Tuesday, August 11, 2009
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured an African refugee camp crowded with victims of violence and malnutrition Tuesday, pledging $17 million in American aid to help stem the tide of rampant sexual abuse that has staggered war-ravaged eastern Congo.
Her voice cracking with emotion, Clinton described an epidemic of rapes that has convulsed the Congo over 10 years of internecine conflict. "We say to the world that those who attack civilian populations using systematic rape are guilty of crimes against humanity," she said.
Clinton toured Magunga Camp, a dust-choked warren of tents and tin-lined huts in eastern Congo that is home to 18,000 men, women and children. Most were uprooted from their villages by the on-again, off-again conflict between Congolese troops and rebel forces that killed more than 5 million people since 1998.
"We believe there should be no impunity for the sexual and gender-based violence committed by so many — that there must be arrests and prosecutions and punishment," she said during a press conference with Congolese Foreign Minister Alexis Thambwe Mwamba in the eastern city of Goma.
At least $10 million of the $17 million pledged by Clinton will be used to train doctors to treat victims of brutal sexual attacks. Some of the funds will also be aimed at preventing abuse.
She met with several residents of the camp, who told her that they are suffering from malnutrition, malaria, tuberculosis and diarrhea. The residents told Clinton that women and young girls and boys are often victimized by rape when they leave the camp to go into a nearby forest to gather wood for cooking.
One camp official said a young boy had been raped on Monday.
"We really want to return home, that's why we are asking America to help stop the fighting," Chantale Mapendo, who lives in the camp, told Clinton.
"That's why I'm here," Clinton replied. "I want you to be able to go home."
The U.S. secretary of state appeared visibly moved when she was shown a 4-year-old child, held in his mother's arms, who was suffering from extreme malnutrition. Belly distended, eyes hollow, the skeletal boy weighed less than 15 pounds.
"We're proud to help you," Clinton said.
Picking her way through a path littered with volcanic rock, Clinton said she "wanted to see for myself what was happening here."
Clinton flew to Goma, the regional capital of war-pocked eastern Congo, aboard a U.N. plane over the objections of some top aides who worried about her security and logistics for the visit. She is the first U.S. secretary of state to visit the city, according to the State Department historian's office.
The United Nations has recorded at least 200,000 cases of sexual violence against women and girls in the region since conflict erupted in 1996, something Clinton deplored as "one of mankind's greatest atrocities" before she arrived.
The figures, Clinton told a group of university students in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa on Monday, are "astonishing and horrible." She urged the youth of Congo to mount nationwide protests against such abuses and said she would push the government hard on the issue.
Clinton said Tuesday that the people of eastern Congo were still suffering from a "reign of violence" at the hands of rebel groups and the national army, which in January launched a U.N.-backed campaign to pacify the region. Rights groups have called for a suspension of the operation, which has displaced some 800,000 people from their homes and left hundreds of civilians dead.
Clinton said the U.S. is "very concerned about the civilian casualties, both deaths and rapes and other injuries, from the military action." But she also said the U.S. supported efforts to eliminate the threat from insurgents and said the U.S. wants the Congolese military professionalized to prevent abuses from the government.
Earlier in the day, Clinton delivered a strong message to Congolese President Joseph Kabila when they met in a tent at a compound in Goma, on the shore of Lake Kivu. Afterward, Clinton said impunity for the perpetrators "runs counter to peace and stability for the Congolese people."
She said the U.S. will send a team of legal and financial and other technical experts to come up with specific recommendations for overcoming Congo's problems with corruption. She said Kabila had accepted that offer.
"We do support the efforts to end the militias and the violence they have visited so terribly on the people of the eastern Congo," Clinton said. But she added: "We believe that a disciplined, paid army is a more effective fighting force. We believe that more can be done to protect civilians while you are trying to kill and capture insurgents."
Although fighting has eased since a 2003 peace deal, the army and rebel groups, fighting over eastern Congo's vast mineral wealth, are still attacking villages, killing civilians and committing brutal atrocities.
Members of Kabila's armed forces are accused of taking part in the brutality, including gang rapes that have led to unwanted pregnancies, serious injuries and death to tens of thousands of women and girls.
Earlier this month, a leading human rights group demanded that Congo crack down on sexual violence often perpetrated by military generals and other top officers. It cited U.N. data showing that 7,703 cases of sexual violence by soldiers were reported last year.
Human Rights Watch said the Congolese authorities have failed to prevent the attacks and called on the U.N. Security Council to take tough steps, including travel bans, against individuals or governments that commit or condone sexual violence in Congo and elsewhere.