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Congo Rapes, The World's Most Depressing Story

A Congolese rape victim crosses her arms while sitting next to an infant in front of the transit house they stay in, at the Heal Africa clinic in Goma on August 8, 2009. ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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If the continuing depravity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo involving the rapes of tens of thousands of women, children and men, isn't the world's most depressing story, it's hard to imagine what comes in first.

And this comes after an estimated 5.4 million people were killed in a war that's raged in eastern part DRC for more than a decade.

The rapes, many by rebels and many others by Congolese government forces, have gotten more attention recently, with the visit of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the country as part of her 11-nation tour and some very good reporting.

All Things Considered, for instance, had an interview with Anneka Van Woudenberg, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, who has been closely tracking the Congo rape crisis and likely has a stronger stomach and conscience than many people. Her interview made for very had listening.

An excerpt:

Ms. VAN WOUDENBERG: Well, I have to say, in my head, I think I've probably got hundreds, if not thousands now, of stories of women and girls who have been raped. But I have to say on this last trip I was really shocked by one story that I heard of a young 15-year-old girl who had been kept in a hole in the ground for five months naked and raped repeatedly day after day after day. And she then fell pregnant as a result of the rape. And when she got home, of course, you know, showing a big bump, her family excluded her from the home, saying that she had brought this on herself.

I wish that these stories were rare. I wish that this was an exception. But this particular story was not. And what hurts in particular, I think, for many of the women and girls is that this isn't just rebel troops, this isn't just armed groups, militia groups raping. It is also the soldiers of the Congolese army. The very people who are supposed to be protecting them are raping them.

And as the New York Times reported, many of the people now being raped are men.

HRW, incidentally, has a very good fact sheet that provides a scorecard for the conflict in the DRC.

Clinton brought attention to the issue Tuesday by attending a round-table discussion on the issue and announcing that the U.S. would be contributing more than $17 million to help prevent rape and to assist the victims.

She said in a speech reported on her State Department blog:

I have just come from a meeting with two survivors of sexual attacks. The atrocities that these women have suffered, which stands for the atrocities that so many have suffered, distills evil into its basest form. The United States condemns these attacks and all those who commit them and abet them. And we say to the world that those who attack civilian populations using systematic rape are guilty of crimes against humanity.

While the U.S. condemns the attacks, it is in part unwitting abetting them, since it supports the UN and the international organization is assisting the same Congolese army whose soldiers are participating in the rapes.

Adam Hochschild, who recently traveled to DRC, writes this in the New York Review of Books:

When speaking not for attribution, UN officials are far more somber. I talk to four more of them, military and civilian, African and European. All agree that the biggest single problem is the chaotic Congolese army itself, which numbers some 120,000 ill-trained men. On one country road, heading to a combat zone where one unit is relieving another, we see hundreds of soldiers in green fatigues, but not once a truck filled with troops. Carrying rifles or grenade launchers, the men are hitchhiking rides with passing cargo trucks and motorcycles. They wave at us, bringing hands to their mouths to beg for cigarettes. Beneath a piece of canvas strung between trees, a solitary sentry manning one checkpoint is sound asleep...

... What can be done? The outside world has influence over the Congolese army, because we're partly paying for it. The national government depends on aid money to make ends meet, depends on the UN force to retain control of the east, and sometimes even needs UN planes to transport its soldiers, for there is no drivable road from one side of the country to the other. At a bare minimum, the Western powers have leverage to pressure Congo into purging its army of thugs in senior positions—and could demand far more as well.

Making demands of thugs would certainly be something, though it's hard to rev up much optimism that it would have much of an effect.

Which means that the cruelty and misery in the DRC will probably continue, for some time, to be a leading contender for the world's most depressing story.