War Against Women

The Use Of Rape As A Weapon In Congo's Civil War

CBS All Access
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This segment was originally broadcast on Jan. 13, 2008. It was updated on Aug. 14, 2008.

Right now there's a war taking place in the heart of Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and more people have died there than in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Darfur combined.

You probably haven't heard much about it, but as CNN's Anderson Cooper first reported last January, it's the deadliest conflict since World War II. Within the last ten years, more than five million people have died and the numbers keep rising.

As Cooper and a 60 Minutes team found when they went there a few months ago, the most frequent targets of this hidden war are women. It is, in fact, a war against women, and the weapon used to destroy them, their families and whole communities, is rape.

Dr. Denis Mukwege is the director of Panzi Hospital in eastern Congo. In this war against women, his hospital is the frontline. One of the latest victims he's treating is Sifa M'Kitambala. She was raped just two days before the team arrived by soldiers who raided her village.

"They just cut her at many places," Dr. Mukwege explains.

Sifa was pregnant, but that didn't stop her rapists. Armed with a machete, they even cut at her genitals.

In the last ten years in Congo, hundreds of thousands of women have been raped, most of them gang raped. Panzi Hospital is full of them.

"All these women have been raped?" Cooper asked Dr. Mukwege, standing near a very large group of women waiting.

All the women, the doctor says, have been patients of his.

Within a week, Dr. Mukwege says this room will be filled with new faces, new victims.

"You know, they're in deep pain. But it's not just physical pain. It's psychological pain that you can see. Here at the hospital, we've seen women who've stopped living," Dr. Mukwege explains.

And not all the people the hospital treats are adults. "There are children. I think the youngest was three years old," Mukwege says. "And the oldest was 75."

To understand what is happening here, you have to go back more than a decade, when the genocide that claimed nearly a million lives in neighboring Rwanda spilled over into Congo. Since then, the Congolese army, foreign-backed rebels, and home-grown militias have been fighting each other over power and this land, which has some of the world's biggest deposits of gold, copper, diamonds, and tin. The United Nations was called in and today their mission is the largest peacekeeping operation in history.

Since 2005, some 17,000 UN troops and personnel have cobbled together a fragile peace. Last year they oversaw the first democratic election in this country in 40 years. But now all they have accomplished is at risk. Fighting has broken out once again in eastern Congo and the region threatens to slip into all-out war.

Each new battle is followed by pillaging and rape; entire communities are terrorized. Forced to flee their homes, people take whatever they can, and walk for miles in the desperate hope of finding food and shelter. Over the last year, more than 500,000 people have been uprooted. A fraction of them make it to cramped camps, where they depend on UN aid to survive.

One camp Cooper visited sprang up just two months before. It was already overcrowded, but more people kept arriving. They would go there seeking refuge, a safe haven, but the truth is in Congo, for women, there's no such thing. Even in these supposedly protected camps, women are raped every single day.

"Has rape almost become the norm here?" Cooper asks Anneka Van Woudenberg, who is the senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"I think because of the widespread nature of the war, because there has been so much violence, rape is now on a daily basis - rape is the norm," Van Woudenberg replies.

"Women get raped in wars all the time. How is it different here?" Cooper asks.

"I think what's different in Congo is the scale and the systematic nature of it, indeed, as well, the brutality. This is not rape because soldiers have got bored and have nothing to do. It is a way to ensure that communities accept the power and authority of that particular armed group. This is about showing terror. This is about using it as a weapon of war," she explains.

It's hard to imagine this war happening in the midst of such breathtaking natural beauty and abundance. But after decades of dictatorship and corruption, the country is broken. Most of the fighting and the raping takes place in remote areas difficult to get to.

Cooper and the team headed to an isolated village in the mountains in eastern Congo called Walungu. For years there's been armed groups fighting in this region; thousands of men emerge from the forest to terrorize villages and steal women. Congo's government seems unable or unwilling to stop them.