CAR Rape Victim Tells of Trauma
A woman from the Central African Republic, CAR, who claimed she had been gang-raped by troops led by Jean Pierre Bemba Gombo told the court this week of the long-term trauma she has experienced.
Bemba, commander of the rebel Movement for the Liberation of Congo, MLC, faces two counts of crimes against humanity and three counts of war crimes, including rape, murder, and pillaging. The most high-profile politician to take the stand at the International Criminal Court, ICC so far, Bemba has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The crimes were allegedly committed during the armed conflict in CAR between October 26, 2002 and March 15, 2003, when then CAR president Ange-Félix Patassé invited Bemba and his Congolese troops to crush the rebellion led by former armed forces chief Francois Bozizé, now the CAR president.
Although Bemba did not personally take part in the crimes, the court charges that he is still liable because he knew of the criminal activity taking place and did not control his troops to prevent them from committing atrocities.
Identified only as witness 22, the woman testified on November 30 with face and voice distortion and recounted how she had been staying in her uncle’s house on the outskirts of Point Kilometre 12, a province near the capital Banguihe, when the troops attacked on a rainy morning in late 2002.
Witness 22 said she recognised the soldiers as being from the MLC because they were speaking Lingala, a Congolese language, as well as French. She said it was between 4 and 5 am and she was still in bed, alone with her child, when she heard the troops tearing down the two entry doors to the house. More than 20 soldiers entered the house but only six proceeded to her room.
Once in the room, the soldiers asked the witness for money in both Lingala and French, but she responded that she didn’t have any.
“Then they asked me to lie down on the bed,” the witness recounted. “I said ‘Pardon me?’ I didn’t want to.” One soldier then held a Kalashnikov rifle to her neck and threw her on the bed.
“He pulled out a small knife and tore off my shorts and underwear and threw it away. Then he forcibly spread my legs and slept with me,” the witness said.
“When the one who had been sleeping with me finished, he stood up and left. Another replaced him and slept with me,” the witness continued. “After him, there was another one who slept with me, so out of the six of them who had entered my room, three of them slept with me.”
The witness said that while she was being raped, the other three soldiers searched her room for clothes and other goods, and afterwards, they took her to the sitting room, where she rejoined her family and the rest of the troops. An MLC soldier told one of her uncle’s wives to undress in front of everyone so he could rape her, but she was spared because she had scabies, a skin condition which made her “dirty” to the MLC soldier, according to the witness.
Another wife of her uncle was also spared rape because she was pregnant, the witness said, adding that this meant she was the only one raped in her household.
Continuing her testimony, witness 22 said that the MLC soldiers then threw one of her uncles, who was paralysed, out of his bed when he was not able to give them money, and dragged another uncle outside the house where they held him at gunpoint asking for money.
“They [the soldiers] said that Patassé had instructed them to ensure that they should start killing all children age 10 and over, and that everyone who had a fence around their house was someone who was harbouring rebels,” the witness recounted. The soldiers said the uncle would be spared only if he provided money, according to the witness.
But the soldiers let the uncle go eventually, the witness said, and instead shot one of the barking dogs outside which had frightened them. The soldiers left the premises after taking all the family’s animals, including ducks, chickens, goats, and geese.
Witness 22 described the long-term trauma she endured after her rape, saying she was ostracized and considered suicide.
“That day in my mind, when they brutalised me, after I got up and I found my entire family, we fled. That day, I wanted to commit suicide,” the witness said.
Assingambi Zarambaud, one of the victims’ representatives, who are considered a party to the proceedings and have the opportunity to question witnesses and read out statements, said, “Before the rape she had a fiancé and now she no longer has a fiancé. She stated that the breakup was linked to the rape.”
“I struggle to survive with my child,” the victim added. “If I succeed to find something to eat, I share it with him.”
Witness 22 said that in contrast to the MLC troops’ behaviour, those of Bozize did not commit crimes against civilians.
“When Bozize’s rebels came in, they did not assault the civilian population,” the witness said, adding that at the time, she and the other women of the house mostly did not go outside, but got their information from the men. “They were not aggressive at all. As soon as they came, they fired some warning shots in the air to free up the roads, and they said to the people to withdraw from the town. But they did not assault the civilians.”
However, during cross-examination by defence counsel Peter Haynes, the witness acknowledged that she had heard Bozizé’s rebels say they were going to take the country by blood.
“I heard it said that there were some people who were injured because of the stray bullets,” she added. “But I heard about it, I didn’t see it with my own eyes.”
Before witness 22 gave testimony, the court heard from an expert on post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, who described the lasting effects of sexual violence.
Psychologist Adeyinka Akinsulure-Smith said that the consequences were “devastating” and were manifested in both physical and psychological ways.
“Many patients say, ‘The physical scars heal, but the emotional scars stay with me.’ We see extensive PTSD, depressive symptoms, and anxiety related symptoms,” Akinsulure-Smith said, adding that victims also had to live with a stigma.
“It’s shame for men, there is a fear of being viewed as homosexual,” Akinsulure-Smith said. “For women, there is the stigma of having been used, being seen as damaged goods, if you will.”
The trial continues next week.
Anjana Sundaram is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.