|"Dying of shame: a Congolese rape victim, currently resident in Uganda. This man’s wife has left him, as she was unable to accept what happened. He attempted suicide at the end of last year." (Will Storr/Observer)|
By Will Storr
The Observer, July 17, 2011
"Of all the secrets of war, there is one that is so well kept that it exists mostly as a rumour. It is usually denied by the perpetrator and his victim. Governments, aid agencies and human rights defenders at the UN barely acknowledge its possibility. Yet every now and then someone gathers the courage to tell of it. This is just what happened on an ordinary afternoon in the office of a kind and careful counsellor in Kampala, Uganda. For four years Eunice Owiny had been employed by Makerere University's Refugee Law Project (RLP) to help displaced people from all over Africa work through their traumas. This particular case, though, was a puzzle. A female client was having marital difficulties. 'My husband can't have sex,' she complained. 'He feels very bad about this. I'm sure there's something he's keeping from me.' Owiny invited the husband in. For a while they got nowhere. Then Owiny asked the wife to leave. The man then murmured cryptically: 'It happened to me.' Owiny frowned. He reached into his pocket and pulled out an old sanitary pad. 'Mama Eunice,' he said. 'I am in pain. I have to use this.' Laying the pus-covered pad on the desk in front of him, he gave up his secret. During his escape from the civil war in neighbouring Congo, he had been separated from his wife and taken by rebels. His captors raped him, three times a day, every day for three years. And he wasn't the only one. He watched as man after man was taken and raped. The wounds of one were so grievous that he died in the cell in front of him. 'That was hard for me to take,' Owiny tells me today. 'There are certain things you just don't believe can happen to a man, you get me? But I know now that sexual violence against men is a huge problem. Everybody has heard the women's stories. But nobody has heard the men's.'
It's not just in East Africa that these stories remain unheard. One of the few academics to have looked into the issue in any detail is Lara Stemple, of the University of California's Health and Human Rights Law Project. Her study Male Rape and Human Rights notes incidents of male sexual violence as a weapon of wartime or political aggression in countries such as Chile, Greece, Croatia, Iran, Kuwait, the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia. Twenty-one per cent of Sri Lankan males who were seen at a London torture treatment centre reported sexual abuse while in detention. In El Salvador, 76% of male political prisoners surveyed in the 1980s described at least one incidence of sexual torture. A study of 6,000 concentration-camp inmates in Sarajevo found that 80% of men reported having been raped. I've come to Kampala to hear the stories of the few brave men who have agreed to speak to me: a rare opportunity to find out about a controversial and deeply taboo issue. In Uganda, survivors are at risk of arrest by police, as they are likely to assume that they're gay -- a crime in this country and in 38 of the 53 African nations. They will probably be ostracised by friends, rejected by family and turned away by the UN and the myriad international NGOs that are equipped, trained and ready to help women. They are wounded, isolated and in danger. In the words of Owiny: 'They are despised.' But they are willing to talk, thanks largely to the RLP's British director, Dr. Chris Dolan. Dolan first heard of wartime sexual violence against men in the late 1990s while researching his PhD in northern Uganda, and he sensed that the problem might be dramatically underestimated. Keen to gain a fuller grasp of its depth and nature, he put up posters throughout Kampala in June 2009 announcing a 'workshop' on the issue in a local school. On the day, 150 men arrived. In a burst of candour, one attendee admitted: 'It's happened to all of us here.' It soon became known among Uganda's 200,000-strong refugee population that the RLP were helping men who had been raped during conflict. Slowly, more victims began to come forward. I meet Jean Paul on the hot, dusty roof of the RLP's HQ in Old Kampala. He wears a scarlet high-buttoned shirt and holds himself with his neck lowered, his eyes cast towards the ground, as if in apology for his impressive height. He has a prominent upper lip that shakes continually -- a nervous condition that makes him appear as if he's on the verge of tears. Jean Paul was at university in Congo, studying electronic engineering, when his father -- a wealthy businessman -- was accused by the army of aiding the enemy and shot dead. Jean Paul fled in January 2009, only to be abducted by rebels. Along with six other men and six women he was marched to a forest in the Virunga National Park. Later that day, the rebels and their prisoners met up with their cohorts who were camped out in the woods. Small camp fires could be seen here and there between the shadowy ranks of trees. While the women were sent off to prepare food and coffee, 12 armed fighters surrounded the men. From his place on the ground, Jean Paul looked up to see the commander leaning over them. In his 50s, he was bald, fat and in military uniform. He wore a red bandana around his neck and had strings of leaves tied around his elbows. 'You are all spies,' the commander said. 'I will show you how we punish spies.' He pointed to Jean Paul. 'Remove your clothes and take a position like a Muslim man.' Jean Paul thought he was joking. He shook his head and said: 'I cannot do these things.' The commander called a rebel over. Jean Paul could see that he was only about nine years old. He was told, 'Beat this man and remove this clothes.' The boy attacked him with his gun butt. Eventually, Jean Paul begged: 'Okay, okay. I will take off my clothes.' Once naked, two rebels held him in a kneeling position with his head pushed towards the earth. At this point, Jean Paul breaks off. The shaking in his lip more pronounced than ever, he lowers his head a little further and says: 'I am sorry for the things I am going to say now.' The commander put his left hand on the back of his skull and used his right to beat him on the backside 'like a horse'. Singing a witch doctor song, and with everybody watching, the commander then began. The moment he started, Jean Paul vomited. Eleven rebels waited in a queue and raped Jean Paul in turn. When he was too exhausted to hold himself up, the next attacker would wrap his arm under Jean Paul's hips and lift him by the stomach. He bled freely: 'Many, many, many bleeding,' he says, 'I could feel it like water.' Each of the male prisoners was raped 11 times that night and every night that followed. [...]"
[n.b. Unquestionably the most detailed and moving investigation of this phenomenon ever published in a mainstream English-language media outlet.]