Corps said aid workers knew rebels had occupied Luvungi town and surrounding villages in eastern Congo the day after the attack began on July 30. U.N. agencies sent text messages to cell phones saying the area was occupied, he said.
More than three weeks later, the U.N. mission has issued no statement about the atrocities and said Monday it still is investigating.
Cragin told The Associated Press by telephone that his organization was only able to get into the town, which he said is about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from a U.N. military camp, after rebels ended their brutal spree of raping and looting and withdrew of their own accord on Aug. 4.
There was no fighting and no deaths, he said, just "lots of pillaging and the systematic raping of women" by between 200 and 400 rebels.
Four young boys also were raped, said Dr. Kasimbo Charles Kacha, the district medical chief.
"Many women said they were raped in their homes in front of their children and husbands," Cragin said. Others were dragged into the nearby forest.
He said that by the time they got help it was too late to administer medication against AIDS and contraception to all but three of the survivors.
Many women said they were raped repeatedly by three to six attackers, Cragin said.
International and local health workers have treated 179 women but the number raped could be much higher as terrified civilians still are hiding, he said.
"We keep going back and identifying more and more cases," he said. "Many of the women are returning from the forest naked, with no clothes."
Luvungi is a farming center of about 2,200 people on the main road between Goma, the eastern provincial capital, and the major mining town of Walikale.
Kacha said on one day during the rebel occupation Indian peacekeepers had provided a military escort against the rebels to a large commercial truck traveling from Kebab to Luvungi, which is near a cassiterite mine and about 88 miles (140 kilometers) south of Goma.
U.N. mission spokesman Madnodje Mounoubai promised to get military comment on the assumption that the peacekeepers were protecting commercial goods but not civilians, which is their primary mandate.
Survivors said their attackers were from the Rwandan rebel FDLR group that includes perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide who fled across the border to Congo in 1994 and have been terrorizing the population in eastern Congo ever since, according to Cragin. The Rwandans were accompanied by Congolese Mai-Mai rebels, he said, quoting survivors.
Rape as a weapon of war has become shockingly commononplace in eastern Congo, where at least 8,300 rapes were reported last year, according to the United Nations. It is believed that many more rapes go unreported.
Congo's army and U.N. peacekeepers have been unable to defeat the many rebel groups responsible for the long drawn-out conflict in eastern Congo, which is fueled by the area's massive mineral reserves. Gold, cassiterite and coltan are some of the minerals mined in the area near Luvungi, with soldiers and rebels competing for control of lucrative mines that give them little incentive to end the fighting.
The Congolese government this year has demanded the withdrawal of the $1.35 billion-a-year U.N. mission, the largest peacekeeping force in the world with more than 20,000 soldiers, saying it has failed in its primary mandate to protect civilians.
Mission officials have said that the peacekeeping army is too small to police this sprawling nation the size of Western Europe, and that its peacekeepers are handicapped by rebels using civilians as shields and operating in rugged forests and mountains where they are difficult to pursue.
The mission also has a difficult mandate of supporting the Congolese army, whose troops often also are accused of raping and pillaging.