BARAKA, Congo – One by one, the rape survivors relived their attacks for a panel of judges: A newly married bride flung her torn, bloodied clothing onto the courtroom floor. A mother of six dropped to her knees, raised her arms to heaven and cried out for peace.
Nearly 50 women poured out their stories in a wave of anguish that ended Monday with the conviction of an army colonel for crimes against humanity — a landmark verdict in this Central African country where thousands are believed to be raped each year by soldiers and militia groups who often go unpunished.
It was the first time a commanding officer had been tried in such an attack.
Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Lt. Col. Mutuare Daniel Kibibi, who was accused of ordering his troops on New Year’s Day to attack the village of Fizi, a sprawling community 20 miles (35 kilometers) south of Baraka on an escarpment of mountains covered in banana trees.
Military prosecutor Col. Laurent Mutata Luaba said the men “behaved like wild beasts,” terrorizing defenseless civilians they had orders to protect.
Doctors later treated 62 women for rape. One woman testified that Kibibi himself raped her for 40 minutes.
Kibibi and the 10 of his men who stood trial with him were the only ones identified after the rampage.
As the defendants were being led away in handcuffs, hundreds of people jeered at them, booed and shook their fists. Some shouted, “Kibibi! You thought you could get away with this! Now you are going to jail!” and “You must pay for your crimes!”
Kibibi, 46, who is married with eight children, was convicted of four counts of crimes against humanity but will serve no more than 20 years in prison.
Kibibi denies all the charges and says the testimony by his bodyguards was part of a plot to denigrate him. Defense attorney Alfred Maisha described his client as a “valiant hero” who had served in the army since 1984 and had risked his life many times in the defense of the country.
Maisha said many of the troops under Kibibi’s command were poorly trained and included former members of rebel and militia groups.
Witnesses said the soldiers descended in a fury upon the village, where residents had stoned a soldier to death who had been involved in an altercation with a local shop owner.
The soldiers smashed down doors and went house-to-house, pillaging, beating and raping for an entire night, from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m. the next day, witnesses said.
Three of Kibibi’s officers received the same sentences, and five others got lesser sentences. One man was acquitted and another will be tried in juvenile court.
But even as the men were sent away, women feared that some attackers had escaped justice.
“Most of the rapists are still right here in our village,” one woman said as she nursed her baby. “If we go to the river for water, we get raped. If we go to the fields for food, we get raped. If we go to the market to sell our goods, we get raped.
“Our lives are filled with danger,” she said. “There is no peace.”