UNITED NATIONS - The number of women raped by rebel groups during last month's raid of more than a dozen villages centred around Walikale, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), has risen to over 240, U.N. officials told reporters here today.
Following the Jul. 30 to Aug. 3 raid, rebels are now believed to have continued pillaging in and around neighbouring areas of Mubi and Pinga: In addition to those previously reported, an additional 75 rape victims have been identified.
As a result of the observed increase in violence and in an effort to reassure and protect the population, the U.N. peacekeeping force in the DRC (MONUSCO) and the 121st brigade of the Congolese military are boosting their presence in the affected areas, according to a statement released today by MONUSCO. Helicopters have also been dispatched for surveillance over the concerned areas.
Additionally, the Congolese military "has opened an investigation," the statement said. "One suspect has already been apprehended," it said. Although the U.N. maintains a presence in the DRC, the legal burden to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators of the mass rapes lies with the Congolese government.
Victims left in the wake of the rebels' violence have gradually come forward as the Congolese military is able to secure their villages and the rebels retreat, U.N. spokesperson Farhan Haq told IPS.
The U.N. has identified the perpetrators as members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and Mai Mai Cheka - rebel groups that regularly terrorise the mineral-rich eastern DRC region, looting villages and systematically gang raping women and children as a tool of war.
MONUSCO was informed of the additional rapes following the Walikale raid by aid groups who provided care to the victims.
The U.N. is currently conducting its own non-criminal investigation, jointly headed by its human rights office and MONUSCO, "to try to establish the facts related to the U.N.'s mission on the ground, to learn from that and also, in so doing, to try to establish... what actually happened," U.N. spokesperson Martin Nesirqy told IPS.
The U.N. and MONUSCO have come under fire since news of the mass gang rapes first broke early last week - for their failure to prevent the raid despite having knowledge of rebel activity in the villages. The primary mandate of the one billion dollar MONUSCO force, the world body's largest peacekeeping presence worldwide, is the protection of civilians.
Eighty peacekeepers patrol the densely wooded 300 square kilometre area encompassing Walikale - a number, the U.N. says, is insufficient. "They can't be behind every bush," outgoing U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes told reporters here last week.
U.N. agencies knew of rebel activity and one reported rape in the Walikale area when the raid began on Jul. 30, and knew of 24 more rapes by Aug. 10, ‘The New York Times' reported today, disputing earlier claims by officials that the U.N. did not have knowledge of rapes of any scale until Aug. 12.
A MONUSCO patrol did not pass through the villages until Aug. 2. At this time, the raid was still occurring, but U.N. officials say that the peacekeepers received no indication of the rebels' presence, or of the mass rapes during their visit.
Meanwhile, the DRC government insists that it doesn't need U.N. peacekeepers, who have been in the country since 1999 after a ceasefire was brokered between warring factions in the central African region.
Kinshasa has expressed its desire for the MONUSCO mandate - which expires next summer - not to be extended, and has sought a drawdown of U.N. forces in the DRC. Nearly 2,000 blue helmets stationed in the relatively stable western part of the country were sent home in June.
But aid groups claim that the DRC's security forces are incapable of providing peace and stability to its citizens. The Congolese army has itself been reported to perpetrate human rights abuses, including systematic rape of the civilian population.
As a result, "as long as the Congolese armed forces are in a state of indiscipline where they are themselves a threat to the population and women, mostly... MONUSCO is the best hope to protect civilians," Marcel Stoessel, DRC country director for Amnesty International told IPS.
But in the long run, Stoessel said, the way to ensure an end to the impunity for human rights abuses, like sexual violence, committed in the conflict- ridden DRC is comprehensive security sector reform.
"MONUSCO cannot be a long-term solution," Stoessel told IPS.