Justice served in major Congo rape case, but danger isn’t over yet
A stocky man in a soccer uniform sat reading a bible on a bench with seven other men in blue-and-yellow V-necks. He was whittling away the time until a verdict would be announced on whether he and his fellow men would be convicted of crimes against humanity for rape and murder. Behind him sat more defendants, and behind them, people who had been coming to this courtroom for weeks in order to be there for this day, December 13.
The short, heavy man was named Frederic Batumike Rugimbanya, otherwise known as Mr. 10 Liters, because that is the size of a small jerry can used to hold water where he lives, in South Kivu Province, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was once a respected local Member of Parliament and a pastor who ran services out of his own house with an “African bent,” locals told me. Now he was slumped over his bible, likely praying for his life.
This trial had been four years in the making. Four years ago was when the rapes of nearly 50 little girls—aged 18 months to 11 years old—began one by one in a singularly mysterious way in a village called Kavumu. Each time, a man would enter the girl’s house, kidnap her with no one else waking up (and these are small wooden shacks filled with large families), rape the girl, and leave her bleeding in a nearby field farmed by demobilized soldiers. The families would then wake up, notice their daughters missing, and span out in a search party. In some cases, a machete was left at the door of the houses—it had likely been used to jimmy the flimsy door locks.
Because it seemed so odd that families slept through all these break-ins and abductions, they surmised there was some sort of “magic powder” being sprinkled over their houses to put them into a deep sleep. (There is a strong belief in sorcery in this part of DRC.)
The thing was, when I returned to Congo in 2015/2016 in a trip made possible by the Women’s Media Center, I wondered whether there might truly be a kind of anesthetic powder being used. Part of this case—which is filled with unbelievable, absurd, and horrific details—involved the theft by Batumike of a huge plantation formerly owned by a German botanist. (Batumike is alleged to have murdered the botanist, Walter Müller.) Congo has some of the most fertile soil on Earth. It turned out, in fact, that there were herbs being used in some way as a sleeping powder. This may have been witchcraft, but it was effective witchcraft.
There was even more sorcery at play here, however. And it was the entire reason the young girls had been raped, as was proven in court over the past few weeks.
The trial began November 9, but went through multiple delays as Batumike and his lawyers raised unending procedural issues and even a challenge to the judges' impartiality, which forced the court to stop its work for a few days to consider the matter. At one point the trial was paused as the judge took a call from an official at the local Bukavu prison who said men in solitary confinement were not being fed. At another point, Batumike and his men refused to continue with the trial, saying they were starving too. The judge chose this time to pay for their food out of his own pocket, in order to keep the proceedings moving. Toward the end of the trial, Batumike fired his own lawyers, then got nervous apparently and asked for a couple days to reconsider the matter.
Beside Batumike on that bench on Wednesday was a man named Bufole, also reading a bible. Near him was a man named Polepole, who is known as a “fetishist” or spiritual advisor, and he was convicted as the man who not only concocted the sleeping powder, but for insisting that the best way for Batumike and his men (possibly hundreds of them) to hold on to their stolen plantation was to make themselves stronger in battle. The men had only had knives—not heavier weapons—but were often clashing with the Congolese Army, which was trying to get the squatters off the land. For years, I’ve been trying to figure out why this plantation was so valuable to Batumike. I knew he’d been growing the lucrative tree that produces quinine—which is used to treat malaria—and that he was making money by leasing plots of land. Still, it came out during the trial that a large swath of the plantation has been growing marijuana.
In order to protect this small empire, Polepole told Batumike and his men to go rape virgin girls and he would use the resulting blood to create some kind of mixture that would make the men “impervious to bullets.”
For this reason, dozens of girls lost their childhoods.
When I was in Kavumu last year, I spoke to a number of the girls with their mothers present. I asked them what they wanted me to tell the world. Many of them said, “Tell them we’ve been destroyed. And that we want those men destroyed like we have been.”
In June 2016, I published an op-ed that resulted in the arrest, within hours, of Batumike and 67 other men believed to be part of his militia. The government had been dragging its feet for years on this investigation and for some reason had been refusing to issue arrest warrants until my piece appeared—it accused them of doing nothing despite knowing who the alleged perpetrator was (I figured it out within a few days while in DRC and confirmed that one officer also knew, so someone 900 miles away in the capital, Kinshasa, must have known too). It took the government a couple years to even send a single investigator to look into the crimes. He was given no money or supplies; instead he was just told to fix the problem.
