24 December 2011
Disputed elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have resulted in violent clashes which, according to reports from inside the country, have left a number of protesters dead and seen many more arrested by security forces.
Polls earlier this month returned incumbent President Joseph Kabila to power despite many observers criticising the election as seriously flawed.
As Kabila was sworn in this week, after the Supreme Court rejected an appeal to annul the presidential vote, his main rival Etienne Tshisekedi declared himself ‘president-elect’ and called on the country’s security forces and civil servants to disobey Kabila’s orders.
There were fears of further violence as Tshisekedi planned to hold his own inauguration ceremony at the Martyrs Stadium in Kinshasa on Friday. In the end, security forces blocked the area forcingTshisekedi to swear a makeshift presidential oath in his home as his supporters outside clashed with police who fired tear gas and arrested dozens.
Human Rights Watch also reported this week that in the days which immediately followed the disputed election, 24 people were killed and claimed that ‘the police and other security forces appear to be covering up the scale of the killings by quickly removing the bodies’.
Survivors’ hopes for an end to abuses in DRC dashed
The dangers associated with political opposition in the DRC are sadly nothing new. In the last five years alone, Freedom from Torture has received referrals for around 500 people from the country – many of whom were targeted because of their opposition to the government. These and other survivors of torture from the DRC often feel their country has been forgotten by the rest of the world and that the reality of what is happening on the ground can often go unreported by the media.
More than five million people have died in the DRC since conflict began in 1998. Despite the brokering of a peace deal in 2003, attacks on civilians in the east of the country by rebel groups remain rife. It has been well-documented that rape has been used systematically as a weapon of war. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2011 found that more than 400,000 women aged 15 to 49 were raped across all provinces of the DRC during a 12-month period in 2006 and 2007. Attacks are conducted with impunity, with perpetrators fearing little risk of prosecution.
The 2011 election brought fresh hopes for change in the country. Speaking this week, one Congolese survivor from Freedom from Torture’s foundation group expressed his frustration, “nothing is changing, it’s the same president even though international bodies said the election was fixed”, whilst another spoke of her disappointment over the missed opportunity for change, “we had some hope (for these elections) but none anymore”.
Speaking about the violence that has surrounded this most recent vote, one client said he had heard reports from Western DRC of, “soldiers going home by home to kill people who are against the president”, another reported speaking to people who were too afraid to even leave their homes to go shopping because soldiers were firing at them.
Fabrice: “For two weeks I was held, but it felt like two years”
Around five years ago, Fabrice was working for the government in the DRC as a lawyer. When he refused to cooperate with the killings of opposition party members he himself was detained and tortured.
“I was told by a senior party member that if I wanted to be successful I needed to obey what I was being told and I would get a lot of money and everything that I wanted. One day they told me to go to a prison and when I arrived they asked me to give the prisoners some water with poison in it. They told me they didn’t want these people to be alive so I must give them this water.
“I was very shocked – it was the first time I’d been in that kind of situation. I said ‘I can’t do it – please don’t do it, don’t kill these people’. They told me to go out and two guards came and slapped me and told me I had to be a man. I don’t know what happened next because they didn’t want me to see.
“Weeks after, I was told I was to go on a mission to go house to house of opposition members, checking that they were indoors so that soldiers could come and arrest the person. The first house was my friend from university so I warned him to just get out of the house quickly because it was surrounded.
“Three days later I was arrested on the road. Some people put a bag on my face and started beating me on the road. For two weeks I was held, but it felt like two years. They told me ‘what we are doing to you is to show all the members of the party that if they try to betray the party then this is what will happen to them’.
“If they want to torture someone they are not going to do it in the normal prison – there are a lot of secret houses. Where they sent me I was hearing a lot of voices of people crying. I knew at that time that I was going to die. I was asking them to finish me.”
To this day Fabrice does not know exactly how he was saved but those that helped him told him to get out of the country to not only save his own life but to protect those who aided his escape.
“I was unconscious so I didn’t know what they were doing to me. One day I woke up in a house in the bush.
“The people who saved me did so because they told me ‘we knew your father and he helped us a lot – that is why we’re helping you.’”