GOMA – Though the fight between ex-M23 fighters and the Congolese army ended nearly three years ago in this country of 80 million people, for many victims of this brutal war and children born as a result of rape, the suffering is still on going.
The majority of their victims were thousands of women and young girls who were raped and are now facing rejection from their communities as well as a generallack of medical care for HIV positive sufferers.
The victims also included former child soldiers forcefully recruited into the rebel ranks, but now they have no future since they lack formal education to get jobs.
Between January 2010 and December 2013, when the M23 war was at its peak, the United Nations registered 3,635 cases of rape or other forms of sexual violence in Congo.
Most of the rape cases happened in areas controlled by M23 fighters in the east of the country. Many victims were targeted in their homes, when they were working in the fields, going to the market or fetching water, the UN report stated, which was released in 2013 shortly after the end of M23 fighting.
Like many other rape victims, Rachel Kasoke and her 18 year-old daughter were raped by M23 fighters in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Though Rachel and her daughter survived, both contracted HIV/AIDS and the suffering has continued. “We are unfortunate because even the perpetrators were never punished,” Kasoke said.
M23 began in April 2012 as an army mutiny by several hundred soldiers who accused the government of breaching the terms of a March 2009 peace deal under which the rebel group they then belonged to, the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) morphed into a political party while CNDP fighters joined the army.
Estimated between 1,500-2,500, M23 fighters were part of CNDP rebel movement formed by Laurent Nkunda in 2004 in North Kivu to reportedly defend the rights of ethnic Tutsi Banyamurenge.
Nkunda was defeated in 2009. Three years after, Nkunda’s former soldiers announced the creation of M23 within the fold of the CNDP and they appointed Sultan Makenga as “coordinator” and sole commander of the movement.
Makenga, together with the other 1,377 M23 fighters have vowed never to return to DRC, arguing that the government was not sincere about giving them amnesty.
Human rights activists say there is a risk that such former rebels could start a new armed group and continue committing human rights abuses if they are not found, investigated and prosecuted in fair and credible trials.
The Congolese government have said that victims in the east must look to the Ugandan and Rwandan government as they are preventing the repatriation of M23 fighters. The two countries are shielding the perpetrators and the victims of these crimes will only be satisfied once the culprits are put on trail.
Susana Mutata, a human rights lawyer based in Goma agrees.
“Bringing M23 fighters to justice is part of the fight to end impunity in DRC,” Mutata said in an interview. “We are quite surprised that today, some countries can still protect those who perpetrate violence.”
She explains that the victims can only reconcile after their tormentors have been punished. “This is the only way to bring solace in their hearts.”
“Congolese authorities have issued arrest warrants for several senior M23 leaders on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but to date none have been arrested,” Carina Tertsakian, East African researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.
Tertsakian said HRW was not aware of any investigations by Rwandan or Ugandan authorities into the alleged role of former M23 leaders present on their territory for crimes committed in Congo or any other steps by the respective governments to bring these individuals to justice.
Fiston Muhindo, a 26-year-old resident of Goma, claims his sister was raped and their father killed by members of M23 fighters, following their retreat from the town of Goma, which they had briefly captured in 2013.
“The trialof at least their leaders will heal my wounds I suffered when they killed my relatives. They will never be forgiven without facing the law,” Muhindo said in an interview with Africa Times.
The Congolese government has said around 100 M23 former commanders are not eligible for amnesty.
The list of those wanted by DRC includes Marie Runiga and his former military commanders Col Baudouin Ngaruye, Eric Badege and Innocent Zimurinda, all now hiding in Rwanda.
Last year, there was an amnesty law passed by the DRC government for the M23 fighters. Some of them filed their amnesty papers but the process was later stalled.
The repatriation of the M23 elements is part of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework Agreement (PSCF), signed in Addis Ababa in February 2013 by DRC and its neighbours but, like many provisions of the PSCF, it has been lost.
“The complete confusion about the amnesty for the M23 illustrates the fact that neither DRC nor its neighbours intend to implement the PSCF in good faith” Thierry Vircoulon, Project Director for Central Africa of the International Crisis Group, said in an interview.
Rwanda and Uganda, Tertsakian of Human Rights Watch said, must extradite the M23 leaders to Congo because the two countries are under an international legal obligation to investigate and prosecute them under the Geneva Conventions and the Convention against Torture.
