UNHCR works to bring the perpetrators of sexual crime to justice

News Stories, 25 June 2012

© UNHCR/A.Bronée
Congolese refugees play football in Kiziba camp, Rwanda. It helps them maintain their physical and psychological well-being.

KIZIBA REFUGEE CAMP, Rwanda, June 25 (UNHCR) The cases of rape and other sexual violence in Kiziba refugee camp are falling, but the physical and emotional consequences are immense when they do occur. The culture of silence among the camp's Congolese refugees makes it even worse, fostering impunity and leaving victims feeling scared and alone. That's why UNHCR and its partners have made it a priority to fight sexual violence in Kiziba and encourage people to speak out.

"The [abused] children don't know what has happened to them, but they feel ashamed and afraid," says Josette Tuwishimwe, 29, a specialist on gender-based violence for African Humanitarian Action, one of UNHCR's partners in the camp. "Sometimes when they come to see us, they refuse to get out of the room. They cry and say that if the perpetrator finds them, 'He will kill me.'" Children who report abuse are among the few who do break the silence.

Nestled among the lush hillsides near the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it is hard to imagine that Kiziba camp could be anything less tranquil. In the mornings, people bring dried fish, potatoes and bananas to the marketplace. Everywhere among the population of close to 19,000 Congolese there is a strong sense of community.

But at night, especially, it is different and danger can lurk in the dark, unguarded alleyways. This is when women and children are most in danger of violence.

Part of the problem is impunity for those behind the violence and UNHCR has been spearheading an approach aimed at bringing perpetrators to justice. But just as important, the refugee agency is focusing on the social and individual pain that in many cases undergirds the violence. It's a combination of law and order with bringing hope and help to the victims of sexual violence.

"The role of UNHCR is to assist victims to launch a complaint to the police and from the police to the courts," says Modeste Cyr Kouame, head of the UNHCR field office that supports Kiziba. "Our role is to work in a sensitive way with the victims and to encourage them to speak out. We know that when silence is broken, we send out a strong message to perpetrators," he added.

The government is also playing a vital role in addressing impunity and plans to set up a permanent police post in the camp to enforce law and order day and night. Meanwhile, the refugees have established a community policing mechanism to help deter sexual crime. In shifts, refugees patrol the camp especially at night though, often this is not enough.

Refugees are also encouraged to play a part in reducing cases of sexual crime by identifying suspects, and to help prevent further cases by spreading the word within their intricate community networks.

To protect the young, who are the most vulnerable to attacks, an extensive child protection committee works with refugee community leaders to support children without appropriate parental care. Members of the community also work to provide educational and supervised recreational activities for children under the age of four.

There are many reasons for the phenomenon of sexual violence within this refugee community. Some cite alcohol addiction and promiscuity as contributory factors and argue that these are widespread, exacerbated by the lack of secondary education and limited work opportunities. Drugs are a problem, they claim, but on a small scale.

Others say that the cramped living conditions are such that families will send their children to sleep elsewhere, thus exposing them to harm. Still others suggest that many Congolese in the east have become inured to crimes such as rape after years of war and armed conflict. In this context, silence became a negative coping mechanism, overshadowing the will for justice as a cultural norm.

But slowly, people here are speaking out about their experiences, including people guilty of other destructive behaviour who want to develop a more positive approach to life despite their past experiences. They include those with addictions to alcohol or drugs, though neither problem is widespread.

Patrick knows the hardscrabble sickness of the bottom end of the camp. "Since I was born, I have never had peace," says the 22-year-old, who, at age six, lost his father to violence. He turned to drugs to "forget the death of my father" and to cope with a hard life.

Baudouin Lubashu Mololoa, a 40-year-old Congolese Catholic minister, helps people like Christian to deal with vice and painful memories through faith and sport. He organizes a football game every day for refugees determined to maintain their physical and psychological well-being. The worn soccer balls have been restitched countless times and one of the goals on the pitch lacks a crossbar, but each morning of play begins on a positive note.

It is something that helps Father Baudouin forget the torture he received several years ago in the Congo at the hands of the Interahamwe, an ethnic Hutu militia group blamed for widespread killings in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. It also helps him to forget the relatively recent rape of his daughter. "With football, I can forget many things. I focus only on my strategy, on my next move, on the movement of my feet, and I forget".

* Name changed for protection reasons

By Greg Beals and Anouck Bronée in Kiziba Refugee Camp, Rwanda

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