Over nine days in late November, dozens of women were raped by rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many of the victims were gang-raped, others were raped in front of their children.
In the three months since, they have not received adequate medical treatment, nor psychological support. The authorities now stand accused of failing to investigate what Amnesty International describes as “war crimes”.
The new findings by the human rights organisation are harrowing to read. Amnesty verified that at least 66 women aged 17-58 were raped, though the true number is thought to be higher.
Twenty-three of these women agreed to tell their stories, which have been shared exclusively with The Telegraph. We have omitted their names to protect their identities.
‘First they took my mother outside and raped her. Then they came for me’
On the morning of November 21 2022, dozens of fighters from the M23 rebel group, a Tutsi militia thought to be part-funded by neighbouring Rwanda, stormed Kishishe and Bambo, two small towns north of Goma. They quickly took control, forcing the ousted Congolese forces to flee.
The following day, a 44-year-old mother of six children was raped by three M23 fighters.
“We were in Kishishe. Bullets crackled. They arrived at my house, they found me with my husband and our children. They took my husband out. Some fighters remained outside,” she said. “Three of those who stayed inside took turns raping me in front of my children. When we came out of the house to flee, we found my husband’s body outside. They had killed him.”
The M23 fighters went in search of the Congolese soldiers and militia groups who had fled. When they returned days later, and secured the two towns for a second time, the violence escalated.
The rebels went door to door killing those suspected of supporting their rivals, and raping women indiscriminately.
“They found us at home. They were two men in military-green uniforms. They first took my mother outside the house and raped her. Then they came for me and raped me. I fainted,” said a 23-year-old who was attacked on November 29.
“Not knowing how to flee, we locked ourselves inside the house. I was with my brothers. M23 fighters came and found us in the house. They told my brothers to get out. They stayed with me,” said a third woman, aged 19.
“They said to me ‘you, lie down over there’, and out of fear and without the strength to resist them, I did what they asked me. This is how they raped me.”
“I don’t know how I will survive,” she added.
‘The government has done nothing’
M23 has been waging a vicious guerrilla war in eastern DRC against the Congolese army since 2012. The United Nations (UN) has frequently accused Rwanda of backing the rebels, though Rwanda has consistently denied this.
Following the attacks – in which the UN estimated 171 people were killed – the Congolese government promised action but without results.
“The government said they would do anything in their power to hold the perpetrators to account,” said Jean-Mobert Senga, lead DRC researcher for Amnesty.
“But [the Office of the Prosecutor] has not received a formal request. The government has done nothing, absolutely nothing.”
The human rights organisation is urging the authorities to respond with medical and psychological support for the victims.
“Since these attacks survivors have been living in terror and utter destitution,” said Tigere Chagutah, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southern Africa.
“While some rape survivors received basic medical attention from community health facilities most [still] urgently need medical and mental health care as well as humanitarian assistance”.
Many of the women interviewed have fled their homes and are relying on support from friends and churches.
“They didn’t get adequate medical attention, they still do not have shelter or clothes,” said Mr Senga, who conducted interviews with the survivors.
“They were barely given painkillers. The women we interviewed in mid-December were still experiencing sharp pain, others were bleeding. The nurses told them there’s nothing they could do.”
“Four of them took turns raping me. I fainted. When the bullets had stopped, passers-by who took pity brought me to the health centre,” said one survivor. “I was able to get some medicine at the health centre, but I still have severe pain.”
Rape kits, including tests for STIs and Prep medication (which prevents HIV infection), were available in the days that followed the attacks, but supplies were exhausted by mid-January.
“The women are stuck between nurses who are powerless and the government who are not even willing to try to supply kits, because they suspect the supply might fall in hands of the rebels,” said Mr Senga.
The rape and sexual violence has been a salient feature of conflict in the DRC for decades. Amnesty says the government’s failure to investigate the allegations shows a “complete contempt for victims” – although its capacity to police large parts of the vast country are severely limited.
“Rape has been happening almost on a daily basis for last 25 years in eastern DRC with almost total impunity. This has to end. There is very little attention on the need for accountability and justice as a means of breaking the cycle of conflict,” said Mr Senga.
“As long as people who commit these crimes have no consequences, it is likely to continue.”