"Rape has always been used as a weapon of war" is the opening line of the new documentary film The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo. For 76 minutes the film exposes the incredibly brutal civil war that has raged for over ten years in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Not only have over four million people been killed, but over 250,000 women and girls have been raped, kidnapped, and tortured.The film, which premiers on HBO April 8th, vividly captures the silent and often ignored rape survivors in their country where chaos and violence are part of every day. One element that makes the film so powerful is that director Lisa F. Jackson has a reason to feel very much connected to the subject matter: in 1976 she was gang-raped as she was leaving her Washington D.C. office late at night. The three men who attacked her were never caught.
Jackson bravely traveled alone to the war torn regions of eastern Congo interviewing rape survivors; her own rape allows her to make a special connection with the Congolese women. In one scene, when Jackson tells her own story, the women suspect that such an atrocity could not happen in the United States. One woman asks her, "Was there a war in your country?" Everyone seems doubtful until Jackson produces the newspaper articles documenting her story. Jackson slowly gains everyone's trust, and the resulting footage is truly harrowing.
"It became so much woman to woman. I very quickly lost that sense of them being 'other.' It made it easier, but it also made it harder...there were a lot of tears alone in my room at night," said Jackson during a recent phone interview. "I would find myself, at Panzi or in the bush for instance, and there were entire villages of women who had been raped - there was not a woman there who had not suffered."
The unending conflict in the DRC has led to an exponential increase in the number of rapes. Most of the rapists are members of the armed militias, and therefore have impunity. The film makes it clear that prosecution is unlikely because most survivors do not report their rape and, even if they do contact the authorities, there is only one person - National Police officer Major Honorine Munyole - who investigates sex crimes in the eastern portion of the country.
Shame and social stigmas are universal and often prevent women anywhere from reporting rape; in the DRC these attitudes are particularly prevalent. As Marie Jeanne, a 34 year old mother of eight tells Jackson, she was gang-raped by five Rwandan soldiers when she was five months pregnant and was too ill to escape. Her husband, who later left her and their children, told the family that Marie Jeanne "wanted to be raped." Sadly, this attitude of blaming the survivor is all too common: many women find themselves abandoned by their families after being raped.
Viewers should be warned of the film's truly upsetting content. Survivors describe the brutality of their rapes very bluntly. Your heart will break when 12 year old Safi, whose eyes are much too sad for someone so young, describes being raped at age 11 while soldiers looted her home.
Women of all ages vividly describe being raped by soldiers who also use sticks and guns to literally mutilate their genitalia and internal organs. The three soldiers who raped 70 year old Maria told her "you're not too old for us." After being raped, women must not only suffer the physiological consequences of sexual violence, but many, including Niota, who was raped by two soldiers at the age of 42, must endure a life of fistula and incontinence. Over thirty percent of women raped in the DRC contract HIV/AIDS.
The strength of the Congolese women Jackson meets is inspiring. Even after being raped and subsequently rejected by their families, women will walk for months through dense forests in search of urgent medical care. Once they reach a hospital - such as the Panzi hospital, which specializes in treating survivors of sexual violence - they must then wait even longer for a hospital bed to become available.
Panzi's medical director Dr. Denis Mukwege, who personally treats many of the rape survivors, asks the unfortunately obvious questions, "Why is this happening? Why use sex in order to humiliate and defeat someone? To threaten someone so they flee their village? Why use sex? This is the monstrosity of this century."
One wonders about the men who would commit such heinous acts against innocent women and girls. Jackson, along with United Nations translator and liaison Bernard Kalume, travel deep into the jungles of the Congo to interview soldiers. That footage, which Jackson only obtained by putting herself in grave danger, is also incredible.
For the most part, the soldiers take little responsibility for their actions; none seem remorseful. Rather, they blame the civil war for creating a situation where they must be away fighting instead of being in their villages with their families. As one man tells Jackson, he makes women suffer because he is suffering.
There is also a markedly misogynistic rationale behind the rapes: the soldiers express the deep-rooted social belief that women are inferior and therefore men can take what they want from them - including sex. Even when Jackson directly asks the men how they would feel if their mothers and sisters were raped, the grave reality of the sexual violence these soldiers have committed doesn't seem to resonate with them.
After witnessing these interviews, Kalume - whose first wife, a Tutsi, was murdered during Rwandan genocide in 1994 - is very upset about what his native Congo has become. He thinks of his daughters and the terrible fate that befalls so many Congolese women. "If a society cannot protect women and kids, what kind of society is that?" asks Kalume. "If men themselves start to torture, to kill, to kidnap, to rape women and teenagers, how can you say this is normal, a society of human beings? It becomes just a real jungle - that is what we are living in - it's a real jungle."
In the DRC, two-thirds of women are illiterate and most do not have any employable skills. Couple that with a crumbled infrastructure and few resources, and you have the desperate situation of Congolese rape survivors. Jackson visits a Catholic church where nuns have organized a support group for them. While the group is able to help women cope emotionally, the church doesn't have enough food, medicine, or clothes to go around.
Such extreme poverty should not be happening in a country with such vast natural resources. But the Congolese people are not benefiting from the gold, diamonds, and coltan (a metallic ore used in all computers, cell phones, and DVD players) sales; instead, most of the natural resources are stolen and illegally exported - and ironically the profits then fuel the conflict.
While The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo is very personal and informative, Jackson's tone is never heavy-handed or didactic. Prior to her trip to the DRC, she had collected cosmetic samples to give to the women she planned to meet and interview. But after meeting women whose hardships are almost too terrible to be real, Jackson realizes that giving a rape survivor who has contracted HIV/AIDS a miniature lipstick just seems trite and irrelevant. Jackson's honesty and candor are extremely refreshing.
If you watch the documentary expecting easy solutions, know that the film doesn't present any. According to Jackson, "There are so many little components that must fall into place for them to have futures, not to just merely exist." The official international response - by UN peacekeepers and international aid groups - has made few inroads. Some UN peacekeepers have even been accused of rape themselves and of trading necessities, such as milk and bread, for sex. On the other hand some female international aid workers have been raped by the militias.
In July of 2007 a United Nations Human Rights Council on violence against women report found, to no one's surprise, that sexual violence was rampant in the DRC and the government's response was almost non-existent. In January of 2008, a peace deal was signed which included an official cease fire and resettlement program. But these official reports and policies are doing little to aid the plight of rape survivors. And there is already a second generation of survivors: the children of rape - including three year old Lumiere, who was conceived when her mother Imakile was raped by two Rwandan soldiers at age 15 - who must contend with the social stigmas associated with sexual violence.
I saw the film at the Sundance Film Festival where it won the Special Jury Prize: Documentary. The press screening was the first festival event where I did not have to wait in line; when the film started, the theatre was only half full. I don't know if the poor turnout was a reflection of people's lack of interest in the subject matter, or if people just want to ignore the human rights violations happening a world away because hearing women describe their horrific rapes and torture is so gut-wrenching.
Jackson hopes that the documentary will start a grassroots movement for change, similar to the movement to end the genocide in Darfur. Even if viewers don't lobby the United States Congressional Subcommittee on Human Rights and Law - as Jackson did on April 2nd - she hopes "that people are motivated to find out more and educate themselves on the conflict."
After watching The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo it is painfully obvious that the international community, individuals and governments alike, cannot continue to silently stand by for another ten years. Already generations of women have been emotionally and physically brutalized while their unrepentant perpetrators enjoy immunity.
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Berkeley, California.
Copyright © 2008 The Women's International Perspective