Six rapists in the lush forest of the Democratic Republic of Congo: One in a green hood, another in a red baseball cap, another in military fatigues and a camouflage hat, another in black sunglasses. Their guns are pointed down. Smoking cigarettes, they swagger. They hold up their fingers, counting the number of women they have raped, violated, damned. Sexual terror as a weapon of war, perpetrated sometimes with sticks, knives, tree limbs.
The men seem unafraid to confess. They are bragging to an American filmmaker who holds a camera, recording their words.
“Ask him to tell me what he did,” says Lisa F. Jackson, whose chilling documentary, “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo,” debuts tonight on HBO. In a 10-year-old conflict that has left some 5 million people dead, the tens of thousands of women and girls who have been systematically raped and mutilated by an array of combatants are the silent victims among the living, Jackson tells us. What makes her documentary more stunning: She goes into the forest and confronts the rapists.
“I slept with some women,” says the rapist, a gray sweater wrapping his head, the sleeves tied around his neck.
“Did they want you to sleep with them?” Jackson inquires, her voice incisive, a bit on edge. A translator repeats her words in Swahili. Is it about control? Sex? Why violate a woman, leave her to bleed in her village, while her husband watches, tied to a tree? Why would 20 men line up and take turns, one after the other, raping a girl until she passes out and separates herself from a pain too evil to imagine?
Why insert a machete into a woman, leaving her organs so torn and dysfunctional that she flees her village and hides her shame and her stench in the bush, another victim of war?
“After we’ve been raped, our men don’t want us anymore. We are considered half-human beings,” a lonely woman confides to Jackson and her camera.
In another scene, the gray-sweatered rapist doesn’t flinch at Jackson’s question: “If she says no, I must take her by force. If she is strong, I’ll call some of my friends to help me. All this is happening because of the war. We would live a normal life and treat women naturally if there was no war.”
The war started in 1998 when Congolese rebels and Rwandan troops tried to oust the country’s president, Laurent Kabila. But the fighting metastasized into a conflict over land, ethnicity and natural resources and lasted long after Kabila’s 2001 assassination and well beyond a 2003 peace accord. Eastern Congo, the flashpoint of the conflict, degenerated into a state of near constant violence, with regular troops, rebels and regional militias routinely looting villages and routinely raping women and girls.
Rain pours outside. Jackson’s camera takes us inside the shadow of an abandoned building, pointing at another rapist. His gun is slung across his back. He wears a green beret and talks of the “magic” that makes him rape.
“Well, we were just abiding by the conditions of our magic potion. We had to rape women in order to make it work, and beat the enemy.”
Another rapist, wearing a black skullcap, is sitting in a corner. “Well, those women were not taken by force. The thing is they were in a combat zone where most of the fighters relied on magic power. This magic potion worked in such a way that you’ve got to rape women in order to overcome the enemies who’ve invaded our country, the Congo. That is why all those things have happened.”
Here is where the film shows the twisted layers of damage from war, twisted until the soldiers believe they must rape to win. Twisted until the viewer becomes engulfed in the twisted message of magic and enemy control and devastation. And you shout at the screen. Because the film shows you the pain of women raped in front of their husbands and children. Rammed with sticks until the uterus ruptures. And they bleed. And urine seeps forever. And they are cast away. And children are born of the rapes. And their mothers must carry them because they are obliged. One mother, raped at age 15, says in the film that she named her daughter Lumiere, which means light. She will tell her daughter she did not know the girl’s father.
How many such children will be born of rape? One cannot say. But the number of rapes, as told by the film’s collection of rapists, is staggering.
“Well, those that I remember, I could number them to 18.” It’s green beret again, touting his rape tally.
Camouflage hat says he has raped seven women. Green hood says five. Red T-shirt admits to two. Black sunglasses: about 20.
Black skullcap says, like an accountant: “It’s hard to keep record of the number of women that I’ve raped. The thing to keep in mind is the fact that we have stayed too long in the bush, and that induced us to rape. You know how things are in combat zones. We raped as we advance from village to village.”
The rapists melt back into the bush. But their chilling words now are caught forever in this film that takes us deep into the horrors of a silent war waged by Congolese government forces, by rebels, and sometimes even by United Nations peacekeepers.
“He who rapes a woman rapes an entire nation,” a policewoman says in the film.
Says Jackson, “They are forgotten women in a forgotten war.”
She is both witness and survivor. The viewer learns that Jackson herself was gang-raped — assaulted here in the District in 1976 as she was leaving her office late one night. “The three men who attacked me that night in Georgetown were never found,” she says in the film.
