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U.N. Report: More Than 500 Rapes In Eastern Congo

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U.N. Report: More Than 500 Rapes In Eastern Congo

Africa

U.N. Report: More Than 500 Rapes In Eastern Congo

U.N. Report: More Than 500 Rapes In Eastern Congo

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United Nations peacekeepers now say up to 500 people were raped over a four-day period this summer in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That's double the number previously reported. Linda Wertheimer talks with Margot Wallstrom, special representative on sexual violence in conflict, about the mass rapes.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

U.N. peacekeepers now say that up to 500 people were raped over a four-day period this summer in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That is double the number previously reported.

Our next guest has described this kind of rebel attack as part of a broader pattern of widespread, systematic rape and pillage. Margot Wallstrom is the U.N. special envoy on sexual violence, and she joins us from Brussels.

Welcome.

Ms. MARGOT WALLSTROM (U.N. Special Envoy on Sexual Violence): Thank you very much.

WERTHEIMER: Could you just explain to us why the numbers of attacks appeared to double over a period of days? We first heard 240, and then, all of a sudden, it was a great deal more.

Ms. WALLSTROM: Well, very often, women hesitate to come forward to report on these type of crimes. They feel ashamed. This is maybe one of the few crimes that leaves the victim with shame and let the perpetrators go free. So they will hesitate to report it. So it means that, very often, it takes some time before you actually know the full story and to see the full situation here.

WERTHEIMER: A United Nations official acknowledged that peacekeepers had apparently failed in their responsibility for protecting civilians - and in this case, of course, women. Why does a failure like that happen?

Ms. WALLSTROM: Well, I think one has to first of all understand the very difficult circumstances for peacekeepers. And I say this as a description of the situation and not an excuse. But here, they have, like 80 peacekeepers in an area that covers 300 square kilometers. But the thing is, we have to understand better, and this has been part of the analysis: Why was it that they did not take this as early warning signals that there was movement of armed rebel groups, that they blocked off the road? So I think this was the lesson to learn for the U.N. peacekeepers. We have to better engage with the local communities and better understand and see these early warning signs.

WERTHEIMER: The New York Times has reported that some of these rapes, perhaps about 10 of them, were carried out by government soldiers. Has the Congolese government responded to that? Can the U.N. prompt that kind of response?

Ms. WALLSTROM: Well, this is, unfortunately, something we know from before, that the national army soldiers have committed rapes. And for many women, they don't feel safe because they see a soldier in a national army uniform. We are engaged in forging a process of vetting the national army soldiers and making sure that they are also on the right side here, and that they behave and that they are better equipped and trained and can keep the civil population safe.

WERTHEIMER: The Democratic Republic of Congo estimates that thousands of women were raped last year, something in the vicinity of 8,000. Why is rape so prevalent? Is there anything that the United Nations can do to change that?

Ms. WALLSTROM: The thing is that armies everywhere in the world have discovered that this is a cheap, efficient and silent weapon or tactic of war. And we'll have to change it by addressing the problem of impunity. The perpetrators know that they can walk away, but we cannot. We must pursue the perpetrators, and we must tell them that we've had enough, and you will be punished for this type of crime.

WERTHEIMER: Margot Wallstrom is the U.N.'s special envoy on sexual violence. We reached her in Brussels. Ms. Wallstrom, thank you very much.

Ms. WALLSTROM: Thank you.

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