by Chuck Sudetic
This series of dispatches chronicles the work of a mobile court in the town of Kamituga in eastern Congo, a region riven by conflict that has witnessed an appalling epidemic of rape and other sexual violence. The court, supported by the Open Society Justice Initiative, will try ten rape cases involving soldiers and policemen over the course of a two-week session.
On Saturdays, trucks loaded to the tipping point with sacks and bundles of produce and dry goods—and, riding up top, mostly women and kids—roll and belch and sway on the rutty road into Kamituga for its weekly market. The streets and alleys bustle with peasant women arriving on foot from deep in the countryside to spread tablecloths on the dirt and stack onions, tomatoes, potatoes, and cabbages for sale. Women fan charcoal fires, stir pots of soup, and grill meat within a few feet of passing traffic. Voices bargain and discuss and flirt.
Adding to this particular Saturday’s electricity, the market crowd hears the sound of a trial blasting from loudspeakers. Buyers and sellers notice the gathering around the tent occupying the bluff just below the meadow where cattle dealers are haggling over lean longhorns. Word spreads that prisoners—soldiers and a policeman—are to be condamné.
The mobile court, in three marathon sessions, has concluded trials of three men and begun proceedings against four others. On this Saturday evening, the judges are to announce verdicts in two cases of rape and one of attempted rape. Maximum penalty: twenty years in some wretched Congo prison cell, plus civil damages to the victim.
The crowd around the tent multiplies as Kamituga and the surrounding mountains rotate away from the sun and the sky begins radiating purple and orange light. A boy hawks fritters from an aluminum tray. Another, in his teens, peddles peanuts in paper cones of scrap paper. Teenage boys stand place for hours, safeguarding their spots in the front row. Below them, women sit on the ground. One nurses a baby.
Armed guards escort three shackled men into the tent and order them to sit on the wooden bench before the five judges. The presiding judge opens the session and orders the first defendant, Wandangu Kabuku, to stand at attention before him. Kabuku, a former member of an irregular militia, is frump and round-shouldered, and his face droops with resignation. After reading aloud the court’s conclusions regarding the laws governing the case at hand, the presiding judge summarizes the findings of fact: The defendant raped thirteen year-old Y. after luring her with a promise of a bottle of body lotion and money. (The girl died before the trial. She told police that Kabuku never gave her no money, but threw the bottle of body lotion at her. “I didn’t accept it,” she said.)
The guards spring to attention and present arms. The judges, prosecutor, clerk, attorneys, and crowd stand. The presiding judge declares: “It has been established that, in August 2009, the defendant committed the act of rape as defined under the Penal Code of the Democratic Republic of Congo.” Kabuku is sentenced to fifteen years in prison, fined, assessed court costs, and ordered to pay civil damages of $10,000 to the victim’s parents. A soldier seizes Kabuku’s arms, slaps cuffs on his wrists, and sits him on the bench. He stares into the dirt. With the back of one hand, he wipes the corner of his right eye.
Second defendant, second findings of fact: Lwembe Ekima, an army sergeant, forced N., a minor, to have sexual intercourse. The defendant set upon the orphan girl while she was on her way to fetch water from a public fountain on the evening of September 10, 2010. The sergeant struck her, gagged her, had intercourse with her against a wall, on his lap, and on the ground beside a public toilet, and, after finishing, left her 1,000 Congolese francs.
The money proved Ekima’s undoing. N. used the cash, the equivalent of a dollar, to purchase new flip-flops for her guardian’s son. New flip-flops do not go unnoticed in Kamituga’s warrens of shacks, where kids go barefoot. “Where did you get those?” asked N.’s guardian, a woman gold miner who had stood to testify with an infant in a sling fussing on her back. A finger pointed at N. “Where did you get the money?” the guardian asked her, before checking to see whether the orphan had stolen it from the family’s savings or the savings of their neighbor. She had not. The girl only then explained that Ekima had sexually assaulted her and given her the money. The guardian beat N. before taking her to the doctor and the police. In his testimony, the defendant stated that he had met in jail another prisoner from Kamituga who said he had also raped. The guardian also testified that N. had had sex with other men.
Verdict: “It has been established that the defendant Lwembe Ekima committed the act of rape as defined under the Penal Code.” Sentence: Fifteen years in prison, a fine, assessment of court costs, and civil damages of $10,000 to the victim or guardian.
