Our Experience in Luvungi

International Medical Corps responds to Laura Heaton's investigation of mass rape in a small Congolese town.

The March/April issue of Foreign Policy magazine features an opinion piece by Laura Heaton titled "What Happened in Luvungi? On rape and truth in Congo." The article questions accounts of an attack on villages around Luvungi, a town in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), that occurred during four days in late July and early August of 2010, and questions the attention that sexual violence in the DRC receives in the wider international community.

In the article, Heaton alludes to a conspiracy among the U.N., international humanitarian organizations, researchers, and Congolese community leaders to fabricate or inflate stories of rape in DRC. What might motivate this range of actors to collectively lie about sexual violence is left unclear, and Heaton's allegations of distortion are largely based on "wildly disparate reports" of rape during the Luvungi attacks. But these simply do not exist. Every humanitarian organization reporting on the Luvungi response, and multiple human rights investigations all found that hundreds of women and girls reported being raped during those four days. In July 2011, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a Final Report of U.N. Fact-Finding Missions into both the Luvungi incidents and the widely criticized U.N. peacekeeping response to the incidents. The U.N. confirmed that at least 387 civilians were raped, many by multiple perpetrators, and a great number in front of multiple witnesses.

This weight of evidence is not counterbalanced by the suspicions of one anonymous health worker whom Heaton interviewed, nor by her own inexpert and offensive suggestion that a "psychological element seemed to be missing" in the three survivors she encountered. Sadly, the author missed an opportunity to really explore what happened in Luvungi -- and the truth about rape in Congo -- when she chose to disregard available information (including information provided by both of us) that wasn't compatible with a premise she was determined to pursue.

In early August 2010, at the request of the Walikale Health Zone authorities and civil society leaders, we sent a joint Ministry of Public Health-International Medical Corps team to respond to the Luvungi incidents. On August 6, three days after the attacks ended, we began transporting people to the nearest health center, roughly 8 kilometers from Luvungi. While sexual violence is a too-common feature of conflict in DRC, we did not expect to receive such large numbers of patients reporting rape. As days and weeks passed, more and more women came forward. For survivors who arrived at the health center there was never any financial or material incentive provided. Far from encouraging increased reports, we were concerned about our ability to provide adequate treatment to those who needed it, as our supplies of emergency contraception and antibiotics were limited and we struggled to restock.

There are undoubtedly many important lessons to learn from the Luvungi incidents. For us, the priority has been determining how to better prepare response teams to meet the needs of survivors. We have since conducted numerous trainings on appropriate care and have pre-positioned emergency stocks of essential drugs in several health zones in North and South Kivu.

International Medical Corps has worked in DRC since 1999, providing health, nutrition, and other services to conflict-affected populations. In recent years, we have worked with communities to increase access to medical, psychosocial, legal, and livelihoods services for survivors of violence and vulnerable women. These programs have not replaced or come at the expense of other important initiatives, as Heaton suggests; on the contrary, programming to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls aims to increase the overall health and wellbeing of communities. Our programs, like most others in DRC, are carefully designed to not exclusively benefit survivors. This reduces a risk of further stigmatizing survivors and also eliminates a possible incentive for false reporting.

Globally, rape is considered to be one of the most underreported violent crimes, and DRC is no exception. Survivors of violence often feel ashamed, afraid their partners or families will abandon them, worried their communities will ostracize or isolate them. Many sense that reporting is futile, expecting that police and healthcare providers will not believe their stories. We train health and psychosocial workers to respect survivors' testimonies, and to provide services they seek without subjecting them to suspicion or inquiry. This approach is critical to increasing access to care. Last year, health facilities we support in eastern DRC treated an average of 128 survivors of rape every month, and psychosocial support staff received an average of 143 individuals reporting violence each month. Half of those cases reportedly involved rape, with more than 80 percent identifying armed actors as their perpetrators.

The brutality of sexual violence in eastern DRC is difficult to fathom, and all of us should feel outraged by the large numbers of women and girls, as well as men and boys, who are victimized by widespread rape. This outrage has led to increased support of organizations like ours that respond to the needs of survivors. In her article, Heaton points to increased funding for sexual violence response as evidence that "the advocacy works." This ignores the fact that current funding remains woefully inadequate to cover the tremendous needs in a large country, with limited infrastructure and continued insecurity in the east. Some of the facilities International Medical Corps supports in North Kivu cannot be reached by car or motorbike; our staff must walk for up to four days, with no telephone access, through terrain that often erupts in conflict. Responding to sexual violence in eastern Congo is difficult, dangerous, and expensive work. Organizations engaged with this work understand the great impact of sexual violence for survivors, families, and communities, and are consequently committed to advocating for increased protection and support of affected populations. It is deeply cynical to suggest that humanitarian organizations would misrepresent the toll of sexual violence for the purpose of increasing funding.

Sexual violence remains a salient feature of the conflict in eastern DRC. Some may be of the opinion that this is a tired story, or one that has been exaggerated. From our experience working with survivors and communities, we contend that the issue of sexual violence in DRC deserves increased attention and action. And we believe that in any debate over rape in eastern DRC, Congolese women and girls who have been most affected deserve the final say on truth.

