Sexual violence report shocks world back to Congo conflict

Atrocities on women, mineral wealth sparking rivalries between warlords and a rebel movement has further destabilised the region.

NAIROBI // After 12 years and more than five million dead, residents of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have learnt to survive with the constant din of war as the backdrop of their lives. Even in periods of calm, the lush mountainous region is never really at peace. Monday's revelation that more than 150 women were raped last month near a UN base by Rwandan rebels and last week's attack on another United Nations peacekeeping base in eastern Congo snapped the world's attention back to a war that has killed more people than any conflict since the Second World War.

It has been more than a decade since those responsible for the Rwandan genocide set up shop in Congo, and a solution still seems distant despite repeated efforts at peace and the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world. Rare, valuable minerals from Congo that make up the circuitry in consumer electronics from iPods to mobile phones and laptops line the pockets of warlords and help fuel the conflict.

A separate, but equally brutal rebel movement that has spilt into north-eastern Congo from Uganda has further destabilised the region and added to the country's woes. A group of Hutu rebels known as the FDLR who are originally from Rwanda has continued to prey on Congolese villagers by looting, and raping and killing thousands. At UN headquarters in New York, a spokesman, Martin Nesirky, said on Monday that a UN team verified allegations of the rape of at least 154 women by members of FDLR and Congolese Mai-Mai rebels in the village of Bunangiri over a four-day period about three weeks ago. He said the victims are receiving medical and psycho-social care. "Many women said they were raped in their homes in front of their children and husbands, and many said they were raped repeatedly by three to six men," said William Cragin of the International Medical Corps.

On August 18, a band of rebels ambushed an Indian peacekeeping base killing three peacekeepers, the mission said. "The attack lasted for approximately five minutes," the Indian mission said in a statement. "The rebels merged into the forest, taking advantage of darkness. In the ensuing incident, Indian troops suffered three fatal casualties and seven injured." The battle, one of the deadliest for the 18,000-strong peacekeeping force, raised questions about the mission's mandate. This year, Joseph Kabila, the Congolese president, asked that the decade-old mission change from an active peacekeeping role to a more passive stabilisation role and plan to withdraw within a year.

But with Congolese presidential elections coming up next year, analysts say the move is Mr Kabila's attempt to show that his government can handle its own security. With rebel attacks still common, this is not the time to pull the UN mission out of Congo, Fabienne Hara, a vice president for the International Crisis Group, wrote in an opinion column for the Christian Science Monitor. "The claims at UN headquarters and the insistence by the government that the country is ready for a drawdown does not match reality on the ground," she wrote. "The government has yet to prove it can fill the security vacuum that will inevitably be left if the UN leaves too early. History has shown there is no clear moment to leap from peacekeeping to peace building, and right now the Congo still needs both."

The war in Congo has been perpetuated in part because of the country's vast mineral riches. Tin, tungsten, coltan and gold are all found in abundance in the country's east. Many of the mines are controlled by rebel groups who force villagers into labour to extract the resources. A tiny provision buried within a 1,500-page financial reform bill the United States passed last month could be the first step in cutting off the Congolese rebels' funding stream. The new law requires thousands of US manufacturers to disclose the source of their raw materials and to take steps to limit minerals that come from mines that fund armed conflict.

"The minerals are the chief driver and fuel for feeding the flames out in the east now," said Sasha Lezhnev, a consultant to the Washington-based Enough Project, an advocacy group that helped pass the conflict minerals bill. "One of the main results of the military operations over the last year has been for one armed group to take control of minerals from the other armed group. You have many people displaced from their homes because mines are being set up."

Besides the Hutu militia, a Christian extremist rebel group called the Lord's Resistance Army is also terrorising Congolese. It was chased out of Uganda five years ago and has been recruiting child soldiers and pillaging villages in Sudan, Congo and Central African Republic.