The presiding judge strips Ekima of his military rank. Guards surround him and begin removing his green khaki uniform, revealing sun-bleached orange prison jumpsuit underneath. Ekima falls to the ground and wrestles off his uniform pants. The guards help him to his feet, seat him on the bench, and shackle him to Kabuku.
The last defendant: Paluku Justin, a police officer, charged with the attempted rape of K., the wisp of a ten-year-old who, several days before, dressed in a shocking pink smock, stood as straight as a cedar in open court and stuck to her testimony despite being called a liar by the defendant. The findings of fact: The defendant attempted for force K. to have sex with him after offering to pay her to cut grass for his animals. The little girl testified that, during the attack, Justin told her, “You will now become my wife.” Threw her on the ground, cupped his hands over her mouth, and removed his trousers to reveal red underwear. The girl managed to scream before her younger sisters came running. Justin scurried away.
The verdict: Guilty of attempted rape. The sentence: Five years imprisonment, a fine, assessment of court costs, and civil damages of $3,000.
By the time the presiding judge ends the hearing, darkness has drawn over Kamituga. The guards bundle the prisoners into the back of an SUV, which sets out for the town’s ramshackle jail through the market crowd along National Route 2 and the haggling, flirting, laughter, and discussion of the evening’s events.
The crowd mulls around the tent, conversing and staring as the crew removes the public address system and chairs and tables. (Even this is a spectacle in Kamituga…and grasping hands compete to snatch empty plastic water bottles.) “I have never seen anything like this before,” says Jean Papy Saliboko, a twenty year old. “It frightens me. These men are going to spend years in jail, five years, fifteen years. No prisoner can pay back the money they have been assessed. It’s an example for others. This is what can result of you commit the same crimes.”
In the scrum pressing around him, young men and men-boy teenagers grumble, angry at what Jean Papy is revealing. One calls the white reporter a spy. "Back off," someone says. A guard draws closer.
Hansen Kaseki, a 35-year-old married father of three sons and two daughters, asks to speak. He works in an internet café a toss of an apple core from the bluff where the mobile court has pitched its tent, and has followed the trials. Kaseki, speaking near-flawless English, says that, in 2008, police officers raped two of his sisters in the village where they still live. One was nineteen years old at the time, the other fourteen. Neither is married today. Kaseki worries that the stigma of being raped will prevent them from ever finding husbands. “These mobile courts are very good,” he says. “It is a matter of changing the behavior of soldiers and police officers toward women and children and other people. They have never been tried or sentenced like this before. People like these, captains and colonels, thought they were above the law. This shows that justice is beginning to work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and people are watching and listening.
“Even now, though, the police officers who raped my sisters are walking around free somewhere as if nothing happened. We’ve complained. My sister, the little one, cried all the time. She stopped studying. But she had a psychologist and has now returned to school and is working around the house. My sisters are afraid of all soldiers and police officers.
“I want a better future for my daughters. Kamituga is a good place. But life is bad here now, and I have no money to move anywhere else. It is impossible to send my daughters even to the next village, because in villages on the National Route just a few kilometers from here, Hutus are raping women.”
Madame Kabeba, 49, a nurse and a widow whose four daughters now live in the far-off, but relatively safe, city of Bukavu, has seen a girl as young as five and a woman in her sixties seek medical examinations at Kamituga’s hospital after being raped. “The hospital does not report the accurate numbers of rape victims,” she says. “They hide them, because the doctors and nurses are afraid of being attacked by people. To be a doctor or a nurse, you have to be discreet, because rape carries a stigma here. A husband can cast his wife from the home if she has been raped.
“But because of the mobile court, women don’t have to hide themselves away anymore. They are learning to go to the hospital to be checked. They are learning to go to the police to press charges. Sensitization is continuing, on the radio, on television, in the churches, before groups of women learning about health and rights.”
“Women are angry,” she says. “I will feel safer if they continue to put the rapists in jail…they are even policemen and teenagers, most of them from right here in Kamituga. For many years, there were no authorities to put the rapists in jail. There was no effort even to speak against rape.
“It is important to come to watch,” she says. “If such a thing were to happen in my own family, I will now know what to do.”
The tent went dark. A new truck packed high with bundles and women and kids stopped in the orange glow of a streetlight a few yards away. Amid shouting and laughter and the clattering engine, bundles began dropping from the side.
Chuck Sudetic will be reporting from Kamituga for the duration of the trials.