APE is a dominant feature of life in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which was dubbed “the rape capital of the world” by a UN official in 2009. Horrific statistics suggest a woman is raped in the country every 48 seconds. Amidst the social decay caused by a war that started in 1996 civilians rape, pastors rape, policemen rape but, most of all, soldiers rape.
Cork filmmaker Dearbhla Glynn has taken the original step to hear their stories — the perpetrators’ stories, from child soldiers to commanders — as well as victims’ tales in her documentary, Congo Ongoing, part of the upcoming IFI Documentary Festival.
“I’d been hearing and reading about how there is this really high rate of rape happening in the Congo but I felt there was no research or dialogue from the men,” she says. “I wondered what is going on with these men. I’d seen clips from films but they just depicted the men as being these ‘monsters’. That was the general consensus.
“It’s awful it’s happening but surely these men are part of the cycle of violence. What has happened to them in the first place that they are doing this? That’s why I wanted to go to the Congo and talk to the men.”
When Glynn interviewed them a lot said they didn’t know they were doing anything wrong at the time. “I don’t think they were lying. Some people would say, ‘Oh, you’re lying. On some level you must know you’re doing something wrong.’ But these men have often been child soldiers. They’ve grown up without families. There is such a high level of displacement in the Congo.
“We don’t know what that is like in our culture — to grow up in the context of war without any family guidance or boundaries. Society is so broken down. You have these young boys learning to rape or being forced to rape. Then they continue on and it becomes normalised. A lot of them said that they were ‘dead already’. They felt that they had no value, no worth. They didn’t know where their family was, that they were living in such hell that they did what they could to survive.
“It’s not excusing their behaviour. In a strange way I felt some empathy for them — which is really odd and horrible — because sometimes you feel that these people are just kids and now they’ve grown into men. Then I talk to the women afterwards and I feel such anger towards the men as well because what they are doing is really awful.”
Some of the soldiers are told by witchdoctors that if they rape a nine-year-old virgin, they will be protected from gunshots.
One of the rapists Glynn interviewed was in prison in the city of Goma. He fought in the jungle with a Mai Mai militia group. By the age of 12, he had already raped two girls, probably aged about nine and 10 years of age. He couldn’t count how many girls he’d raped, 15 at least.
“I did it because of my suffering,” he said. “I had no job and no money. When I farmed, thieves stole my harvest so I joined the rebels and I raped those girls.”
The documentary’s interviews with Congolese women who have been raped are deeply disturbing. Their husbands have rejected many of them. One victim was 60 years of age. Another 12-year-old girl was kidnapped and used as a sex slave for two years.
One teenager recounts how her brother was shot dead because he was shouting in distress while she was being raped. After the rape, she tested positive for HIV. “I want to take a knife and kill myself,” she said.
Glynn travelled around the DRC by motorbike with local guides. She built up a rapport with her interviewees — conspicuous as the Western woman in their midst — before getting them to speak to camera. She says it has been a difficult headspace to live in. The film has been three years in the making. “I’m so relieved to have the film finished because it’s being going on for so long. I’ll always remember some of those people and wonder where are they now. Ethically, sometimes I question what I’ve been doing.”
When she returned from the DRC, Glynn felt like she was starting to burn out. “I didn’t feel I was well. I’ve seen people who are burnt out — having just come back from Liberia where I’m doing a documentary on ebola — and they don’t even know it. I just try and look after myself. I do yoga. I don’t drink much in Africa. I stay healthy. I stay grounded.
“When I watched the rough cut of the Congo film, I felt real anxiety after watching it. I didn’t sleep at all that night. I don’t know if it was bringing up some PTSD that I experienced over there. I definitely need a break from that kind of work for a while, but it’s hard. Once you keep going there, you really know what’s happening. You meet people and you want to try and raise awareness.”
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