AFRICOM trying to stop violent cycle among African soldiers
Stars and Stripes February 6, 2011
STUTTGART, Germany — There was no field manual to consult, no military doctrine to guide the way.
When Michele Wagner, an academic with U.S. Africa Command’s social science research center, deployed to a Congolese military camp in 2010, the goal was to get the Congolese soldiers to open up dark chapters of their past. The goal was to help them take the first step toward breaking an ugly cycle of sexual violence and rape, which has long been used as a tactic of intimidation by soldiers and militias in remote parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
For the United States, creating a professional military in the DRC is seen as the best chance at bolstering security and stability in a resource-rich country where more than a decade of conflict has left millions dead.
While U.S. Special Forces worked with the soldiers on their infantry skills at the camp in Kisangani as part of a six-month effort to train an elite rapid response battalion, Wagner tried to get soldiers talking.
“There I was in the middle of a training camp with people marching and chanting and being conditioned, and I’m sitting in a tent with crying soldiers,” said Wagner, who developed an instructional program that more closely resembled group therapy than the typical military PowerPoint approach to training.
As she talked with the soldiers, Wagner knew she was in the midst of soldiers who were both perpetrators of rape and survivors of the violence.
“We talked a lot about their experiences as soldiers, what they saw, what they heard, different days that they remembered,” Wagner said during a recent discussion with AFRICOM leaders about the problem.
“As soldiers expressed it in interview after interview, they themselves felt so constrained and disempowered and humiliated — they felt that they had been sacrificed by being in the military — that they emphasized that rape was their revenge,” she said. “That rape was a form of establishing power and domination.”
In the DRC, rape has been wielded as a weapon of war for years, and there are no signs that the problem is going away.
Just two weeks ago, several DRC commanders were arrested in connection with a series of assaults, in which at least 67 women were assaulted during separate rape sprees during the New Year period, according to a United Nations investigation released on Tuesday.
But such atrocities — the government’s army is responsible for about 6 percent of the attacks — are just a fraction of the overall problem. Militia and rebel groups are believed to be the worst perpetrators, and America’s ability to reach those groups is limited.
Some experts in the region doubt the U.S. government’s military programs can make much difference.
In the DRC, corruption and lawlessness within the ranks is so widespread that instruction on morality is unlikely to make much difference, according to Thierry Vircoulon, project director for the International Crisis Group’s efforts in Central Africa.
“You can do moral lessons, but the problem goes much deeper. In my view, there is no way to train the Congolese military because it is not actually an army. It’s just some people with guns,” Vircoulon said. “There have been many attempts by many people over many years. It doesn’t work.”
Still, for the U.S., finding ways to break the cycle of sexual violence has emerged as a top foreign policy priority.
Since 2009, the U.S. government has dedicated more than $32 million for programs aimed at curbing sexual violence in the DRC.
It’s new territory for AFRICOM and the U.S. military, whose troops are more accustomed to instructing foreign militaries on combat-arms skills, not delving into sensitive emotional territory.
Operation Olympic Chase in Kisangani — a six-month AFRICOM training initiative that ended in October — focused mainly on various infantry skills required to prepare a 700-strong Congolese battalion for rapid-response deployments. The battalion is intended to serve as a model for the rest of the force.
But to make the training complete, AFRICOM needed to find a way to deal with the problem of rape in the ranks. Enter Wagner, a social scientist who tried to convey the importance of group therapy techniques to hardened American infantrymen doing the day-to-day training.
“That didn’t go all that smoothly,” said one AFRICOM military official involved with the research center’s work who requested anonymity to discuss the inner workings of the program. “There’s a lot of learning we have to do to be receptive (to these new types of training techniques). We’re talking about a big cultural shift for a lot of guys.”
While it was understood that one-time rapists could be in the ranks, it was harder to grasp that there also were men who had suffered themselves from that kind of violence and had the psychological scars to show for it, Wagner said.
“Telling Special Forces people that some [of the soldiers they were training] had been raped — that was culturally a leap for them,” Wagner said. “For me to say some of your trainees who you’re toughening up are rape survivors, that’s just a bit shocking.”
Still, commanders at AFRICOM headquarters in Stuttgart are zeroing in on the issue of sexual violence in places like the DRC and grappling with ways to best instruct foreign military forces.
Wagner’s program was an attempt to sensitize soldiers by talking about something that often goes unspoken. The course included four, two-hour classroom sessions and separate evening sessions where skits and plays were performed that educated soldiers about the law against sex crimes.
Congolese soldiers conducted the training in their local languages of Lingala and Swahili and it was designed to get troops talk to each other with the aim of deterring future acts of rape.
“I think what we are beginning to understand is that our old paradigm, that you take a PowerPoint, you add (the State Department’s African Contingency Operations and Training Assistance program), train key peacekeepers for 10 minutes on SGBV (sex and gender based violence) and prevention of SGVB, doesn’t work anymore,” said Diana Putnam, chief of AFRICOM’s humanitarian and health activities branch during a recent roundtable discussion among command leaders.
“We’ve begun to understand the complexity and subtleties of this.”
Despite the complexity, AFRICOM is looking for ways to engage in the region.
Last month, AFRICOM leadership consulted with Wagner and another Defense Department researcher, Lynn Lawry, whose work is causing the military to rethink assumptions about the nature of sexual violence in the region and prompting discussion about the need for more strategies to break the cycle.
In a study co-funded by AFRICOM, Lawry, a researcher from the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense — Health Affairs, found that most of the sexual violence in eastern parts of the DRC is combat related. The research, which was conducted in 46 villages in South Kivu, North Kivu, and Ituri District, showed that men also can be victims of rape and that women can sometimes be the perpetrators of the crime. The survey covered 19 territories and represented a population of 5.2 million adults.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in August, showed that 40 percent of the women and 23 percent of the men in the region have survived sexual violence, 70 percent of which is combat-related. In addition, 39 percent of female victims reported female perpetrators and 15 percent of male victims reported female perpetrators.
“We know that it existed. We just didn’t know at what rate and at what prevalence we could find this to be happening,” Lawry said.
For Wagner, Lawry’s findings matched some of the things she was hearing in the field back in May as she worked with DRC troops and conducted her own research at the camp in Kisangani.
“I tried to design training in which officers and soldiers were talking with each other,” Wagner said. “To develop ways to acknowledge and talk about the issue within the units they were training in, to develop a precedent for talking with each other.”
But if the command is going to address sexual violence more broadly in the DRC, it also will need to find a way to reach the various militias in the country.
Currently, legal restrictions require AFRICOM to limit its engagements to direct military-to-military activities.
“So how do you do awareness with the rebel groups?” Lawry asked. “USAID can’t deal with it. State Department can deal with it but doesn’t have the capacity to actually be on the ground to do that type of awareness. AFRICOM is poised to be able to do that.”