Schalk van Zuydam/AP
Police control the crowd as they react before looking for the bodies of family members and friends that were killed during a rally.
Police control the crowd as they react before looking for the bodies of family members and friends that were killed during a rally. Schalk van Zuydam/AP
The people of the West African nation of Guinea are still struggling to deal with the trauma of a deadly military crackdown on a pro-democracy rally last month.
It was not the first time troops in Guinea have opened fire on civilians. What has shocked people most is that women were targeted in a wave of sexual violence perpetrated by soldiers in public — in broad daylight.
On Sept. 28, security forces turned on demonstrators who had gathered in the national stadium in the capital, Conakry. The demonstrators were protesting plans by Guinea's military leader, Capt. Moussa Dadis Camara, to run in the country's presidential election in January, after he said he would not. Camara seized power in a coup in December 2008 after the death of the country's longtime dictator, Lansana Conte.
The government says 57 people died. Human-rights officials put the number of those killed, to date, at 157. The International Criminal Court is looking into the incident for possible crimes against humanity.
NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has interviewed women and even child survivors of sexual violence before, mostly during civil wars in conflict zones. But when she met with 20 or so Guinean women to hear about their experiences on Sept. 28 something was different. She shares that experience.
But it's the soldiers' brutal assaults on women that have so shaken French-speaking Guinea. The people's refrain is "C'est du jamais vu" — never before have we witnessed such acts.
Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch, says the group has documented abuses by troops before, but this was different.
"What was new about the sexual violence on Sept. 28 and in the days after has been the public nature of it — the stripping of women, raping them, putting the barrels of guns inside their vaginas," she says. "This type of thing has been extremely shocking to Guineans — a very, very conservative society that have simply never seen this type of thing before."
Graphic images of assaults have been circulating online and in e-mails and cell phone text messages. Human-rights campaigners say dozens of women were victimized, though the true number may never be known, because many women in Guinea are afraid to come forward.
'For Five Days, I Did Not Sleep'
Through an intermediary, NPR met with some of the women in a small room in an opposition safe house to talk about their ordeals. In most cases, they were too ashamed to talk about such taboo subjects with their families in this predominantly Muslim country.
One woman, a teacher who didn't want to give her name, was at the stadium that Monday morning.
"I saw the soldier men, with the policemen, beat the women, tear their clothes and their trousers, took in knife and dug it in the women. I'm so afraid," she said.
The woman who arranged the meetings — who was herself terrified that she would be discovered and punished — explained that this woman was in fact a victim: She is the one who had her clothes ripped off and a knife dug into her. The intermediary said the woman spoke in the third person because she didn't want the other half-dozen women in the small room to know she had been raped. Not all of them were rape victims.
"For five days, I did not sleep. What I saw people doing to the other women don't give me chance to sleep. I'm so afraid," the teacher continued.
She saw men rape women inside the stadium. "When they do that to the women, they took the gun again and fire the women inside its privates, she's privates," she recounted. "Yes, I saw them. That is why I'm not able to sleep."
Too Frightened To Consult Doctors
A doctor, who asked not to be named, said she treated a number of the raped women.
"It is simply horrifying. Yes, women were raped, gang-raped in the open, in and around the stadium, in the cold light of day, after their clothes were ripped off with knives," the doctor said.
"I have never seen such violence in my life. I swear that this is the first time in Guinea that we have witnessed women's bodies being treated as if they were battlefields. It goes against our culture and traditions. I'm horrified. We're all horrified," she said.
The doctor said she believed many women had not come forward to seek treatment.
"The women are frightened to consult us. They feel ashamed about these rapes. They feel guilty, and yet they are the victims. And because of possible retribution, we are also fearful about treating them, because no one knows what might happen if we're found out. But the real drama is that if these women aren't treated, they risk being infected by HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases," she said.
Beatings, Insults Accompanied Rapes
Another victim, a gently spoken professional, said she hopes she has not been infected with HIV or become pregnant. She has received medication but said she has not told her husband or any of her family or friends that she was raped, out of shame. Her rape wasn't confined to the stadium, or even to Sept. 28. She said her hell started later — after armed troops marched her off from the stadium.
She said the troops drove her and more than a dozen other women to an unidentified villa. They had been drugged and didn't know where they had been taken. She spent three nights there.
Sobbing, the woman said she was repeatedly raped by men in uniform, some of them masked, who insulted and beat her. The soldiers said, "A woman's place is in the home. If you want political rallies, we'll show you political rallies. We'll show you who's in command in this country." It was a good night when only two turned up, she said, to take turns to rape her.
She only managed to escape when a soldier walked into the room, probably to join in, she said, only to realize that he knew her. He got her out.
Camara, Guinea's military leader, says the brutality was carried out by rogue soldiers, over whom he had no control.
But local and international pressure is mounting for accountability. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington is outraged.
"It will not surprise you to hear that I was particularly appalled by the violence against women. In broad daylight in a stadium, it was criminality of the greatest degree. And those who committed such acts should not be given any reason to expect that they will escape justice," she said.
The rape survivors say there must be no impunity in Guinea. The International Criminal Court has initiated a preliminary probe to determine whether crimes perpetrated in Guinea fall under its jurisdiction.
A senior European Union official has spoken of possible crimes against humanity, saying that, as commander-in-chief, Camara should be prosecuted.