Film Documents Rape of Women in Congo

Documentary filmmaker Lisa Jackson traveled to the Congo in 2006 to investigate the systematic rape of tens of thousands of women. She discusses her film, The Greatest Silence, which debuts Tuesday on HBO.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Filmmaker Lisa Jackson went to the Democratic Republic of Congo - the country that used to be called Zaire - to document one dimension of the horrific war there: rape. The war in eastern Congo has been going on for more than a decade. Millions of people are dead. And then there are the victims of widespread sexual brutality, women like these.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking in foreign language)

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: And as odd as it may seem, given all the good cheer in the room at that moment, Lisa Jackson, what all of these women have in common is that they've been terribly victimized by the war in Congo.

Ms. LISA JACKSON (Filmmaker, "The Greatest Silence"): Exactly. Every single one of them had been raped. And they all came - there were some of the lucky minority that actually made it to this NGO called Women for Women International that gave them shelter and was kind of giving them training skills. But they had all come together to talk to me about their experiences.

SIEGEL: Do we have any idea how many women have been raped in the war in the Congo?

Ms. JACKSON: These statistics are so hard to track. There is NGOs who'll give you numbers like 42,000 in the last year in this certain province or a hospital, say, 6,000 women sought care in the last eight months. But for every one of those, there are 10, 20, 30 that either can't make it to the hospital, aren't counted in these dreadful censuses. But you hear figures of upwards of a quarter of a million women and girls.

SIEGEL: More than a quarter of a million women and girls who have been sexually assaulted either by militias, foreign militias, Congolese troops, whoever is fighting in the war.

Ms. JACKSON: They face victimization from so many different fronts, from militias that have crossed the border from Burundi, from Uganda, from Hutu genociders(ph) who fled justice in Rwanda and have been living in the mountains of eastern Congo for the last 10, 12 years. And they also face assault by the very army and police forces that are supposed to protect them. And United Nation's peacekeepers have also been implicated in rape and sexual abuse. So, they're getting it from every quarter.

SIEGEL: Someone who becomes a character in this movie is your interpreter, fixer Bernard, who I assume is Congolese, and I just want to play part of something that he says in English at one point near the end of the film.

(Soundbite of movie "The Greatest Silence")

Mr. BERNARD KALUME (Congolese Translator): Once the old woman talked about how she was raped by seven guys, really I went mad. And that thing that - I won't forget that woman. Her picture, her image will stay just in front of me all my life.

SIEGEL: It's at least implicit in what Bernard Kalume says there that not every one in Congo has confronted what's happened to all of these women - but for this project, say, that you've done and other work that people have done.

Ms. JACKSON: I think it's fair to say that there's not a huge debate in Congo itself about the fate of its women and girls. You have to remember, first, that Congo is a country really without infrastructure. There are no roads, there's a minimal communication system, and there are different languages that are spoken on the eastern border and in the west. And in the west is Kinshasa, where the capital is, where they speak Lingala and live in pretty much isolation from the horrific realities in the east, where this conflict has been raging for the last 10 years.

SIEGEL: One of the most extraordinary things that you do in "The Greatest Silence" is you go twice to interview groups of soldiers, armed men, who seemed to be living in the bush for many years, who've committed many rapes. This is what one man says when you ask him about rapes that he has committed.

Unidentified Man: (Lingala spoken)

SIEGEL: In the subtitles, you translate that as, if she says no, I must take her by force. If she's strong, I'll call some friends to help me. Yes, she's a human being, but when I feel I want a woman and she is there and my wife is not there, I must do it.

Ms. JACKSON: Pretty extraordinary that they would say this to me without remorse, without guilt, without shame, and without any fear of reprisal. You really can say that there's a culture of impunity in the Congo, where none of these men will face arrest for what they've confessed to me on videotape. And after the interview, one of the most chilling moments in my long career, they just melted back into the bush, and I couldn't help but wonder who will be their next victims.

SIEGEL: You tried to put it to a group of these rapists, these soldiers. What if your sister, what if your mother were raped by people? How would you feel about that? Well, that was not on. I mean, they would kill for that. But somebody had mentioned that if it were for the good of the country somehow, that would be justified.

Ms. JACKSON: That soldier was a member of the Mai-Mai militia. The Congolese army is a pretty dysfunctional, motley assortment of militias that were absorbed in an attempt to make a coherent force. And the Mai-Mai are very superstitious and actually believe that rape enhances their prowess in battle. So, yes, that one man, when we pressed him, what if you would walk in on your wife being raped? Well, it depends. If she was being raped to save the Congo, I would not interfere.

SIEGEL: Yeah. The crime of rape is - the offense is multiplied because first is the actual assault and very often, an assault that leaves a woman terribly injured as a result and disabled as a result. But then, there's the rejection by her husband, which is quite common, you say.

Ms. JACKSON: They're rejected. I met so many women, especially in this small village where I spent a lot of time, who had four, five, six children. Their husband had moved to another village, had taken another wife. They were cast off their land, out of the village, with no visible means of support. The kids then become pickings for the militias to become conscripted as child soldiers. They end up working in the illegal mineral mines. And you can see firsthand how rape affects one woman then affects the family, then affects the culture. It's a femicide that is breaking down traditional villages and a way of life.

SIEGEL: The personal experience that you brought to this project was that you as a young woman in Washington, D.C. - you're the victim of a gang rape some years ago.

Ms. JACKSON: It's true. I'd knew going to eastern Congo as a white woman alone in the bush with a video camera that I might - as well have landed from a spaceship. So, I came with photographs of my family, postcards of New York to show them where I lived. And I was also - talked very freely about my own victimization, which left them in a state of disbelief. They wanted all the details. Who were the men? How is it that they were not captured? And was there a war in your country?

SIEGEL: Yeah, was there a war? That was the question that rape signified for them.

Ms. JACKSON: Was there a war? Exactly, and that a white woman could be victimized in a country that was at peace took a lot of explaining.

SIEGEL: Was there a therapeutic dimension for you in doing the film?

Ms. JACKSON: I think it was very validating for the women themselves. And to be sort of a channel or a medium for them was therapy for me. They would talk for 10, 20 minutes at a time, just pouring it all out. A lot of it in native languages that I didn't understand, I didn't really know what they were saying until I got back and worked with translators here. But the passion and the anguish really required no translation.

SIEGEL: In Congo, this war has been going on for - depending on how you count, I guess - at least for 10 years, involving several countries and several different factions. As you say, a generation of child soldiers has been pressed into service already. There's a minute law-enforcement effort to try to deal with sexual violence. And there are some NGOs offering shelter to women. Beyond those modest solutions, the overall picture seems terribly bleak. It just seems as though there's no reason why this won't go on for another 10 years.

Ms. JACKSON: It's a little stupefying to me why this war has received so little coverage. The last estimates by the International Rescue Committee, that 5.4 million civilians have died, is stunning. I mean, that's 10 times the number of casualties in Darfur. It's Africa's world war, and it's been the deadliest conflict since World War II.

SIEGEL: Lisa Jackson, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. JACKSON: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Lisa Jackson's documentary, "The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo," premiers tonight on HBO.

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