Dispatch from Kavumu: A long-awaited trial begins for men who allegedly gang-raped 50 little girls over three years
Steam drifts off a damp soccer field near a courthouse. Inside, a man is squatting and cleaning mud off the walls. It is the rainy season in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and unpaved roads color everything a deep brown.
It is 9 a.m. on November 9, and hundreds—maybe 1,000—people have gathered to watch something many believed would never happen: the trial of a group of men who allegedly gang-raped approximately 50 little girls, aged 18 months to 11 years, in an extraordinarily poor village in eastern South Kivu province called Kavumu. Justice has been four years in the making.
A mysterious series of kidnappings and rape began in Kavumu four years ago in June and occurred sporadically over the next three years. At least two toddlers were said to have died in the attacks. Each time, a girl was kidnapped during the night, her family would not awaken, and she would be raped and left in a nearby field, bleeding. No one knew who was carrying out these acts, or why large families in cramped wood-slat houses weren’t waking up during the abductions. There were rumors of sorcery and magic powders being used to sedate whole houses.
The trial was originally set to start November 1, but bureaucracy shifts everything in DRC around at a moment’s notice. At one point last week, the trial was postponed until the 20th because a man in the nearby city of Bukavu had been arrested in an early morning exchange of heavy weapons fire on November 5. (At 5:30 a.m. friends in the area started texting me, frightened, saying they were hearing “detonations.” The man taken into custody was a government agent heading up an anti-fraud unit.)
His trial was moved up first, before the one for the families of Kavumu. But the prosecutors and NGOs who have spent the last 17 months preparing to try a Member of Parliament named Frederic Batumike and 17 of his men weren’t having it. The trial was yet again scheduled for November 9.
Batumike was arrested in the morning of June 21, 2016—just hours after the publication of this op-ed I wrote, accusing the government of inaction—along with 67 men believed to be under his command after three years of utter incompetence by the government. In addition to being a member of the provincial parliament, he was also a preacher who held church services out of his house, and it was rumored that he had created his own militia of hundreds of men, together known as the “Jeshi Yesu,” or “The Army of Jesus.” He’d also illegally taken over a plantation in 2012 after the murder of its German owner, Walter Müller.
Batumike’s men were squatting on the land and frequently clashing with the Congolese military, who wanted them off it. The men were allegedly raping the young girls in order to gather their virgin blood—which they believed would make them impervious to bullets in battle. Sorcery is a widespread practice in the area.
Today, only 18 of the men are on trial, including Batumike. All the defendants, without exception, are parents of children ranging in age from 2 to 19—so the men are accused of raping girls their own children’s ages. Most have not been educated beyond primary school, although Batumike has a college degree.
Back in the courtroom, hours tick by and no one shows up. Finally at 4 p.m. some Pakistani peacekeepers arrive and inspect the dark space. Despite the court being next door to the national electricity company, SNEL, there are no lights. Someone finally has the idea to go buy light bulbs.
At 6:33 p.m., the defendants arrive in a van. The lights flicker on and off. At 6:56, they enter the courtroom, handcuffed in pairs. Batumike’s supporters cheer for him from benches in the back.
Very little happens that evening, but the charges against the men are declared:
1. Crimes against humanity
2. Participation in an insurrection movement
3. Illegal possession of weapons or ammunition
After an hour or so, the proceeding ends for the day, and the men are transported back to Bukavu prison.
Outside the courtroom, a source I cannot name for his own safety overhears the conversation of a small group of men. One says: “If we were thinking about helping [Batumike] and his comrades escape, tonight would be the right opportunity because it is very dark and it will obviously be raining. Attacking the convoy wouldn’t be too complicated.” Another man replies: “Impossible. There are a lot of soldiers around, in addition to peacekeepers from MONUSCO. It would be suicide!” MONUSCO is the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in DRC, the largest peacekeeping operation in the world.
All year, advocates were concerned that the men may escape prison. It’s not uncommon here for men to bribe their way out, or simply escape. There is still reason to worry.
The next few days consist of procedural issues and insistence by the defense that the trial be moved to the highly nonfunctional civilian justice system from the military justice system. Advocates like Physicians for Human Rights and Trial International had fought long and hard to push the case into the military system because it is considered a little more effective.
During these first few days, loudspeakers are set up for the hundreds of overflow people in the mud field outside.
On Day 3, the proceedings are interrupted when the presiding judge’s phone rings. He took the call and left the humid room for 10 minutes. Upon return he announced that he was trying to solve the issue of a lack of food for prisoners in solitary confinement at Bukavu prison.
On Day 5, there is a triumph for the prosecution. Advocates for the girls and their families had been petitioning to make sure there would be adequate protection of those who testify. DRC is notoriously bad at protecting witnesses, with the exception of at the 2014 Minova rape trial, at which women wore blanketing, yet frightening-looking black outfits from head to toe. See here.) This time around, outfits made from traditional Congolese cloth would conceal the witnesses and survivors. They’d testify in huis clos—behind a makeshift wall, and a machine would be used to disguise their voices.
The court, however, “will still make determinations on a case-by-case basis,” said PHR spokesman Stephen Fee, and “take additional measures to protect witnesses and survivors and shield them from potential re-traumatization.”
Among the recommendations PHR has made to protect those who testify are:
- The use of codes instead of names for witnesses and victims throughout the court proceedings.
- Anonymity for witnesses who are deposed, including through use of a private booth, and with the option for the lawyer representing the accused to verify the identity of the witness in company of a lawyer representing the victims.
- Use of voice-altering equipment as an additional measure of protection for listening to the recording of witnesses and those representing victims.
- Assuring that the victims do not make a physical appearance in court during the hearings, with use of video testimony requisitioned by the court in lieu of live testimony, together with the establishment of closed hearings for the viewing of video and audio testimony of the victims.
Today, the first witness testified with many of these measures in place. She said that the men in court had killed her husband, decapitating him in front of her. “They attacked me and I lost consciousness,” she said. When I woke up, my husband had multiple injuries from a machete all over his body... .They had cut off his head.”
This is only the first horror that will be spoken publicly at the Kavumu trial. In the weeks to come, we will hear much worse. But, at least, after four years, the world is finally listening.
More articles by Category: Gender-based violence, Girls, International, Violence against women
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