Why? In most reports on the incident, the essential context is missing. In this case, the context is the simultaneous integration of armed groups and the formation of new regiments out of existing brigades. This twin process - while probably necessary - has been rushed and has produced a volatile and often violent situation, of which this mass rape may be a symptom.
So what happened in Fizi? This is what we know so far.
The Congolese army is undergoing a process of troop consolidation, regrouping their brigades - which are often desperately understaffed, with only 400-800 soldiers - into regiments of 1,200 soldiers. So far, four regiments have been formed in South Kivu, and another five are on their way. Soldiers are being pulled together in training centers, where they are consolidated and placed under new command.
On June 7, the commander of the 10th military region, General Patrick Masunzu, ordered all weapons in the Kananda training center to be stockpiled. This infuriated Colonel Kifaru Niragire, who had been commanding the 43rd sector. Col. Kifaru alleged that Gen. Masunzu was going to name Colonel Ruterera, a Munyamulenge officer from the FRF armed group, as the commander of the newly formed regiment. As Kifaru was the previously the overall commander of several brigades, he felt he was being passed over in favor of an officer from Masunzu's ethnic community.
A stand-off ensued in the training center, and Col. Kifaru deserted along with around 170 soldiers, climbing into the mountains of the High Plateau that rises up to the west of Lake Tanganyika. According to some sources, he was later joined by a small group of around 20 FDLR Rwandan rebels. Col. Kifaru is a Hutu from North Kivu and a former commander of PARECO, which had links to the mainly Hutu FDLR.
On the night of June 10, Col. Kifaru's group passed through Abala, a small village of around 300 people, mostly from the Bembe community. According to diplomatic sources who investigated the incident, Col. Kifaru's men ransacked the village for food and valuables. In the course of this pillage, his soldiers allegedly raped 15 women (some sources are higher).
The following day, the soldiers continued towards Nyakiele, a larger town 17 kilometers away, also mostly inhabited by Bembe. There, again according to diplomatic sources, Col. Kifaru's men supposedly asked for food from the population. They then proceeded to ransack the village before leaving the following day, June 12. After their departure, 31 women reported to the health center that they had been raped. When a team from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) arrived on June 22 and 23, a further 80 women came forward to state they had been raped.
Since leaving the training camp, Col. Kifaru has been in touch with the Congolese regional commander, Gen. Masunzu regarding reintegration. Masunzu reportedly acknowledged that Col. Kifaru was right in asking to be a regimental commander, and the deserters were ready to came to the Luberizi training center when news broke out about the abuses in Nyakiele and Abala. Col. Kifaru has maintained his innocence, suggesting that the local Bembe population has manufactured these reports for political reasons. A local Mai-Mai commander from the Bembe community, "General" Yakutumba, had listed Col. Kifaru as one of his principle enemies in a document he published in February this year. Congolese army spokespeople have also dismissed the allegations of abuse.
A joint team composed of officials from the UN peacekeeping mission, the governor's office and the Congolese army went to Nyakiele this week to investigate the rape charges and is due to report back soon. Congolese officers are worried that a rape scandal will make it more difficult to reintegrate Col. Kifaru's men into the army, as they will be pressured to arrest him, which could lead to another stand-off.
This episode reveals the fragility of the integration and regimentation exercise. Col. Kifaru is not the first commander to desert - other, smaller groups have been defecting in North Kivu, as well. This has several causes: Units are asked to consolidate, which inevitably results in some commanders being demoted while others are relegated to tedious, ill-paid jobs at headquarters. To make matters worse, the integration of groups like the FRF and Mai-Mai Kapopo has stirred up ethnic resentment and created even more rank-inflation to fulfill rebels' demands.
Finally, impunity, once again, risks becoming the (somewhat brittle) glue of the ramshackle army. The integration process is all carrot and no stick. Commanders are rarely vetted for past abuses and - as this example shows - the government has often been reduced to kow-towing to rebel demands.
As for the motives of the rapes - initial reports are inconclusive. Some officials I have spoken with cast doubts on the scale of the rapes, pointing to the suspiciously similar and forthcoming testimonies of the women in Nyakiele, along with the increase in rape claims when MSF arrived.
But everyone seems to agree that a large number of rapes did take place. The hypotheses vary between ethnic tensions between the Bembe and Hutu communities and the theory that a large number of deserters needs to be fed, and the looting operations often provoke a frenzy of brutality that then results in rape.