Failure to repatriate over 600 former fighters from Rwanda and 1,377 from Uganda, Human Rights Watch notes, will be a major setback to the efforts aimed at seeking justice for the victims.
Documents complied by HRW, who spoke to the victims of these abuses in DRC claimed there’s sufficient evidence against the rebels.
For example, Nkunda, who has been incarcerated in a safe house in Kigali since 2009 has never been repatriated and prosecuted for alleged murder, rape and recruitment of child soldiers in DRC.
When his rebel group was defeated, he fled to Kigali. The insistence by the Congolese government that Nkunda be handed over to Kinshasa to face trial has been rejected by Kigali on account that Kinshasa has the death penalty in its penal code.
Like Nkunda, analysts say M23 fighters could remain in Rwanda and Uganda for good, thus robbing the war victims an opportunity to get justice.
But some of these Congolese fighters are of Rwandan origin-known in DRC as Banyamurenge (Congolese people who speak the Rwandan language, Kinyarwanda_ – an aspect highlighting the existing fears for their safety once they are forced back home.
The ex-M23 fighters also cite a threat of FDLR, a Rwandan rebel group accused of perpetrating the 1994 genocide and still hiding in the forests of eastern DRC who believe that M23 is an offshoot of the Kigali government or Kampala establishment.
In a letter to President Joseph Kabila dated January, 29 last year, titled “Prosecuting M23 Leaders and Others for Serious Abuses”, HRW urged the Congolese government that in order to secure the extradition of these individuals from Rwanda and Uganda, in accordance with international standards, Congo needs to address a number of human rights concerns.
“These include ensuring humane treatment of the accused once in Congolese detention, respect for their due process rights, and their right to a fair trial, and ruling out the application of the death penalty—a cruel and inhumane punishment that is yet to be abolished in Congo,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of HRW.
When Rachel told her husband of the rape, he divorced her, leaving her to raise their four children alone.
Rape and other forms of injustices were common against the civilian population throughout the years when M23 fighters were battling the government army in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Sometime after M23 fighters retreated from Goma town in 2013, three insurgents decided to go after a suspected government corroborator in Kirambo village. However, they never found the corroborator. Instead, they found the home of a Congolese woman, Agnes Masiga. At the time her husband and two children were not at home, making her more vulnerable to the weapon of war used by these fighters; rape.
Masiga said the men herded her to a near-by bush and raped her. Masiga told Africa Times that the insurgents threatened her saying “if you make noise, we shall kill you.”
She was gagged and raped by the three men. “Rape broker Masiga’s heart. I have never managed to love again,” she said.
Masiga was 26 when she was raped. During the fighting in DRC, rape was not only used to traumatize women and girls but also to spread disease. Years after Masiga was raped, she realized she had contracted HIV.
Though the M23 war has ended, rape has not stopped in this vast country of more than 70 million people.
Hundreds of Congolese women still struggle with a legacy of rape living a traumatized life along with high HIV rates, says John Mwehu, a human rights lawyer based in Goma.
Like many rape victims in the DRC, Masiga did not report her assailants for fear of stigmatization by members of her community.
“Many women never report rape cases as the law requires them to proof beyond reasonable doubt that they were rape,” said Mwehu.
Marie Emeneya, 34, is another example of a woman raped by a member of one of the armed group. She was returning from her garden in Kamemebe, a village near Goma when she was attacked. It took her a long time to speak up about the incident; three years ago she broke her silence. She told the government officials from the ministry of health about the incident.
Like Masiga, Emeneya contracted HIV. The son she produced as a result of rape is also HIV positive. “There was time I wished myself death. I didn’t want to live with this suffering,” she says. But her neighbors persuaded Emeneya to give life another chance. In DRC, she says, the government is incapable of protecting civilians.
Some of government officials know women who were raped and who are even later killed by their rapists, but nothing is done. Phinah Kamande was raped and later killed in the town of Goma. “She was killed because she had recognized the rapists. They wanted to erase the evidence,” a 29-year-old neibout of Kamande said.
While the war by M23 officially ended in 2013, many civilians feel no safer in a country where militias still have a large presence and use rape as a weapon. Unfortunately, those who are raped are convinced there will be no punishment to those who carried out the crime.