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Savage rapes worsen trauma of Congo war despite UN presence

BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of Congo - Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist, cannot bear to listen to the stories his patients tell him anymore.

Every day, 10 new women and girls who have been raped show up at his hospital.

Many have been so sadistically attacked, butchered by bayonets and assaulted with chunks of wood, that their reproductive and digestive systems are beyond repair.

"We don't know why these rapes are happening, but one thing is clear," said Mukwege, who works in South Kivu Province, the epicenter of Congo's rape epidemic. "They are done to destroy women."

Eastern Congo is going through another one of its convulsions of violence, and this time it seems that women are being systematically attacked on a scale never before seen here. According to the United Nations, 27,000 sexual assaults were reported in 2006 in South Kivu Province, and that might be just a fraction of the total number across the country.

Malteser International, a European aid organization that runs health clinics in eastern Congo, estimates that it will treat 8,000 sexual violence cases this year, compared with 6,338 last year. The organization said that in one town, Shabunda, 70 percent of the women reported being sexually brutalized.

The attacks go on despite the presence of the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world, with more than 17,000 troops.

"The sexual violence in Congo is the worst in the world," said John Holmes, the UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs. "The sheer numbers, the wholesale brutality, the culture of impunity - it's appalling."

The days of chaos in Congo were supposed to be over.

Last year, this country of 66 million people held a historic election that cost $500 million and was intended to end Congo's wars and rebellions and its tradition of epically bad government. But the elections have not unified the country or significantly strengthened the government's hand to deal with renegade forces, many from outside the country.

The justice system and the military still barely function, and UN officials say government troops are among the worst offenders when it comes to rape. Large swaths of the country, especially in the east, remain authority-free zones where civilians are at the mercy of heavily armed groups who have made warfare a livelihood and survive by raiding villages and abducting women for ransom.

According to victims, one of the newest groups to emerge is called the Rastas, a mysterious gang of fugitives who live deep in the forest and are notorious for burning babies, kidnapping women, and chopping up anybody who gets in their way.

UN officials said the Rastas were once part of the Hutu militias that fled Rwanda after committing genocide there in 1994, but now it seems they have split off and specialize in freelance cruelty.

Honorata Barinjibanwa, an 18-year-old woman, said she was kidnapped from a village that the Rastas raided in April and kept as a sex slave until August.

Most of that time she was tied to a tree, and she still has rope marks on her neck. The men would untie her for a few hours each day to gang-rape her, she said.

"I'm weak, I'm angry, and I don't know how to restart my life," she said from Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, where she was taken after her captors freed her. She is also pregnant.

While rape has always been a weapon of war, researchers say they fear that Congo's problem has metastasized into a wider social phenomenon. "It's gone beyond the conflict," said Alexandra Bilak, who has studied armed groups around Bukavu, on the shores of Lake Kivu. She said the number of women abused and even killed by their husbands seemed to be going up.

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