JOHANNESBURG – Congolese community leaders say they begged local U.N. officials and army commanders to protect villagers days before rebels gang-raped scores of people, from a month-old baby boy to a 110-year-old great-great-grandmother.
The rapes occurred in and around Luvungi, a village of about 2,200 people that is a half-hour drive from a U.N. peacekeepers' camp and a 90-minute ride from Walikale, a major mining center and base for hundreds of Congolese troops.
The number of people treated for rape in the July 30 to Aug. 4 attacks now stands at 242 — a high number even for eastern Congo, where rape has become a daily hazard. The rebels occupied the area for more than four days until they withdrew voluntarily.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has declared his outrage — survivors say they were attacked by between two and six fighters and raped in front of their husbands and children. Ban has sent his assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping, Atul Khare, to investigate the alleged lack of action from the U.N. mission in Congo.
Many question why the peacekeepers are not fulfilling their primary mandate, the strongest yet given to any U.N. force, which allows them to use force to protect civilians, and especially women and children. The U.N. says it passed through Luvungi but villagers did not say anything about the rebels.
Charles Masudi Kisa said his Walikale Civil Association first sounded the alarm on July 25, meeting with Congolese army and local authorities to say that the withdrawal of soldiers from several outposts was putting people in danger of attacks from rebels. The military had abandoned every post from Luvungi to just outside Walikale, for unclear reasons, he said.
Masudi said that on July 29, acting on information from motorcycle taxis, he warned the U.N. Civil Affairs bureau in Walikale, the army and the local administration that rebels were moving in on Luvungi. "Again we begged them to secure the population of Luvungi and told them that these people were in danger," he said. Freddy Zanga, secretary of the association Masudi leads, confirmed his account.
When Luvungi was occupied on July 30, Masudi heard from truck drivers forced to turn back and passed information on to officials in the same offices. That same day, the United Nations sent text and e-mail messages to aid workers warning them to be aware that armed perpetrators were in the area, much of it dense forest that provides convenient cover for fighters.
On Aug. 1, Masudi said, his group heard from some raped women who had escaped and reported that scores of rebels had overrun the area.
Roger Meece, the U.N. mission chief in Congo, says a Congolese army patrol moved through the area on Aug. 2, apparently removed a rebel roadblock, exchanged fire with some fighters, and got information suggesting "a dramatic decrease" in rebel and militia activity. In fact, some 200 to 400 rebels were occupying villages alongside the road and into the interior, according to reports from survivors. The U.N. says there are 80 peacekeepers at its Kibua camp near Luvungi.
Also on Aug. 2, Indian peacekeepers accompanied some commercial vehicles to protect them from the rebel roadblock and stopped in Luvungi.
"How could they protect commercial goods but they could not protect the people?" Masudi asked.
The peacekeepers stayed long enough to arrest a Mai-Mai militiaman accused of trying to steal a motorcycle. But the village people did not make any reports of what had happened in the preceding days, Meece said.
The patrol also stopped in another village, Bunya Mumpire, from which aid workers reported many rapes. Meece said people there wanted to fight the militiaman with the peacekeepers but again did not report that they were under attack. It's unclear what means of communication were available to the peacekeepers, who often travel without interpreters and generally do not speak the Kiswahili, French or Kinyarwanda spoken in the region.
On Aug. 4, the local chief came to Walikale and reported that the rebels had left and that large numbers of people had been raped. He spoke to Masudi's organization, the International Medical Corps, the U.N. office in Walikale and to civilian authorities, Masudi said.
On Aug. 5, a convoy including medical corps workers and Masudi's organization drove to Luvungi and the extent of the horrors began to unfold, as raped women began coming out of the forest.
Miel Hendrickson, regional director of the Los Angeles-based International Medical Corps, says her group briefed officials at the Walikale office of the U.N. Organization for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs when they returned from their first trip to Luvungi the night of Aug. 6. "We told them the area had been attacked, that there had been no fighting and no deaths, but raping and looting," she says.
Roger Meece, the top U.N. envoy in Congo, said U.N. peacekeepers in the area did not learn about the rape and looting spree until Aug. 12 from the International Medical Corps. Two U.N. officials in Kinshasa told The Associated Press that they got first word from media reports, even though the U.N.'s small Civil Affairs office in Walikale is charged with protecting civilians.
The United Nations did not send a team until Aug. 13, according to Reece.
The number of people treated went up from a couple of dozen on Aug. 5, to 154 by Aug. 16, 172 the following week and 242 by Wednesday, Hendrickson said.
Congo's government has grabbed at past failures by U.N. peacekeepers to call for the withdrawal of the force, the biggest in the world at about 18,000. U.N. officials say soldiers are hampered by mountainous and rugged terrain and are sparsely deployed across a country the size of Western Europe. But aid workers say there is a well-graded dirt road from the U.N. camp at Kibua to Luvungi, and from Walikale to Luvungi.
Congo's army and U.N. peacekeepers have been unable to defeat the few thousand rebels responsible for the long drawn-out conflict in eastern Congo, which is fueled by the area's massive mineral reserves. Maj. Sylvain Ikenge, a spokesman for army operations in eastern Congo, would not say why soldiers had withdrawn from the area, allowing rebels to move in, only that they "are now concentrated around Walikale to concentrate our efforts to track down the rebels."
"The FARDC (Congolese armed forces) cannot occupy each and every area to secure everyone and also track the rebels," he said, adding that Walikale territory is greater than the combined size of neighboring Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda.
Associated Press Writer Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report from the United Nations.