Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

The Invisible War

Posted in women's rights by allisonkilkenny on February 21, 2009

Note from Allison: Unfortunately, Herbert didn’t include a call to action in his otherwise wonderful column. I feel like people will be profoundly moved after reading his words, and they’ll want to help, or post links to where others can donate money to help Congolese women. Here are some charities that take donations for the Congolese victims:

Women for Women International

International Rescue Committee

V-Day

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Bob Herbert

Perhaps we’ve heard so little about them because the crimes are so unspeakable, the evil so profound.

drc_civil_war_congoFor years now, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, marauding bands of soldiers and militias have been waging a war of rape and destruction against women. This sustained campaign of mind-bending atrocities, mostly in the eastern part of the country, has been one of the strategic tools in a wider war that has continued, with varying degrees of intensity, since the 1990s. Millions have been killed.

Women and girls of all ages, from old women to very young children, have been gang-raped, and in many cases their sexual organs have been mutilated. The victims number in the hundreds of thousands. But the world, for the most part, has remained indifferent to their suffering.

“These women are raped in front of their husbands, in front of their children, in front of their parents, in front of their neighbors,” said Dr. Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist who runs a hospital in Bukavu that treats only the women who have sustained the most severe injuries.

In some cases, the rapists have violated their victims with loaded guns and pulled the triggers. Other women have had their organs deliberately destroyed by knives or other weapons. Sons have been forced at gunpoint to rape their mothers. Many women and girls have been abducted and sexually enslaved.

It is as if, in these particular instances, some window to what we think of as our common humanity had been closed. As The Times’s Jeffrey Gettleman, on assignment in Congo, wrote last fall:

“Many of these rapes have been marked by a level of brutality that is shocking even by the twisted standards of a place riven by civil war and haunted by warlords and drug-crazed child soldiers.”

Dr. Mukwege visited me at The Times last week. He was accompanied by the playwright, Eve Ensler, who has been passionate in her efforts to bring attention and assistance to the women of Congo.

I asked Dr. Mukwege to explain how it was in the strategic interest of the various armed groups to rape and otherwise brutalize women. He described some of the ramifications of such atrocities and the ways in which they undermine the entire society in which the women live.

“Once they have raped these women in such a public way,” he said, “sometimes maiming them, destroying their sexual organs — and with everybody watching — the women themselves are destroyed, or virtually destroyed. They are traumatized and humiliated on every level, physical and psychological. That’s the first consequence.

“The second consequence is that the whole family and the entire neighborhood is traumatized by what they have seen. The ordinary sense of family and community is lost after a man has been forced to watch his wife being raped, or parents are forced to watch the rape of their daughters, or children see their mothers raped.

“Neighbors are witnesses to this. Many flee. Families are dislocated. Social relationships are lost. There is no more social network, village network. Not only the victims have been destroyed; the whole village is destroyed.”

The devastating injuries treated by Dr. Mukwege at his hospital can all but stun the imagination. There is no need to detail them further here. AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are commonplace. Often the ability to bear children is destroyed. In many other cases, women end up giving birth to the children of their rapists.

“The hospital can take care of 3,600 women every year,” said Dr. Mukwege. “That is our maximum capacity. We can’t take any more.”

He spoke of ambulance teams that would drive into villages and be besieged by rape victims desperately seeking treatment. “It is awful to see 300 women in need of help,” he said, “and you have to take 10 because the ambulance can only take 10.”

Ms. Ensler spoke of her encounter with an 8-year-old girl during one of her trips to Congo. The girl’s father had been killed in an attack, her mother was raped, and the girl herself was abducted. The child was raped by groups of soldiers over a two-week period and then abandoned.

The girl felt too ashamed to allow herself to be held, Ms. Ensler said, because her injuries had left her incontinent. After explaining how she persuaded the child to accept an embrace, to be hugged, Ms. Ensler said, “If we’re living in a century when an 8-year-old girl is incontinent because that many soldiers have raped her, then something has gone terribly wrong.”

Despite the presence in the region of the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world, no one has been able to stop the systematic rape of the Congolese women.

If these are not war crimes, crimes against humanity, then nothing is.

No More Excuses?

Posted in Barack Obama, Economy, politics, poverty, racism by allisonkilkenny on January 24, 2009

Charles M. Blow

black-childrenFor the presidential inauguration, blacks descended on Washington in droves with a fanatical, Zacchaeus-like need to catch a glimpse of this M.L.K. 2.0. “Ooo-bama!” For them, he was it — a game changer, soul restorer, dream fulfiller. Everything. Ooo-K.

Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, the majority whip, tapped into the fervor Monday night at the BET Honors awards in Washington when he proclaimed, “Every child has lost every excuse.”

What? That’s where I have to put my foot down. That’s going a bridge too far.

I’m a big proponent of personal responsibility, but children too often don’t have a choice. They are either prisoners of their parentage or privileged by it. Some of their excuses are hollow. But other excuses are legitimate, and they didn’t magically disappear when Obama put his left hand on the Lincoln Bible.

Representative Clyburn and those like him would do well to cool this rhetoric lest the enormous and ingrained obstacles facing black children get swept under the rug as Obama is swept into power. For instance:

• According to Child Trends, a Washington research group, 70 percent of black children are born to single mothers. Also, black children are the most likely to live in unsafe neighborhoods. And, black teenagers, both male and female, were more likely to report having been raped.

• According to reports last year from the National Center for Children in Poverty, 60 percent of black children live in low-income families and a third live in poor families, a higher percentage than any other race.

• A 2006 report from National Center for Juvenile Justice said that black children are twice as likely as white and Hispanic children to be the victims of “maltreatment.” The report defines maltreatment as anything ranging from neglect to physical and sexual abuse.

Most of these kids will rise above their circumstances, but too many will succumb to them. Can we really blame them?

Malcolm Gladwell probably said it best in a November interview with New York magazine about his new book, “Outliers”: “I am explicitly turning my back on, I think, these kind of empty models that say, you know, you can be whatever you want to be. Well, actually, you can’t be whatever you want to be. The world decides what you can and can’t be.”

So black people have to keep their feet on the ground even as their heads are in the clouds. If we want to give these children a fighting chance, we must change the worlds they inhabit. That change requires both better policies and better parenting — a change in our houses as well as the White House.

President Obama is a potent symbol, but he’s no panacea.

Desperate Children Flee Zimbabwe, for Lives Just as Bleak

Posted in human rights, poverty, women's rights by allisonkilkenny on January 24, 2009

New York Times

Williad Fire, 16, crossed illegally into South Africa from Zimbabwe with eight friends after the deaths of his parents and an uncle. (Joao Silva for The New York Times)

Williad Fire, 16, crossed illegally into South Africa from Zimbabwe with eight friends after the deaths of his parents and an uncle. (Joao Silva for The New York Times)

They bear the look of street urchins, their eyes on the prowl for useful scraps of garbage and their bodies covered in clothes no cleaner than a mechanic’s rags.

Near midnight, these Zimbabwean children can be found sleeping outside almost anywhere in this border city. A 12-year-old girl named No Matter Hungwe, hunched beneath the reassuring exterior light of the post office, said it was hunger that had pushed her across the border alone.

Her father is dead, and she wanted to help her mother and younger brothers by earning what she could here in South Africa — within certain limits, anyway. “Some men — men with cars — want to sleep with me,” she said, considering the upside against the down. “They have offered me 100 rand,” about $10.

With their nation in a prolonged sequence of crises, more unaccompanied children and women than ever are joining the rush of desperate Zimbabweans illegally crossing the frontier at the Limpopo River, according to the police, local officials and aid workers.

What they are escaping is a broken country where half the people are going hungry, most schools and hospitals are closed or dysfunctional and a cholera epidemic has taken a toll in the thousands. Yet they are arriving in a place where they are unwelcome and are resented as rivals for jobs. Last year, Zimbabweans were part of the quarry in a spate of mob attacks against foreigners.

For those in the know, crossing the border can be a simple chore, a bribe paid on one side and a second bribe on the other. But for the uninitiated and the destitute, the journey is as uncertain as the undercurrents of the Limpopo and the appetites of the crocodiles.

Where is it best to enter the river? Where are the holes in the barbed fences beyond? Where do the soldiers patrol? Perhaps the greatest risk is the gumagumas — the swindlers, thieves and rapists who stalk the vulnerable as they wander in the bush.

Williad Fire, 16, who arrived here on Jan. 4, is one of nine boys who came from Murimuka, a town in a mining region of central Zimbabwe. His story is a fairly typical one of serial catastrophe. He was living with an uncle after his parents died, but then the uncle died, too, stricken in November with an illness that Williad described with a mystified shrug: “He was vomiting blood.”

