'When we rape we feel free': Congo soldiers' shocking stories

New interviews detail horrific atrocities in war-torn Congo where victims and rapists gave firsthand accounts to a British filmmaker.

The rampant sexual violence in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo has made many headlines, and now a filmmaker is shedding new light on the atrocities by sharing shocking accounts from the rapists themselves.

British filmmaker Fiona Lloyd-Davies traveled to Congo — where a long-running civil war has left over 5 million dead — and interviewed government soldiers (FARDC) who participated in mass rapes in a village in the volatile eastern part of the country.

"We raped and we destroyed everything in our path," one soldier bluntly stated.

Congo has been called "the rape capital of the world." One study estimates that nearly 2 million Congolese women have been raped. Earlier this month, a U.N. official said one hospital in the region treats 300 rape victims a month, and that's "just the tip of the iceberg." But Lloyd-Davis' footage reveals what the statistics do not: the motivations and thoughts of the perpetrators and the victims.

The M23 rebel forces in the Congo have earned an international reputation for committing indiscriminate killings and rape, but the Congolese government's own troops also have a grim record on human rights violations, as illustrated by a horrific incident in November 2012 in the town of Minova.

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After being overwhelmed by rebel forces in nearby towns, angry FARDC soldiers retreated to Minova. The soldiers, many of whom fled their hometowns leaving behind wives and children, said morale was low among the humiliated troops.

"There were over 2,000 soldiers out of control, with no orders," said one soldier whose face was blurred in Lloyd-Davies' footage that she shot on assignment for the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting and the BBC.

"We'd lost all hope," said another soldier. "We weren't thinking like human beings anymore."

The soldiers recount in candid detail how they went about raping the women of Minova.

"You see one, you catch her, you take her away and you have your way with her," one explained. "Sometimes you'd kill her ... When you'd finish raping then you'd kill her child."

"Raping gives us a lot of pleasure," said one soldier. "When we rape we feel free."

Victims said the soldiers attacked the town in a frenzy and without warning.

"There were three who raped me," one woman said. "I thought I was going to die."

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Is justice possible in Congo?

At least 102 women and 33 girls were raped or sexually assaulted by government soldiers in Minova, according to a U.N. report, but many observers believe the actual numbers are much higher. Eleven army officers have been arrested in connection with these incidents, but only two for related cases of rape, and no trial date has been set. Twelve army commanders have been suspended, but none have been arrested or charged.

The suspensions are a step in the right direction, say human right advocates, but do not go nearly far enough.

"It's hard to be optimistic about justice in Congo," said Rona Peligal at Human Rights Watch. "We've seen some positive movement, but the challenges and obstacles are great."

The Congolese military has been collecting evidence and conducting interviews, but the investigation is reportedly delayed because many victims cannot identify their attackers.

"How can you see someone who is punching you in the eyes?" asked one victim. "How do you recognize someone who is inserting a gun barrel in your mouth while another man is between your legs?"

There is legal precedent, however, in cases where the attackers cannot be identified, to put their commanding officers on trial. Some of the soldiers interviewed said they were ordered to rape civilians.

"The commander gave us an order. He was the one who started to do it," said one soldier, who claimed to have raped 53 women ranging in age from 30s and 40s to 3-year-olds.
Putting commanding officers on trial would be a bold move and a significant step in the army's effort to enforce its zero-tolerance policy.

Lloyd-Davies, who was in Congo recently, said she sees signs of political will to prosecute the officers.

"Rather than hold our hands up in horror and say Congo has failed again," said Lloyd-Davies, "we need to report this and keep the issue alive. There has to be a change and people have to be punished."

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