Laura Heaton responds: 

On March 5, International Medical Corps (IMC), the American aid group who first responded to a violent incident in the eastern Congolese village of Luvungi in 2010, published a response to my article in the March/April issue of Foreign Policy. Our diverging accounts, and IMC's description of the challenges its team faced in the immediate aftermath of the attack, underscore the complexity of providing appropriate assistance to civilians in volatile, isolated communities -- which are all too common in eastern Congo, particularly now.

There are many important questions that the Luvungi incident raises, which is why I set out to examine it, knowing full well when I started that definitively pinning down all the details would never be possible. But IMC's rebuttal suggests that my reporting is based on a single source and a hunch; in fact, nearly two years of research led me to many different sources who had varying levels of knowledge of the incident and diverse perspectives on how and why the established narrative about Luvungi was inaccurate. I stand by my sources and the editorial decisions about which accounts to present.

I also take issue with IMC's characterization of my piece as suggesting a "conspiracy" between various actors. Nothing in the Foreign Policy article asserts anything of the sort. What the article does say is fact: that the U.N. and NGO teams that subsequently investigated the rapes in Luvungi drew on IMC's original account -- and stated so in their various reports and in interviews with me. The inquiries all these groups undertook in the months following the rapes were carried out by seasoned investigators and experts in working with traumatized victims. But as time passed, sources told me, establishing a precise count of sexual violence victims became increasingly difficult.

By writing this story I hoped to catalyze further discussion and investigation into the causes of sexual violence and how it ties into the broader understanding of the conflict in Congo. I have never disputed -- nor have I sought to detract from -- the fact that sexual violence is a tragic and alarming problem in Congo; academic research and survivor narratives have established irrevocably that the incidence of sexual violence is exceptionally high and can be horrifyingly brutal. But what is less often highlighted is this: most sexual violence in Congo is committed by civilians, and not just demobilized soldiers.

Finally, the authors of IMC's rebuttal claim that I "chose to disregard available information (including information provided by both of us) that wasn't compatible with a premise [I] was determined to pursue." I did, in fact, have several conversations with IMC personnel, who declined to comment on the record except for an emailed statement provided to me by IMC communications director Margaret Aguirre, from which I quoted in the article.  



Fund Syria’s Moderates

We can’t say that helping the Syrian rebels didn’t work, because it has never really been tried.

In response to non-violent protests calling for reform, the Baathist regime in Damascus has brought Syria bloodshed, chaos, and created the conditions in which jihadism thrives. The now partially armed revolution is doing its best to roll back the bloodshed and to eliminate the regime that perpetrates it.

Yet Foreign Policy's Marc Lynch, one of the more perceptive analysts of the Middle East, argues that after more than 60,000 lives have been lost, "the last year should be a lesson to those who called for arming the rebels." In a previous article, Lynch noted, "Syrian armed groups are now awash with weapons."

Anyone laboring under the delusion that pro-revolution foreign powers have flooded Syria with hi-tech weaponry should scroll through the blog of New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers or peruse the web pages displaying improvised catapult bombs and PlayStation-controlled armored cars. These are hardly the tools of a fighting force that has been armed to the teeth.

While it's true that some armed groups -- particularly the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra -- have sometimes found themselves in possession of plenty of weaponry, the resistance remains overwhelmingly dependent on the weapons it can buy, steal, or seize from captured checkpoints and bases.

Simply put, the assumptions of those who called for arming the rebels have not been tested because the rebels have not been armed -- except in irrelevant, sporadic and, in Lynch's words, "poorly coordinated" ways. For instance, an ammunition shortage slowed the original rebel advance in Aleppo to a destructive halt.

Yes, the Saudis and Qataris distributed some light weapons -- each according to their own interests, which only compounded the disorganization of rebel forces. The United States has held them back from providing heavy weapons, which could have made a difference against tanks and aircraft. In any case, the Arab Gulf states are also manipulating the Syrian conflict for their own ends: The Saudi tactic seems to be to slowly bleed Iran in Syria in the manner of the Iran-Iraq war rather than to push for a rapid revolutionary victory.

NATO's Patriot missile deployment in Turkey, which will only be used to stop missiles crossing the Turkish border rather than to establish a no-fly zone in Syria, sums up the broader thrust of Gulf and Western policy: a vain effort to quarantine the Syrian problem rather than to allow the revolution to come quickly to its natural conclusion.

In October and November, rebels did acquire man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), which were almost certainly seized from over-run regime bases. A number of regime planes and helicopters were then shot down, prompting media talk of yet another tipping point. But now the MANPADS have dried up, and Syria's cities and villages have been returned to the unending grind of aerial bombardment.

