Image: Hillary Clinton in Congo
Roberto Schmidt  /  AFP - Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, background, tours a refugee camp on the outskirts of Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Tuesday. Clinton said she pressed President Joseph Kabila to arrest officers behind an epidemic of sexual assault in the area as troops battle Hutu extremists.
updated 8/11/2009 10:03:48 PM ET 2009-08-12T02:03:48

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday was visibly moved by firsthand evidence of the brutality of war in eastern Congo, delivering an impassioned appeal for action to end to rampant sexual violence that she called "evil in its basest form."

Clinton announced a new package of $17 million in American aid to respond to an epidemic of rape and other sexual crimes directed mainly at women and girls by government troops and rebel groups fighting in the region.

Her offer came after a harrowing meeting with victims of violent gang rapes in a crowded refugee camp on the outskirts of Goma where 18,000 men, women and children have sought shelter from revenge attacks raging in the countryside.

"It is almost impossible to describe the level of suffering and despair," a shaken Clinton said afterward.

Under the shadow of an active volcano, Clinton toured the Magunga Camp, a dust-choked warren of tents and tin-lined huts, listening as officials and residents of the camp described the horrors of gang rapes and a litany of deaths from malnutrition, malaria, tuberculosis and diarrhea.

Picking her way through a path littered with volcanic rock, Clinton said she "wanted to see for myself what was happening here."

"We really want to return home, that's why we are asking America to help stop the fighting," said Chantale Mapendo, a refugee who lives in the camp told Clinton

"That's why I'm here," Clinton replied. "I want you to be able to go home."

Children often victimized by rape
Clinton appeared visibly moved when she was shown a 4-year-old child, held in his mother's arms, who was suffering from extreme malnutrition. Belly distended, eyes hollow, the skeletal boy weighed less than 15 pounds.

Residents told Clinton that women and young girls and boys are often victimized by rape when they leave the camp to gather wood or tend to outside gardens. One camp official said a young boy had been raped on Monday.

"I've been in a lot of very difficult and terrible settings over a lot of years and I was just overwhelmed by what I saw both in the camp and in the conversation" with the rape victims, Clinton told reporters aboard her plane after leaving Goma.

One of the two victims Clinton met had been gang-raped after her husband and four children were killed. The other, eight months pregnant at the time, lost her baby and was found by hospital workers in a forest where she had stumbled.

"The atrocities that these women have suffered, and that stand for the atrocities that so many have suffered, distill evil into its basest form," Clinton said, her voice breaking with emotion. "In the face of such evil, people of good will everywhere must respond."

"We say to the world that those who attack civilian populations with systematic rape are guilty of crimes against humanity," she said.

Training doctors to treat victims
At least $10 million of the $17 million pledged by Clinton will be used to train doctors to treat victims of brutal sexual attacks. Some of the funds will also be aimed at preventing abuse.

The United Nations has recorded at least 200,000 cases of sexual violence against women and girls in the region since conflict in eastern Congo erupted in 1996. Although fighting has eased since a 2003 peace deal, the army in January launched an offensive to pacify the area.

The operation is backed by the United Nations, which has a peacekeeping force in the country, but it has drawn criticism from rights groups as it has displaced some 800,000 people, left hundreds of civilians dead and led to a surge in rapes.

Trying to protect the civilian population
Clinton said the United States supports efforts to pacify the region, but she stressed that more had to be done to protect the civilian population.

She said she had offered U.S. assistance to help professionalize the Congolese military, members of which are accused of committing many sexual assaults in the countryside. The army is accused of failing to bring offenders in its ranks to justice.

Earlier this month, a leading human rights group demanded that Congo crack down on sexual violence often perpetrated by military generals and other top officers. It cited U.N. data showing that 7,703 cases of sexual violence by soldiers were reported last year.

Clinton delivered a strong message on that point to Congolese President Joseph Kabila when they met earlier Tuesday in a tent at the former Belgian colonial governor's compound on the shores of Lake Kivu in Goma.

"We believe there should be no impunity for the sexual and gender-based violence committed by so many — that there must be arrests and prosecutions and punishment," she told reporters after the meeting.

She also said the U.S. had offered to send a team of legal, financial and other experts to come up with specific recommendations for overcoming Congo's problems with corruption. She said Kabila had accepted that offer.

Clinton is the first secretary of state to visit Congo in a decade and the first ever to visit Goma. She flew to Goma from Kinshasa aboard a U.N. plane over the objections of some top aides who worried about her security and logistics for the visit.

More on: Democratic Republic of Congo

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