“After you were raped in 2003 did you go see a doctor?” asked Nick Kaufman, the lawyer representing alleged Congolese warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba, detained in The Hague on charges for war crimes and crimes against humanity since 2008.
“No,” answered the witness from the Central African Republic, CAR, identified only by a number, 87.
“Why?” Kaufman asked.
“Because I had no money at that time to go to hospital to see a doctor,” the witness replied.
“Don’t you have organisations in your country such as the Red Cross, [and] Doctors Without Borders? Do these organisations request money to help victims of sexual violence?” Kaufman asked.
“No,” replied the witness.
I remember hearing all these questions asked by his lawyer as I watched the Bemba trial from the public gallery at the International Criminal Court, ICC.
Bemba is charged with widespread attacks including acts of rape, torture, and pillage in CAR from October, 25 2002 to March 15, 2003.
This witness said she had been raped by three of Bemba’s troops in CAR in 2003.
Laughter, tears, questions; a whole multitude of emotions filled my heart, all at the same time. Tears, because of the terrible testimonies I heard from victims of sexual violence from CAR who witnessed members of their own families being raped or killed by armed men.
At the same time I wanted to laugh when the defence repeatedly questioned the veracity of witnesses’ and victims’ testimonies, looking for contradictions in their statements.
Their play on the subtleties of words and facts – although very important to uncover the truth – made me feel ill at ease. The woman being interrogated became more and more upset as she recalled events that she had difficulties recounting in a public courtroom in front of three judges.
The defence always questioned the prosecution’s evidence, constantly trying to pick holes in it, for instance, the lack of bona fide medical records showing there had been a rape.
Unfortunately, through fear of being stigmatised by the entire community, many victims did not go to see a doctor after they were raped. They were also scared stiff of being mocked or rejected by their husband, as is often the case in many African countries, particularly the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.
However, for defence lawyers, with their client on trial for sexual violence, medical evidence stating that a rape had occurred was a vital element.
The absence of such evidence made the prosecutor’s job very difficult. Proving that rapes were committed by Bemba’s troops has been a challenge for prosecutors, who have so far not been able to provide every piece of evidence demanded by the defence.
And that raised many questions in my mind.
Even if it is difficult to prove that an individual was raped, should it be said that there was no rape committed on the population by armed groups? In the DRC, for instance, we know that some armed groups used crimes of sexual violence as a weapon of war and a political weapon to destroy entire communities and even weaken the state’s authority.
Should we remain silent when our mothers, sisters, our children are raped and the perpetrators of these crimes walk freely in cities and villages of these countries plagued by war?
The trial highlighted for me how difficult it is for the court to prosecute crimes of sexual violence. In its first case, against Thomas Lubanga, prosecutors only brought charges of conscripting child soldiers into the army.
Although incidents of sexual violence had been registered locally, no charges of sexual violence crimes were brought.
There are still many difficulties surrounding sexual violence investigations, notably the difficulty of identifying and even locating victims of the horrific crimes. In several countries where investigations are taking place, the archive system is flawed or even non-existent. It is often impossible to find documents stating that a rape occurred.
After being raped, many victims are rejected by their communities and by their relatives, especially their husbands. Rapes and sexual violence are crimes that always leave a powerful and lasting impact, including physical injury and psychological trauma.
Nearly 60 per cent of armed men who were roaming the countryside raping, torturing and mutilating young women and even children were carrying HIV.
It is obvious that women and children were targeted by these successive wars in eastern DRC, and many are still terrified by the aftermath of these conflicts. Speaking to victims in eastern DRC, I realise that many of them would like to see perpetrators of these crimes pay for the harm they have done.
Unfortunately, the ICC only prosecutes the militia leaders. Meanwhile, the perpetrators walk freely in cities, towns and villages, with the opportunity to commit more crimes and jeopardise a great number of inhabitants who don’t report being raped through fear of being harassed by their attacker.
Covering these cases made me realise that, as far as international justice goes, there remains a gap when it comes to righting the wrongs done to so many victims of these conflicts.
In the name of all these women who suffer and live today in humiliation and despair, I believe that we should all join together in support of these women, so that justice can be done.
Passy Mubalama is an IWPR-trained journalist in DRC.