LUVUNGI, Congo — In August 2010, the respected Los Angeles-based aid group International Medical Corps (IMC) went public with a shocking account of horrific mass rapes perpetrated by rebel troops over a period of four days in and around Luvungi, a small town in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's embattled and lawless east. The media reports that followed described a "brutal spree of raping and looting," as the Associated Press put it. Some victims were very young children; one, according to the AP, was a "110-year-old great-great-grandmother." While United Nations sources told me that the initial count of victims IMC provided was around 60 or 70 women, by early September the organization had revised its figure upward, saying in a statement that it had provided medical care to more than 242 survivors of a mass incident of sexual violence.
A month later, the New York Times' Jeffrey Gettleman arrived in Luvungi, where he wrote a powerful front-page story describing the anguished cries of the town's women and faulting U.N. peacekeepers, based just 11 miles away, who failed to respond. Gettleman's reporting noted the rape tally as "at least 200 women." The horror of Luvungi seemed to confirm what Margot Wallström, then the U.N.'s special representative for sexual violence in conflict, had dubbed the country in April 2010: Congo, she said, was the "rape capital of the world."
Suddenly, that phrase was everywhere. Congo -- a poster-child failed state, the worst place on Earth to be a woman -- now had another horror added to its long rap sheet. A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that more than 1,100 women are raped in Congo every day -- some 48 rapes per hour, as news outlets were quick to report. If anything, many analysts said, the true numbers could be much higher, as the pervasive stigma against rape victims in Congo likely suppressed the reporting of such crimes.
No one would claim that life in eastern Congo, embroiled for almost two decades in conflict, is anything but perilous -- especially for women. The country is justifiably infamous for its high incidence of rape by rebels, soldiers, and husbands alike. But statistics are notoriously hard to come by in Congo. The last census was conducted in 1984; there are few roads, paved or otherwise, in a country nearly the size of Western Europe. And even those areas that are physically accessible are often off-limits due to violence and insecurity. Human rights advocates and researchers in Congo have long had to use "baseline" estimates to determine the costs of conflict. The oft-cited death toll from Congo's decades of war, for example, now stands at more than 5 million. But this figure isn't a count of bodies piling up at morgues; it's an estimate of the difference between civilian mortality rates and the regional "baseline" historical average, last calculated in 2007. Likewise, the American Journal of Public Health study, the most authoritative report to date on rape in Congo, surveyed 3,436 Congolese women and extrapolated the findings across a population of more than 35 million women. The findings were horrific -- nearly one rape a minute, the authors estimated -- but the point is that it's hard to count anything there.
Even in Luvungi, ground zero of Congo's rape epidemic, things aren't exactly what they've been made out to be.
TUCKED AWAY IN the double-canopy rain forest of eastern Congo, Luvungi, a village of roughly 1,000, is a two-day excursion from almost anywhere. The journey from Walikale, the largest town in the area, is a bone-jarring two-hour trip by motorbike taxi. The rocky, rutted road winds up into the hills -- past pristine waterfalls, women coming from the terraced fields bearing hand-woven baskets piled with vegetables, and men weighed down by bundles of wood, machetes at their side. This is the turf of the notorious FDLR rebel group, whose leaders were involved in the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda and have spent the past 19 years living in the bush of eastern Congo, preying on the population. On this visit in April 2011, one of three recent trips I made to Congo for this article, the motorbike driver pointed out places along the road where the FDLR tended to attack. From clearings in the thick jungle, the view to the horizon was all dense green hills, mist, and layers of purple mountains. Cell phones were useless.
Eventually, the narrow dirt road cut a straight line through Luvungi. Mud footpaths led off into the hills between clusters of houses and small garden plots. Simple structures made of wood and covered with loosely woven dried leaves served as the central market. A meager array of local vegetables and a few dozen pungent dried fish the size of one's palm, a local delicacy, was spread out on wobbly tables.
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