WALIKALE, Congo – WALIKALE, Congo (AP) — First the rebel soldiers told residents of the villages in the mineral-rich eastern Congo not to worry. They were just there for a rest and would do no harm. But as dusk fell, the fighters encircled five villages simultaneously, and the gang rapes began.
Six or seven men lined up to take their turn. The victims ranged from a month-old baby boy to a 110-year-old great great-grandmother.
They forced husbands and children to watch as they gang-raped the villagers for four days. Some victims told doctors the fighters raped them with their fists, saying "We're looking for the gold."
It took days for help to arrive, even though the villages are 12 miles (20 kilometers) from a camp of U.N. peacekeepers from India. The U.N. says the peacekeepers actually drove through one of the villages while it was being held by the fighters, but said peacekeepers took no action because no one told them what was going on.
Violence is reaching new levels of savagery and spiraling out of control in this corner of Congo, where the competition for control of mineral resources has drawn in several armed groups, including the Congolese army. Rape has become a military strategy by the various groups of fighters to intimidate, punish and control the population in the mining areas.
News of the most brutal gang rapes in eastern Congo came in August, bringing international outrage. The U.N. said more than 500 women were raped in that period, and Buna Altunbas, a regional director for Doctors Without Borders, said some Congolese women have been raped repeatedly.
The victims from the five villages near Walikale alone number about 250, with more coming for treatment this week, said Dr. Chris Baguma of Los Angeles-based International Medical Corps, and he expects the toll to rise. Some have infections resistant to antibiotics, he said. At the local hospital, there are no kits to test for HIV.
"I have seen many, many cases of rapes and many cases of medical emergencies, but I have never seen anything so planned, so systematic, so animalistic," Baguma said.
No one was killed in the attack and the villages are so poor that there is little to loot, leaving people to conclude that the rapes, and forcing families to watch, was some form of punishment — for what no one is sure.
A nurse whose responsibility included three of the villages showed an Associated Press reporter a list with names of 124 victims and pointed to those he said were the mother, wife, two sisters and three cousins of the militia commander whose fighters allegedly were among the attackers.
Victims told doctors they were attacked by a mixed group of fighters: members of the local Mai-Mai militia led by a man who calls himself Commander Cheka; Rwandan Hutu rebels led by perpetrators of that neighboring country's 1994 genocide; and some former fighters of a Congolese Tutsi rebellion that professed itself a sworn enemy of the Rwandan rebels.
Cheka denied that his fighters were involved. In an interview with Radio Kivu Un, he blamed the Rwandan rebels and denied they were allies. It's unclear if that statement might have come after he learned that his family also was raped.
Last week, President Joseph Kabila banned all mining in three eastern provinces, saying he was trying to halt violence such as the gang rapes near Walikale.
But the move appeared aimed more at reigning in officers who have been profiting from the mines despite previous commands to stop.
At Bisie, Congo's biggest tin mine at the top of a mountain near Walikale, thousands of civilians are obeying Kabila's decree and have halted their illegal digging. Workers have been streaming down the mountain this week. They complain, however, that the soldiers are still exploiting the mine.
It's not clear whether Kabila's government can control even its own military commanders and soldiers, who were hastily cobbled together from numerous rebel groups and militias. Lines of command are murky. Some soldiers pay allegiance to one commander only. Officers from one former rebel group disobey higher-ranking officers who previously fought for a different group.
Greed that plunged this nation of 48 million into back-to-back civil and regional wars now threatens to fracture the army and escalate the low-level conflict.
This week, Kabila sent Brig. Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, a former commander of a Tutsi-led rebellion in eastern Congo in 2008, to enforce his mining ban.
Ntaganda came to Walikale as hundreds of troops moved into the remote region for an offensive to rid the area of Rwandan-led rebels grouped under the banner of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR.
Gen. Didier Etumba, the army chief of staff, arrived Tuesday in Walikale and threatened to post elsewhere those commanders who are enriching themselves from the mines, according to two witnesses who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussion.
Walikale residents hope Etumba carries out his threat.
"We wrote to the president months ago demanding that he withdraw ... commanders who are known to have brutalized our people, who now are here supposedly to protect us but who instead are interested only in getting rich off our mines," said Charles Masudi Kissa, head of the Civil Association of Walikale region.
Resentment has been growing that rebels of the former Tutsi-led People's National Congress, known by its French acronym CNDP, have used their 18-month integration into the national army to expand their influence and take over productive mines. They make up 70 percent of the armed forces in eastern Congo.
Ntaganda is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, including the ethnic massacre of civilians in 2002 and forcing children to fight. Congo's government says it won't arrest Ntaganda in the greater interest of keeping peace.
In Walikale, opinion is divided about the mining ban. Some want the mine shut, seeing it as the source of evil, so that the people will focus on neglected agriculture. Others would like to see proper roads built, providing easy access to the mineral wealth. Still others simply want law and order.
Kabila's ban came as the prime minister announced Thursday that Congo's economy will expand by a better-than-projected 6.1 percent, largely on the back of tin prices that increased by nearly 40 percent this year. Congo is Africa's largest tin producer.
Bisie is Congo's largest mine of cassiterite, a tin product. Porters walk for two days down the mountain to deliver 50-kilogram (110-pound) sacks of the red and brown mineral. Prices in the nearby village of Ndjingala dropped this week from $5.60 for a kilogram (2.2 pounds) to $3 following the ban, complained Jean-Marie Rugamika Chika, local secretary of the Mineral Exploiters' Association. The price has fallen in part because those who plan to abandon the mine want to see a quick sale of their product.
"Who is this ban serving?" complained Gertrude Matondo, who had just arrived in Ndjingala from the "hole" she and her husband mine in Bisie. "The soldiers are still there, exploiting. Only we, the ordinary people, are suffering." She said armed bandits had attacked her Wednesday, stealing $300 and all her belongings.
As in all of Congo's conflicts, it's the civilians who are killed and driven from their homes, while military casualties are negligible.
"We fear that this latest offensive will follow the pattern of previous military actions," Masudi said. "Both the rebels and the army will punish civilians brutally, but there will be little real fighting."
The village of Luvungi, in the area where Cheka's family was raped, is a good example. When soldiers moved in there during October 2009, Cheka's fighters disappeared and the soldiers burned down 20 huts of families they accused of supporting the enemy. This year, the villagers were brutalized and their homes were pillaged by Cheka's returning fighters and their allies.