Four armed men barged into Anna Mburano’s hut, slapped the children and threw them down. They flipped Mrs. Mburano on her back, she said, and raped her, repeatedly.
It did not matter that dozens of United Nations peacekeepers were based just up the road. Or that Mrs. Mburano is around 80 years old.
“Grandsons!” she yelled. “Get off me!”
As soon as they finished, they moved house to house, along with hundreds of other marauding rebels, gang-raping at least 200 women.
What happened in this remote, thatched-roof village on July 30 and continued for at least three more days has become a searing embarrassment for the United Nations mission in Congo. Despite more than 10 years of experience and billions of dollars, the peacekeeping force still seems to be failing at its most elemental task: protecting civilians.
The United Nations’ blue-helmets are considered the last line of defense in eastern Congo, given that the nation’s own army has a long history of abuses, that the police are often invisible or drunk and that the hills are teeming with rebels.
But many critics contend that nowhere else in the world has the United Nations invested so much and accomplished so little. What happened in Luvungi, with nearby peacekeepers failing to respond to a village under siege, is similar to a massacre in Kiwanja in 2008, when rebels killed 150 people within earshot of a United Nations base.
“Congo is the U.N.’s crowning failure,” said Eve Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues,” whose advocacy group, V-Day, has been working with Congolese women for years.
She blamed poor management, bad communication and racism. “If the women being raped were the daughters or wives or mothers of the power elites,” she said, “I can promise you this war would have ended about 12 years ago.”
United Nations officials admitted that the peacekeepers failed to respond fast enough to Luvungi, though they said the primary responsibility fell on the Congolese Army, which continues to be in grievous disarray.
“I felt personally guilty and guilty toward the people I met there,” said Atul Khare, the assistant secretary general for peacekeeping, who recently visited Luvungi. “They told me, ‘We’ve been raped, we’ve been brutalized, give us peace and security.’ Unfortunately, I said, that is something I cannot promise.”
Within peacekeeping circles, Congo is becoming known as “the African equivalent of Afghanistan,” said Annika Hilding-Norberg, a director at the Peace Operations Training Institute in Virginia, because of the conflict’s enduring violence and complexity.
Paradoxically enough, the effort to integrate certain rebel groups into the Congolese Army — intended to help stabilize the region — may have supplied a motivation for the rapes, analysts say. The more fearsome and powerful an armed group can appear, the more concessions it can extract in negotiations.
“These guys are trying to boost their ranks, to colonel or general,” said Lt. Hamisi Delfonte, a police officer in Walikale, about a two-hour drive from Luvungi.
The other day, several government soldiers suddenly unshouldered their rifles, clicked off their safeties and started chasing a man in camouflage pants through the middle of town. All heads swiveled in the same direction. Children broke away. “They’re going to kill that guy,” someone said.
But the soldiers did not shoot, and it was soon clear why. The fleeing man was an army major who had just pulled the pin on his grenade. It all stemmed from a dispute over 50 cents. The man was eventually talked down and arrested.