A steady, well-coordinated supply of anti-aircraft weaponry would have liberated parts of northern Syria from these bombs, which pulverize both infrastructure and human life. Refugees could have returned from Turkey. The Syrian National Coalition, the umbrella organization for opposition groups, could have made a real effort to coordinate governance and food supplies in these areas, and warlordism would have been weakened. Rebuilding could have started. Schools could have reopened. But there was no supply, and as a result northern Syria is dying.

"It's too late to avoid the militarization of the conflict or to prevent the sidelining of non-armed groups," Lynch writes. While this statement is entirely true, it fails to take account of the enormous and continuing disparity between the sides. Not only is the regime far better armed and organized than the resistance militias, it is also by far the most destructive force in the country, by far the greater killer of civilians. At this point, it's not unusual for 1,000 civilians to be killed in a week. Bombs are not dropped on bread lines or petrol queues as a battle tactic, but to murder, terrorize, and demoralize the unarmed population.

The inequality of military power does not restrain, but in fact encourages, the use of force by the Syrian regime. As the United States did in Iraq, or as Israel has done again and again in Gaza, stronger parties rely on overwhelming force when other solutions fail them. The weapons disparity is the only reason Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad continues to believe that he can win. He has lost vast tracts of the country, a large majority of the population despises him, the economy is crumbling -- but still he has planes, helicopters, tanks, and missiles, and his opponents do not.

In the light of the regime's extreme repression, the arming of the revolution was inevitable. Non-violent protest continues to be important in Syria, but it lost its centrality in the first months -- before the emergence of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) -- because peaceful demonstrations were consistently broken up by bullets and clubs and non-violent activists were tortured to death. The FSA did not create these conditions, but emerged in response to them. When soldiers are ordered to fire on their unarmed countrymen, some will inevitably defect. When people experience the destruction of their homes, the rape of their sisters, the torture of their children, some of them will inevitably take up arms. Once they have done so, they are hunted by the regime; they must either bring it down or die.

Yet Lynch writes, "The United States should lean even harder on its Gulf allies to stop funneling weapons and cash to its local proxies for competitive advantage." This is a recipe for mass slaughter. These people are not going to give up, and Russia and Iran are not going to stop funneling weapons and cash to the regime.

Lynch is right that direct foreign military intervention is inadvisable. It would fulfill the expectations of those in and beyond the Middle East who believe the Syrian revolution is all about Iran and that the revolutionaries are pawns in the hands of dastardly foreign powers. There's too much bad history, particularly as far as the United States is concerned. Moreover, Syria would be an infinitely more difficult conflict than Libya: Western forces would find themselves fighting several wars at once -- against Iran, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, perhaps even against Kurdish insurgents. Their presence might well exacerbate the sectarian element of the conflict.

But direct military intervention has always been highly unlikely. It's a red herring (the most persistent red herring of the conflict) -- and one that misjudges the West's mood, its economy, and its current capabilities in the Middle East. The only useful intervention that can be hoped for is not a land or air invasion but a coordinated effort between the West, the Arabs, and Turkey to fund and arm the Syrian National Coalition, which is now recognized by over 130 countries as the "sole" or "legitimate" representative of the Syrian people.

With regard to Jabhat al-Nusra, Lynch writes, "The shift into armed insurgency and civil war is what brought al Qaeda into the mix, not America's failure to deliver guns."

Once again this is true, but surely time plays a role too. In Iraq, it took more than a year of attacks against Shiite civilians before the Shiite militias geared up into ethnic-cleansing mode. In Syria, for the first year of the armed revolution, Jabhat al-Nusra was an irrelevant fringe group. That's a year of increasing trauma and desperation for the military defectors and suffering civilians on the ground. Trauma and desperation tend to radicalize people's politics.

But two factors above all have dramatically improved Jabhat al-Nusra's profile in the last six months, and neither of them is ideological. The first is the shortage of arms among the rebel groups. Jabhat al-Nusra's existing arsenal -- acquired from Iraq and from private donors in the Gulf -- wedded to its cadres' fearless discipline in battle, allowed it to capture a string of military installations in the east, and thus to procure more weaponry, including heavy guns. It has used the new weapons to take on new and bigger regime targets, like the Taftanaz airfield in Idlib province, and in the process has won new weapon-hungry recruits.

The second factor is hunger. In Aleppo, regime bombing of bakeries, poor supply lines, and other militias' looting and indiscipline sparked a bread crisis. Jabhat al-Nusra stepped into the breach and won plaudits from locals for safeguarding grain supplies and fairly distributing bread. According to the survival standards of today's Aleppo, it is applying good governance. So far, it looks like al Qaeda's most successful incarnation -- one which has learnt valuable lessons since the Iraq branch with which it maintains ties -- alienated Iraqi Sunni communities.

It's too late for a happy ending in Syria. There are no easy answers to the country's enormous problems, but there is an obvious first step toward a solution: funding the moderate Islamists and secularists of the Syrian National Coalition, which will then feed the hungry and fund the fighters, empowering them to buy the weapons they need. That step will provide those Syrian communities scared of the revolutionary future, as well as the West, with a real Syrian interlocutor -- a body that represents a real path to a better future, rather than a collection of militias.