After several days of uncertainty, the trial for the Kavumu rapes is scheduled to finally open today in Bukavu. Nearly five years after the first attacks and following an international mobilization of supporters, 18 suspects are facing charges, including a local politician. The trial will be a turning point for the fight against impunity in DRC.
Today, international observers will pay close attention to the village of Kavumu in Congo’s eastern province of South Kivu. It will be the epicenter of one of the most anticipated trials of the year. The defendants are alleged members of an armed militia who, for years, abducted and raped children in this village.
The trial was originally planned to start on Monday 6 November. Due to the instable context in the region, it was postponed at the last moment to 9 November and then to 20 November. In a dramatic turn of events, the trial date changed again Wednesday night, and was moved back to 9 November 2017.
In just a few short years, Kavumu has been a symbol both of the large-scale crimes of sexual violence that have devastated the country, and a demonstration of the impunity with which those crimes are accompanied. The trial itself is one of the few of its kind and could set a crucial precedent.
“The importance of Kavumu extends far beyond the impact on survivors and their families,” said the NGO TRIAL International. “This trial punctures the code of silence and undermines the judicial inertia that often surrounds sexual violence cases in South Kivu. That authorities are now fully reckoning with this issue head-on is a huge step forward for Congolese justice.”
Babies among the victims
Some of the agony of these cases is due to the age of the 46 victims – some as young as just a year old when they were raped. The attacks also fit a similar pattern that was repeated over the course of many years.
“The perpetrators broke into our houses at night to kidnap our daughters,” said a mother of a victim who asked for anonymity to protect her from reprisals. “They raped them out of pure superstition, and many suffered injuries that will linger with them the rest of their lives.”
Urged on by a concerned international community and courageous civil society members, the Kavumu military prosecutor took over the case in 2016. During the investigation, 18 suspects were charged with crimes against humanity, since their alleged crimes were both numerous and systematic.
NGOs on the front line
The trial in Kavumu will take place thanks to the mobilization of both Congolese and international civil society groups. Together, they combined their expertise to draw the attention of national authorities and help to build a solid case against the alleged offenders.
“We are hopeful that our combined efforts will allow survivors and their families to finally obtain justice and live in peace after so much pain,” said the NGO Physicians for Human Rights, which has supported investigative efforts in Kavumu since the first rape cases were reported. “We are hopeful this process will hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes. And we hope that the collaboration between the medical and legal communities, as well as international and national NGOs, can sustain an effective response system that can prevent future instances of sexual violence.”
An additional difficulty was the vulnerability of the survivors, all of whom were children at the time of the attacks.
“These children relive the aggression perpetrated against them every time they tell their story. The trial’s proceedings are demanding and require deep psychological support,” said Panzi Hospital, which specializes in the treatment of survivors of sexual violence.
On the legal front, the challenge will be proving the systematic nature of the attacks. In order to make a case of crimes against humanity, prosecutors must show that the crimes were part of an organized endeavor, a high bar in a country as unstable as DRC.
“We have been waiting years for this trial to begin, as have the families of all the survivors,” said the NGO community working on these cases. “We now hope that the trial will be conducted in good faith and that the Congolese justice system will justly punish the offenders proportional to the gravity of their crimes.”