She shared her story with the women in Congo. “They all asked about the war that was happening in my country. I explained to them that even in peacetime, women are not safe. . . . The idea to them that women, and white women, could be raped in peacetime,” she said in an interview, “they could not imagine such things could happen.”
It was not her aim to put herself, her story into the film. But once she told her story, women opened up. “It became clear the connection I had with the women resulted in incredibly honest interviews,” Jackson said. “It also made the film less voyeuristic. It helped the audience understand.”
To gather the women’s stories, Jackson, 57, visited hospitals, sat in mud-floored huts and churches, putting names and faces and grief on camera until the viewer is moved to feel, turn away, do something. People are always asking Jackson, “But what can I do?”
“People have to find their own thing to do,” she says. “There is so much you can do. I made a film.”
Jackson, who calls herself a “Foreign Service brat,” went to Holton-Arms, a private girls’ school in Bethesda. She attended Sarah Lawrence College, then studied film at MIT with the documentary filmmaker Richard Leacock.
After college, she returned to the District to work at WETA television. For about two years, she worked as a film editor with legendary documentary filmmaker Charles Guggenheim. She eventually started her own production company and, over the next 30 years, made documentaries in Siberia and Guatemala. She won three Emmy Awards.
For her next film, she wanted to document the fate of women and girls in conflicts around the world. In 2006, she went to South Kivu, a province in the eastern Congo.
“I ended up going to the worst place first,” Jackson said in the interview. “I had good friends working for the U.N. peacekeepers there. I cashed in frequent flier miles and went where the conflict was raging. After two days, I realized this was not a segment in a larger film. This was the story nobody was telling.”
She “found many dozens of raped women, women of all ages, too many women, who at times would line up for hours, waiting until after the light disappeared and my camera could no longer record an image, waiting to talk to me, waiting to tell their stories to someone who would listen to them without judgment, hoping that I would relay their stories to a world that seemed indifferent to their horrific plight.”
One woman told of being kidnapped and held with other women in the forest as sex slaves. “We were raped by 20 men at the same time. Our bodies are suffering. They have taken their guns and put them inside us. They kill our children and then they tell us to eat those children. If a woman is pregnant, they make your children stand on your belly so that you will abort. Then they take the blood from your womb and put it in a bowl and tell you to drink it.”
To find the rapists, she asked her guide to find men willing to be interviewed. “In work with the U.N., he knew a lot of Congolese army officers. He went to a commanding officer and said there is an American journalist who wants to interview your men about raping women. He said okay and put the word out among the soldiers.”
She ended up deep in the forest, led by a dozen men.
“For a moment, going into the bush, I was completely panic-stricken,” Jackson said in the interview. “Then I realized they wanted their moment on videotape. If anything happened to me and my camera, they wouldn’t have that. My camera was as good as a gun. They wanted to be memorialized, bragging about what they did to women.”
“This type of sexual terrorism is done in a methodical manner by armed groups.”
That is Denis Mukwege, director of the Panzi General Referral Hospital in the Congolese town of Bukavu, testifying last week before the Senate subcommittee on human rights and the law. “The rapists are not seeking to satisfy some kind of sexual desire but to destroy the woman, destroy her family and destroy her community.”
Jackson, who appeared with him as well as several other human rights activists, asked the senators: “Why is it that rape in conflict is so infrequently prosecuted in the world’s courts? Where is the outrage?”
Rape has been used systemically in several war-torn countries to humiliate, demoralize and destroy, Physicians for Human Rights said in a report it released at the hearing.
Millions of women and girls have been tortured, mutilated, impregnated as a form of ethnic cleansing. It happened during the Rwandan genocide, the civil wars in Sierra Leone, the Central African Republic, Chad, the former Yugoslavia and Liberia, as well as during the ongoing conflict in Darfur.
“Mass rape in war is frequently not the random act of individual soldiers but a determined strategy to destroy populations,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “The perpetrators are not held accountable and turn to mass rape because it is cheaper than using bullets.”
Jackson explained that armies and factions in Congo were killing civilians in order to loot the country of its riches: most recently, tin, cobalt and coltan, used in electronics.
“Perhaps another hearing might more thoroughly explore the causes and ruinous consequences of this illegal plundering,” she said. But everyone in this room should consider the fact that there is the blood of Congolese women on their laptop computers and on their cellphones.”
After 90 minutes, the gavel sounded. The hearing adjourned. Senators filed out. Reporters tapped out stories. People pulled out cellphones. The paneled room emptied into the marbled halls of power.
But the question remained: What would be done to help the women?
In the film, a 70-year-old rape survivor says: “Women are suffering. We have forgotten what happiness is.”
* By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 8, 2008