Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:

Oil for Food: A Great Experiment Ends (November 17, 2003)
"The oil-for-food program wasn't perfect. It was manipulated by both the Iraqis and the West. None of that, however, should obscure the essential value of the concept."

A New-Look Security Council: What Makes a Winner? (November 11, 2003)
"The question of which countries might rightly claim new permanent seats is becoming less hypothetical. A group of newly emerging powers is already circling the chamber demanding a permanent presence."

Leveraging Private Money for the United Nations (November 3, 2003)
"Since the late 1990s, the U.N. Fund for International Partnerships has been playing matchmaker between small, innovative U.N. programs in need of cash and an increasingly wider world of private corporations and foundations willing to give them a boost."

U.N. and U.S. in Iraq: Nobody Won This Round (October 27, 2003)
"There is, in plain words, no great desire to help the United States out of a more difficult postwar period than the U.S. Defense Department apparently planned for."

AIDS, Asian Values and States of Denial (October 20, 2003)
"Asian leaders often acknowledge only that infections happen in what they call 'deviant populations.' Yet it is well known that sex industries across the region attract men from every level of society."

U.S. Rebuffs to Neighbors Should Raise Concerns (October 14, 2003)
"Ever since the epochal terrorist attacks on the United States two years ago, no two countries have been more important to American security than Canada and Mexico. So why has the United States been so indifferent to its neighbors?"

Testing the U.N. in Afghanistan, With Iraq in Mind (October 6, 2003)
"The United States has now given the Iraqis six months to conjure up a constitution.... In Afghanistan, time to write a constitution has run out. Nearly two years after the United States toppled the Taliban, the publication of the promised new charter is behind schedule."

Fighting AIDS by Changing Attitudes in Africa (September 29, 2003)
"Workers in government health agencies, private organizations and churches need every possible kind of logistical support to take the warning message out to people who do not know or do not believe that their own sexual behavior can save or condemn them."

More from U.N. Notebook.

U.N. Notebook | November 24, 2003
from U. N. Wire Saving Congo, One Woman at a Time

by Barbara Crossette

UNITED NATIONS—Isabelle was only 15 when she and her mother went out into the fields early one morning in the lawless eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"We knew it was risky going to the bush, so we planned to grab what we needed and hurry home," she told a visitor from the World Food Program recently. But Isabelle (not her real name) could not hurry home that day or the next. Her mother found her daughter two days later, crippled by a vicious gang rape that left her unconscious and damaged in mind and body.

"I hate men," Isabelle says now, still suffering a year after a traumatizing assault by six attackers. "I'm scared of men." Her story is one of many beginning to emerge since a peace agreement ended (or at least suspended) the on-again, off-again Congo war that seems to have wrung the last vestiges of civilization out of what could have easily been Africa's richest country.

The pause allows humanitarian organizations to begin to calculate the extent of the human catastrophe the fighting left in its wake, from mass graves at massacre sites to the shattered families left barely alive along the borders with Rwanda and Uganda. As sick, emaciated women and girls straggle out of the bush, it is becoming horribly apparent that they, bereft of men lost to civil war or mindless slaughter, have been reduced to mere prey in countless towns and villages. The impunity enjoyed by anyone with a gun, and the savagery of the sexual assaults women suffer as a result, has stunned and sickened aid workers.

Cases of rape and other violence against women tripled this year in some places, U.N. aid workers have been told. And the full horror of the circumstances are just beginning to be revealed.

Throughout the U.N. system, officials working in the wider Great Lakes region of east-central Africa have been pleading for more attention to eastern Congo, where many threads come together to create a vivid picture of life and death in an age of civil wars, particularly in Africa. There has been "ethnic cleansing" on a mass scale. HIV/AIDS infection is spreading rapidly, hastened by rape. The environment, including once-extraordinary national parks, and their wildlife have been decimated by marauders, including sometimes the desperately hungry. Natural mineral resources and gems go to the best armed or most well-connected.

The International Criminal Court chose the D.R.C. as the focus of its first case, centered on the northeastern Ituri region, where there have been reports of ethnic massacres over the last year and grave sites are being found. In announcing that the court had decided to pursue this case, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC prosecutor, said that at least 5,000 civilians were killed in that area in the last half of 2002 and early 2003 alone.

The court called this "just a fraction" of the probable total number of civilian victims of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes committed there. It is important that crimes against women have been specifically included in this court's jurisdiction. The D.R.C. could be a significant test case.

Ituri is north of the area where Isabelle and others encountered by the World Food Program were attacked. But all along the eastern edge of the country, including Ituri, mass rape—not only by soldiers of all kinds but also civilians—has become the order of the day, girls and women tell aid workers. One of the victims recently interviewed was 80 years old; others were in their teens.

The World Food Program has been supplying basic foodstuffs every month since June to a medical center for victims in the city of Goma run by the voluntary agency Doctors on Call for Service, or DOCS, an American medical missionary organization based in the state of Georgia. Christian missionaries are thought to provide a very large proportion of what medical care there is available in many parts of the D.R.C. In Goma, the monthly WFP rations help DOCS keep alive 100 sexually abused women and 100 people who look after them during their hospital stay.

This small food program, which in effect frees women from their economic hardships long enough to get urgent medical care, illustrates again how lines are blurring in the work of U.N. agencies in the face of changing challenges. UNICEF is also in eastern Congo working with abused girls, underlining again the absurdity of criticism that the agency should not be in the business of reproductive health but should stick to vaccines and school kits. The U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) has been aiding women and encouraging them to take an active part in peace building and reconstruction—giving them, in fact, a political voice.

Katharine Hodgson of the WFP's Nairobi office collected testimony from victims in the Kivu provinces last month, and her transcripts make very disturbing reading. All the victims' names have been changed to shield them. Listen to Feza, who is 17. "We were at home in the evening when the enemy arrived. They came into the house. They ordered my father to sleep with me. My father said 'No,' so they killed him before my eyes. They told my older brother to sleep with my mother. My mother refused. They killed her. They took me and my brother out of the house and down the lane. When the lane split in two they took him one way and me the other. We arrived in the forest and three men raped me. They kept me there in the forest. I was in pain."

Feza, who believes her brother was also murdered, was able to escape several months later. But she had learned a sad lesson. "I kept my face down all the time," she said. "When you're a woman you have to put up with whatever they want. If you resist, they kill you."

Women told Hodgson that their genital tracts were abused with rifles and sticks that had left them perhaps permanently damaged and incontinent. Isabelle, who suffered a lacerated vagina, said, "I have heard with some women if they don't appear injured, the men shove a stick into their vagina until the water flows."

Most of these women and girls abused by roving bands from one of any number of armed factions had been caught as they, like Isabelle, tried to do their mundane daily chores: go to the market, get food from the fields, visit family or friends. Lucie, who is 28 and has four children, was out buying a can of oil when she was intercepted by a soldier. Refusing his advances, she was shot in the leg, which later had to be amputated. He raped her, wounded and bleeding, and then said he would kill her.

Lucie was strong enough to wrest the gun from her attacker when he put it down to put on his clothes. As she shouted for help, he fled. Her neighbors took the gun and beret the soldier had left behind to the brigade commander in the area, who offered to let Lucie come and identify the man who had assaulted her. But she had already heard that the soldier had run away when other soldiers beat him up after hearing his story. Chivalry? Hardly.

They beat him up, Lucie said, "not because he had raped someone but because he had his gun snatched by a woman."

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More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National Journal Group. For information on National Journal Group publications, see

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.