Prison Rape Victims Recount Ordeal

Women violated in failed prison breakout that sparks worldwide concern.

Prison Rape Victims Recount Ordeal

Women violated in failed prison breakout that sparks worldwide concern.

Women victims of mass rape during an attempted escape from at a prison in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, have spoken to IWPR of the incident, which provoked concern from the United Nations and human rights campaigners.

The UN mission in DRC, MONUC, said about 20 women were raped and held hostage and several people killed or wounded in the incident at Muzenze prison in the provincial capital Goma on the night of June 21.

The prison clashes came just as MONUC and the DRC ministry of justice were starting a 10-day workshop in Kinshasa intended to help pave the way for a wholesale reform of the DRC prison system aimed at raising standards to international levels.

Christine was among the victims of the mass rape. She was sleeping when she heard gunfire and the sound of people climbing into the area reserved for female inmates. Her cell door was broken down and she was attacked.

“I was raped by at least ten men who hit me on the breast with an [iron bar], telling me to properly lie down. I shouted but got no help. Other women who were in my cell received the same treatment. I suffered a lot,” she said.

The victims were attacked in their cells after a group of fellow prisoners armed with hand grenades, hand guns and AK47s broke through the wall separating men and women. A policeman and a prisoner were killed and a dozen others injured during the attempted escape.

Amina, who is five months pregnant, was also raped. She worries that her unborn child could be damaged. “Will the baby I’m carrying stand the consequences of these acts that I have been the victim of?” she said.

Another victim, Marie-Louise, 64, despairs for a society that has no respect for the elderly. “The little boy who raped me could be my grandson,” she said.

Muzenze is a crumbling, colonial-era wreck intended for around 200 inmates, which currently houses more than 800. Conditions are appalling and violence including rape is common as prisoners live in filth with little food or medicine. Many are in pre-trial detention for years and tensions are frequently high.

“This is a grim example of both the prison conditions and the level of sexual violence that plagues the DRC,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said in a statement after the rampage.

He urged the Congolese government “to initiate prison reform to ensure conformity with internationally recognised standards in the treatment of detainees, including strict separation of men and women”.

The rape victims were taken for emergency medical care at HEAL Africa, which treats and supports victims of sexual violence in eastern DRC.

The DRC police and army with the help of MONUC eventually regained control of Muzenze. No prisoners escaped, but Muzenze was left in worse shape than ever with walls missing bricks and shattered doors and windows.

Prison director Joseph Mirindi said it was soldiers who had been detained at Muzenze for more than two years without being sentenced who tried to break out.

He said he was badly shaken by the incident and said he has long campaigned for better separation between men and women and a decrease in prisoner numbers to combat overpopulation.

With prison staff largely unpaid and untrained, it is easy to smuggle weapons like those used in the June 21 attack into Muzenze.

Visitors bring in illicit items in a variety of ways. Sometimes weapons are concealed in the diapers of children, while nails, knives and grenades are also brought in food. The prison has little money to feed inmates who instead rely on those from outside to bring in food supplies.

Often, getting weapons into Muzenze is as simple as waiting until dark and pushing them through holes in the crumbling walls.

Most of the victims of the Muzenze rapes have been brought back to prison. But many are asking to be released, saying the barbarism they suffered while in the care of the prison system was far worse than the crimes they committed. They have no confidence that such attacks won’t happen again.

“Imprisoned by the state, we are sexually assaulted in the hands of the state,” said one. “Why must we still be guarded by the state?”

The presidency of the European Union issued a statement saying it viewed the Muzenze rape cases “with serious concern”.

“The EU calls for adequate medical and psychological support to be given to the victims of the riot, particularly to the women who were raped, and the accompanying children that were affected. The EU also calls for adequate sanctions to be delivered to the perpetrators,” it said in a statement.

New York-based rights campaigner Human Rights Watch, HRW, accused DRC authorities of ignoring calls to improve the country's crumbling prison infrastructure and failing to protect vulnerable inmates.

"The rape of female prisoners in a government institution is deeply distressing," Anneke Van Woudenberg, HRW's senior Congo researcher, was quoted as saying.

"This is a horrific example of what has been happening across the prison system throughout Congo."

Charles Ntiricya, Sarah Nsimire and Jacques Kahorha are IWPR-trained journalists in Goma.
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