The boy was hungry, and scrounging in South Africa seemed to hold more promise than scrounging at home. To get train fare south, he sold his most valuable possession, a secondhand pair of Puma sneakers two sizes too big. He and eight friends then did odd jobs in Beitbridge, on the Zimbabwean side of the border, until they had saved about $35.

From there, Williad’s story takes another dismal turn. When the boys neared the river, they were confronted by the gumagumas, who pretended to be helpful, then pounced. “They hit me in the forehead with a rock,” Williad said. “I was carrying everyone’s money, so I was the one to beat.”

But they continued across the river, and here in Musina, the boys from Murimuka slept in the streets for a while, as many other youngsters do. Then they staked claim to a patch of sandy soil under the punishing sun at the Showgrounds, an open athletic field that is the designated repository for refugees. The population hovers around 2,000. Each day new people arrive, and each day familiar faces depart.

The South African government issues temporary asylum papers to about 250 of these refugees a day, entitling them to six months without worry of deportation. Unaccompanied minors are ineligible for this status, though, leaving them in an odd limbo, with no specified place in the bureaucratic shuffle.

Williad and his friends share a single blanket. They cook spaghetti over a fire fed with twigs and cardboard. Cans and buckets fetched from the trash are used as pots. Plastic bottles sliced open along one side serve as bowls.

Honest Mapiriyawo, a 13-year-old orphan, is the boys’ best beggar. Children compete at the supermarkets to carry groceries for shoppers in exchange for tips. Honest is tiny and winsome. People are drawn to his proper diction. “May I assist you?” is the phrasing he prefers.

Another of the Murimuka boys is Diallo Butau, 15. He said his father is dead and his mother had tuberculosis. He bears the guilt of abandoning her. “If I could get some medicine, some pills, I would go back and cure her,” he said.

Georgina Matsaung runs a shelter for children at the Uniting Reformed Church. “You’ll sometimes find boys sleeping in ditches and under bridges, but you won’t find the girls,” she said with a regretful shake of her head. “The girls get quickly taken by men who turn them into women.”

The Musina area has a population of about 57,000, with an additional 15,000 foreigners, overwhelmingly Zimbabweans, at any given time, according to Abram Luruli, the municipal manager. “Many children are scattered in the street,” he admitted, though it is plain enough for anyone to see. At night, they can be found sleeping beneath sheets of plastic along the roadside, a few of them with their minds meandering from ethers inhaled from a bottle of glue.

While the stories of the refugee children are troubling — with penury in Zimbabwe being exchanged for penury here — many of the more horrifying stories in the city involve the rapes of helpless women.

Leticia Shindi, a 39-year-old widow from the village of Madamombe, said she left Zimbabwe on Jan. 4, hoping to get piecework so she could send money back to her two daughters. She had never waded across a river before, and as she eyed the muddy flow, she seized up with fear.

Two young men were preparing to lead others across, and she gratefully joined them. The guides used poles to judge the hidden depths while the rest cautiously held hands as they moved through the shoulder-deep water.

Once across, the two men robbed them all. Because Ms. Shindi had insufficient money, payment was exacted otherwise. “Take off your underpants,” she recalled one gumaguma saying. “Today I am going to be your husband.”

Chengetai Mapfuri, 29, left the outskirts of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, just after Christmas, carrying her 20-month-old son, Willington. Two knife-wielding gumagumas who raped her took turns, she said, one holding the toddler while the other held her.

Aldah Mawuka, 17, is also from the Harare suburbs. She said the first gumagumas she encountered on Jan. 7 only robbed her; it was the second ones who demanded she pull down her jeans. The rapist was very direct and impatient, she recalled: “If you don’t do it, I’ll kill you.”

South Africa’s national police force is exasperated by the crimes. Capt. Sydney Ringane, seated in his office in Musina, said the surrounding wooded terrain made it too hard to catch the gumagumas. Anyway, most victims do not file complaints. After all, they are here illegally, unless remaining in the Showgrounds. “Last week, I had 1,500 ready for deportation,” he said.

The captain stood up, walking over to a computer screen. “We keep photos of the refugees killed near the border.”

He punched the keyboard and clicked with the mouse. “This woman was raped before she was killed,” he said. “She wasn’t wearing underpants. She was identified for us by some street kids.”

Mention of the children seemed to feed his exasperation. “Street kids, more all the time,” he said. “They come in as if they are playing in a game.”

He asked, “What do we do about these kids?”