BARAKA, Congo — One by one, the rape survivors relived their attacks for a panel of judges: A newly married bride flung her torn, bloodied clothing onto the courtroom floor. A mother of six dropped to her knees, raised her arms to heaven and cried out for peace.
Nearly 50 women poured out their stories in a wave of anguish that ended Monday with the conviction of an army colonel for crimes against humanity – a landmark verdict in this Central African country where thousands are believed to be raped each year by soldiers and militia groups who often go unpunished.
It was the first time a commanding officer had been tried in such an attack.
Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Lt. Col. Mutuare Daniel Kibibi, who was accused of ordering his troops on New Year’s Day to attack the village of Fizi, a sprawling community 20 miles (35 kilometers) south of Baraka on an escarpment of mountains covered in banana trees.
Military prosecutor Col. Laurent Mutata Luaba said the men “behaved like wild beasts,” terrorizing defenseless civilians they had orders to protect.
Doctors later treated 62 women for rape. One woman testified that Kibibi himself raped her for 40 minutes.
Kibibi and the 10 of his men who stood trial with him were the only ones identified after the rampage.
As the defendants were being led away in handcuffs, hundreds of people jeered at them, booed and shook their fists. Some shouted, “Kibibi! You thought you could get away with this! Now you are going to jail!” and “You must pay for your crimes!”
Kibibi, 46, who is married with eight children, was convicted of four counts of crimes against humanity but will serve no more than 20 years in prison.
Kibibi denies all the charges and says the testimony by his bodyguards was part of a plot to denigrate him. Defense attorney Alfred Maisha described his client as a “valiant hero” who had served in the army since 1984 and had risked his life many times in the defense of the country.
Maisha said many of the troops under Kibibi’s command were poorly trained and included former members of rebel and militia groups.
Witnesses said the soldiers descended in a fury upon the village, where residents had stoned a soldier to death who had been involved in an altercation with a local shop owner.
The soldiers smashed down doors and went house-to-house, pillaging, beating and raping for an entire night, from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m. the next day, witnesses said.
Three of Kibibi’s officers received the same sentences, and five others got lesser sentences. One man was acquitted and another will be tried in juvenile court.
But even as the men were sent away, women feared that some attackers had escaped justice.
“Most of the rapists are still right here in our village,” one woman said as she nursed her baby. “If we go to the river for water, we get raped. If we go to the fields for food, we get raped. If we go to the market to sell our goods, we get raped.
“Our lives are filled with danger,” she said. “There is no peace.”
Rape has long been used as a brutal weapon of war in eastern Congo, which suffered back-to-back civil wars starting in the late 1990s. The eastern portion of the country is still brutalized by armed groups.
At least 8,300 rapes were reported in 2009 alone, and aid workers say the true toll is much higher. The victims have included a month-old baby boy and elderly women. Even the biggest U.N. peacekeeping force in the world of 18,000 troops has been unable to end the violence.
During the trial, aid groups said new reports of rapes were emerging, this time women believed to have been attacked by Rwandan Hutu rebels.
Monday’s verdict came only after prosecutors and lawyers were ferried to this remote corner of eastern Congo, which is accessible from the provincial capital only by helicopter or a nearly nine-hour road journey.
The mobile court was paid for by George Soros’ Open Society Initiative and aided by several other agencies, including the American Bar Association, Lawyers Without Borders and the U.N. Mission to Congo.
Activists said they hoped the verdict would serve as a warning to others who expect to attack civilians with impunity.
“If word about the court is spread around the country, it could have an enormous impact on deterring future crimes, now that the rule of law is finally being enforced domestically, to at least some extent,” said Kelly D. Askin of Open Society Justice Initiative.
The total number of victims will never be known. The women who testified in court were identified only as Female 1 to Female 49 out of fear for their security and efforts to reduce the social stigma associated with rape.
The remembered horrors piled up over four days of agonizing testimony. A 35-year-old woman detailed how she was beaten with rifle butts and fists before five soldiers threw her to the ground, tore off her clothes and took turns raping her, even as she vomited, urinated and defecated.
The soldiers took all the money she had been saving for more than a year – 60,000 Congolese francs ($650).
A white-haired grandmother described being beaten up and raped by 12 soldiers in front of her husband and children.
Women testified that they later spent up to three weeks hiding in the nearby forest with their children, building little grass huts and foraging for berries and roots instead of returning to Fizi.
Their statements were then recounted in open court where hundreds of people, mainly men and boys, gathered under a burning sun.
Some survivors spoke so softly it was hard to hear them over the sniffling and whimpers of babies and the occasional drumming of an equatorial thunderstorm on the tin roof.
The other victims would not testify, fearful they might be shunned by their husbands and community or be targeted for reprisals by the military.
Others are still coming forward, including one elderly victim who only emerged Sunday from the forest with a broken rib. Her face remained swollen out of shape seven weeks later.
The 49 women who testified are to receive up to $10,000 each in compensation from the government – double the amount given to victims in previous cases.
Unspecified other damages must be paid for victims’ “humiliation, degradation of their health, social stigmatization, risk of divorce, and possibility of HIV,” presiding judge Col. Fredy Mukendi ordered.
Many complained that the sentences were not harsh enough.
“We are happy that this trial has been held, but we are not happy with the result,” said Oscar Muzaliwa, 26. “The sentences are too low. (They) should be put to death for what they did.”