Confronting Congolese rapists

In her gut-wrenching documentary about the Congo, Lisa Jackson asks the men why they rape.

By Catherine Price

Published April 8, 2008 5:15PM (EDT)

I don't know about you, but when I read about horrible, widespread violence against women -- like gang rapes in the Congo -- part of me wishes I could confront those men face-to-face and ask them why the hell they do it. It turns out that filmmaker Lisa F. Jackson felt the same urge, except she actually acted on it.

In her documentary "The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo," Jackson -- herself a survivor of a gang rape in Washington, D.C. -- goes to the Congo and confronts men who identify themselves as rapists. She asks them questions. Why join a group of 20 men in a gang rape? Why rape a woman while her husband is tied to a nearby tree, watching? Why force a woman -- impregnated from a rape -- to abort (by having her other children jump on her stomach), and then make her drink the blood from her own womb? Details from the film reported on in the Washington Post are painful to read -- and are all the more gut-wrenching when recounted by the women themselves on film.

You'd think -- or, perhaps, hope -- that it would be difficult to find men willing to admit their crimes on camera. But Jackson had no problem; she simply asked her guide to put the word out via a Congolese commanding officer that an American journalist was interested in interviewing men about why they raped. Soon afterward, she found herself being led into the forest by a group of a dozen men to interview volunteers.

"For a moment, going into the bush, I was completely panic-stricken," Jackson told the Post. "Then I realized they wanted their moment on videotape. If anything happened to me and my camera, they wouldn't have that. My camera was as good as a gun. They wanted to be memorialized, bragging about what they did to women."

Almost more upsetting than the gruesome details of the rapes themselves is the fact that the men don't express any remorse. To them, the rapes were logical, driven by forces beyond their control.

Several men mentioned that they had to rape as a condition of the "magic potion" they had taken to help them fight in the ongoing conflicts in the Congo. "We were just abiding by the conditions of our magic potion," one rapist is quoted as saying. "We had to rape women to make it work, and to beat the enemy." Another rapist, describing what he does if a woman resists, said, "If she says no, I must take her by force. If she is strong, I'll call some of my friends to help me. All this is happening because of the war. We would live a normal life and treat women naturally if there was no war." And another, when asked how many women he estimated he had raped, replied, "It's hard to keep record of the number of women that I've raped. The thing to keep in mind is the fact that we have stayed too long in the bush, and that induced us to rape. You know how things are in combat zones. We rape as we advance from village to village."

Whatever their justifications for rape may be, the men leave in their wake tens of thousands of victims -- some of whom Jackson also interviews and includes in the film, their stories in painful juxtaposition to the rapists' bravado.

"The Greatest Silence" airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. EDT on HBO. And if you don't have HBO, the movie's site has a trailer and information on upcoming screenings. It also has a list of organizations working to help stop the rapes and help victims. Check it out.

Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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