Rapes of babies surface in DR Congo, says global expert on treating victims

PANZI, DR Congo (AFP) - Rapes of young children and even babies have surfaced in the Democratic Republic of Congo, further worsening the sexual violence ravaging the country like a "cancer," Denis Mukwege, a global expert on treating gang rape victims, told AFP.

Dr Mukwege, who in November received the European Parliament's Sakharov rights prize, said such atrocities began to surface around a year and half ago, with one recent case involving a girl of around 15 months old.

"How can someone kidnap a child at night and bring her in the bush to rape her?" Mukwege said from his office at a hospital in Panzi, outside the city of Bukavu in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a region wracked by years of violence.

He said 30 children had been raped in that manner in the nearby village of Kavumu.

"The condition of the babies who arrive to us like that at the hospital is dramatic. These are things that are completely new."

Armed groups vying for control of the region's vast mineral wealth often use mass rape to terrorise the local population.

Mukwege, however, said fewer rape victims were admitted over the past two years to his hospital as the army carried out offensives against rebel groups and militias in the east.

But at the same time, "several types of rapes that we had not seen before" were rearing their head, he said, referring to the rape of children.

"We now see sexual violence spreading in cities and spreading far from the epicentre in the east," he said. "It's as though rape techniques have been refined."

'IMPUNITY FOR SEX OFFENDERS'

Mukwege said this phenomenon was due to two factors: "the general impunity for sexual offenders" and the fact that former fighters were let loose into civil society without adequate support or counselling.

"This evil is spreading in society like cancer," Mukwege said.

"We have all ignored the way these people were themselves destroyed. They were both executioners and victims.

"When you take a child of 10 to 12, teach him how to rape, kill and destroy - something that he has done for five, six or eight years, and then you place him in society without any treatment, you bring back a dangerous person," said Mukwege, the son of a Pentecostal minister and himself a preacher.

Mukwege said there had been no progress in a controversial tax dispute with Congolese authorities that threatens the very survival of the hospital he founded in 1999.

The Panzi hospital has been locked in a row with tax authorities since late last year, but mediators from the health ministry stress there was no fraud by the clinic.

They say that a difference in estimates was due to conflicting "interpretations" of the tax code.

"We haven't been told anything," Mukwege said. "They continue to demand US$600,000 (S$830,000) but that would mean simply shutting down the hospital."

'SPEAK ABOUT THE SICK'

Mukwege has launched an impassioned plea for good governance and argues that misrule and insecurity keep the vast, resource-rich African nation in deep poverty.

In 2012, the doctor miraculously escaped a bid to kill him by armed men who temporarily held family members hostage and gunned down his driver.

After more than two months in Europe, Mukwege today moves round his own clinic accompanied by two Pakistani soldiers from the large UN peacekeeping mission in the country.

Heaped with international awards for his medical achievements and ethical stance, Mukweke decisively brushes aside rumours he may harbour presidential ambitions.

In January, Kinshasa was rocked by bloody protests against a bill seen as an attempt to extend President Joseph Kabila's hold on power in the nation he has led for 14 years.

Mukwege fobbed off speculation he was planning to launch a political career ahead of presidential elections due late in 2016.

"Why do people want to talk about something I am not going to do?" he said. "Let us speak about the sick!"