In April 2013, a five-year-old girl was admitted to Panzi Hospital in the city of Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Her body bore the signs of sexual violence. Headed by Dr. Denis Mukwege, Panzi Hospital is known for treating women who have suffered rape and sexualized violence.
The child was from the impoverished village of Kavumu, fifteen miles from Bukavu city. A little over six months after she was seen in Panzi Hospital, journalist Lauren Wolfe, who was on a reporting trip to the DRC, began hearing about the systematic rape of infants in Kavumu. Wolfe learned about stories of little girls kidnapped from their homes in the middle of the night and raped while their families slept.
Since 2013, nearly fifty infants, ranging in age from eight months to eleven-years-old, have been brutally raped and either left bleeding in fields or returned to their homes. Some succumbed to their injuries. Those who survived struggle with life-altering and enduring physical and emotional scars. These horrific practices continued unabated until 2016.
A columnist at Foreign Policy magazine, Wolfe is also the director of Women Under Siege, a journalism project on sexualized violence in conflict, based at New York’s Women’s Media Center. From 2013-2017, Wolfe relentlessly reported on the crimes inflicted on the infants of Kavumu, sharing the stories of lives shattered by these unimaginable crimes, plumbing the depths of government neglect and inaction, and pursuing legal accountability.
On December 13, 2017, the victims finally saw justice in a trial that Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) described in a post on Medium as a “turning point for justice and accountability.” Twelve of eighteen defendants were sentenced to life in prison. As Wolfe wrote on the Women’s Media Center site, “this is the first time a mastermind of mass rape has been held legally responsible in DRC.”
To be sure, the verdict in the long-drawn out trial is the result of the efforts of many actors, including civil society organizations, advocacy organizations such as PHR, the United Nations, NGOs such as Coopera and Trial International, as well as Panzi Hospital, which meticulously documented evidence of sexual violence, to name a few. But the role of journalism, particularly Wolfe’s reporting, in bringing about justice and accountability for victims cannot be overstated.
Since she first heard about the rapes, Wolfe has doggedly pursued government accountability, elevating the crucial and painful stories of the girls whose lives were destroyed, and speaking to members of the community. Her reporting provided crucial context, shedding light on the political, social, and cultural backdrop of the crimes, as well as the lack of local mechanisms in the DRC to investigate, let alone prosecute, these acts of violence.
Wolfe covered the horrific cases for the first time in Foreign Policy magazine in April 2015, speaking to sources including PHR and Dr. Mukwege, who reported that thirty-five cases had been brought to the Panzi Hospital from Kavumu, by that point. Wolfe’s reporting explored how the dysfunctional local legal system abetted the perpetrators, and documented the town prosecutor’s resistance to launching investigations into the rapes.
As she continued her reporting, Wolfe described making repeated inquiries with Congolese officials about stopping the crimes. According to PR Newswire, in April 2015, the DRC had released a statement claiming to “launch an investigation into allegations of sexual violence committed against infants in South Kivu Province.” But, as Wolfe discovered, only one investigator had been assigned to the case, and had few resources to carry out his investigation. All the while, the rapes of infants continued.
In June 2016, three years after the rapes began, and almost a year after the launch of the investigation, the government had still taken no action to apprehend suspected perpetrators. Wolfe penned an op-ed in the Guardian, decrying the government’s inaction in arresting the suspects behind the rapes.
Twelve hours after her op-ed was published, DRC officials arrested sixty-seven militiamen, along with the rapists’ ringleader and member of parliament, Frederic Batumike Rugimbanya. The militiamen were part of the “Jeshi Yesu,” or “The Army of Jesus,” and were squatting on a plantation in the village. According to another piece by Wolfe on the Women’s Media Center site, “The men were allegedly raping the young girls in order to gather their virgin blood—which they believed would make them impervious to bullets in battle.”
Throughout her coverage on these crimes, Wolfe featured the voices of the young girls themselves, as well as their families. For years, Wolfe elevated the perspectives and stories of these girls whose lives had been shattered by rape – voices that were otherwise absent from the scant media coverage about the situation in the DRC. Through her conversations with the girls’ families and physicians, Wolfe captured the depth of damage done to these young women, who often referred to themselves as being “ruined” or “destroyed.” As she wrote in the Guardian, one young girl, who Wolfe calls Claudine, aged nine, implored Wolfe to “tell how we were taken from our houses without knowing. And how we were destroyed.”
As Wolfe says in a tweet heralding the recent verdict, she is most grateful for the the bravery of the girls who testified against their attackers:
It is hard to express the gratitude I feel toward every doctor, lawyer, psychologist, aid worker, community leader & judge right now for making this #Kavumu verdict happen. Mostly tho, my gratitude is to the girls & their families, whose bravery in speaking out is beyond words pic.twitter.com/vk4mGkvXny
— Lauren Wolfe (@Wolfe321) December 13, 2017
In a piece titled “Justice served in major Congo rape case, but danger isn’t over yet,” published yesterday on the Women’s Media Center site, Wolfe cautioned the international community against letting the story slip from the headlines. Although some form of justice has been served, many uncertainties remain. As Wolfe pointed out, while financial compensation has been given before to rape survivors in the Congo, these damages have never been paid. For these reasons, even though the perpetrators in this case have been ordered to pay reparations to survivors and their families, it is unlikely they will do so.
As Wolfe rightly underscores, these girls and their families must be given the necessary recourses to facilitate the process of healing from the deep emotional and physical trauma of these attacks, in order for justice to truly be accomplished.