Congo is a place in which there have been very, very few convictions for rape. Even in the most well-known trial, the 2014 Minova case, only two low-level soldiers were convicted of 39 on trial for the rape of more than 76 women. When I spoke to the chief magistrate for that case, Freddy Mukendi, he admitted the evidence presented to him was not enough to convict the commanders. “The government never provides enough resources,” he said in a candid interview.
But the Kavumu trial, for once, was different. A massive team of UN departments, Dr. Mukwege’s Panzi Hospital, NGOs like Trial International, Physicians for Human Rights, and a Spanish organization named Coopera originally in South Kivu to study primates, teamed up with local prosecutors, civil society leaders, and other local and international experts to work to make this case a success, and ensure that it be carried out in an extraordinarily careful matter. Unprecedented protections were taken to disguise witnesses when they testified: head-to-toe cloth coverings, a voice-altering box, and a wall to testify behind. The case “represents an important precedent for submitting to court comprehensive medical-legal evidence collected in a rigorous, methodical, and scientific manner,” said PHR in a Wednesday press release.
“This trial demonstrated that justice can be served in the Congo, when an investigation is effectively carried out and evidence is methodically collected—even when the accused wield significant power and are highly organized,” said Karen Naimer, director of PHR’s Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones. “It is now the responsibility of Congolese authorities to ensure that such exemplary investigative and prosecutorial measures are adopted nationally to rigorously pursue other cases of sexual violence.”
In the end, Batumike and 11 of his men were given multiple life sentences for murder and the rapes of the girls. Two other men received 12 months each, while six were freed. (Over the last 17 months since the arrests, the prosecution narrowed down the defense. It seemed too many men had been caught up in the initial dragnet, but it’s also possible that some were dismissed in order to pursue the tightest possible legal case.)
Regardless, this is the first time a mastermind of mass rape has been held legally responsible in DRC.
But the story doesn’t end here. There are still a few major issues to watch.
One is the payment of reparations. Each rape survivor was awarded $5,000 (the prosecution asked for $27,500 each) and the families of murder victims were promised $15,000 (the original ask was $55,000). The problem here is that the court has declared that the government is not responsible to pay these reparations. Which leaves it up to these convicted men, none of whom have this kind of money, to pay the victims. But as one legal expert put it to me, “It’s not about the lack of money of the men. The government should be held financially responsible because they failed to fulfill their legal obligation to protect their citizens.”
In fact, no reparation has ever been paid out to a single rape survivor in Congo, despite many having been awarded. Oh, there was one time: But the money was paid out to 30 fake victims in a scam organized by a lawyer who had nothing to do with the case (known as Songo Mboyo) in which at least 119 women were raped. The awarded reparations totaled $155,000.
The second major concern is the security of all involved, particularly the girls, their families, and other witnesses. Last week there were two separate, frightening incidents: one in which gunmen surrounded the house of a civil society leader (he called an army colonel just in time), and one in which a 4-year-old’s house was entered by men who were calling her name. She was 2 when she’d been raped. In this second case, the girl’s mother, who’d been out buying her diarrhea medicine, got home while the break-in was in process and mobilized the neighbors and the UN peacekeeping force, MONUSCO.
Then there is the fact that the girls will need ongoing medical and therapeutic care for years to come. The families make about a dollar a day. Many girls exhibit signs of serious trauma, and most have physical damage to their reproductive systems. A doctor at Panzi Hospital told me in 2016 that it would take at least eight years to know if the physical damage was permanent.
And finally, there is the question of keeping the men in prison. It was a minor miracle that they remained there these past 17 months, awaiting trial. It is well known that it’s easy to bribe one’s way out of the Bukavu prison, and in the past year there was even a mass escape attempt.
So while these men’s lives have been destroyed in a way that hopefully pleases the girls, the future is uncertain all around for the people of Kavumu.
More articles by Category: Gender-based violence, Girls, International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Kavumu, Rape, Rape and death threats, DRC, Congo, Africa