The story has been getting recently some more exposure, but it has been going on for years with sporadic appearances in mainstream media. It is still quietly under-reported in contrast to the widely hyped Darfur crisis.

As we can see in Sudan, killing civilians and destroying infrastructure is a practical method of ethnic purification that can yield useful results. But the social fabric itself is left intact – and with it the opponent still has the potential to survive as an organized group. But to really annihilate the opposition, its social fabric has to be torn up. And that is the motive behind the massive organized rape campaign in eastern Congo. Some of it is random violence comparable to what is found in any other armed conflict, but there is a disturbing trend that shows a systematic approach : the heart of darkness has found its weapon of mass destruction. According to the UN representative, the prevalence and intensity of sexual violence against women in eastern Congo are “almost unimaginable”.

A UN report found that in the central Equateur province, the police and army often responded to civil unrest “with organised armed reprisals that target the civilian population and involve indiscriminate pillage, torture and mass rape”. It is most notable that this violence is not the uncontrolled acts of random rebels, but planified operations executed by official armed forces. Of course, violence by state armed forces against civilian population is not a Congolese monopoly, but it is still an alarming signal that something is going very wrong, especially at this level and this extent.

In traditional societies, in the absence of a centralized impartial power to enforce social order, honor within the group is by far the most important measure by which relations of trust are established and preserved. Lose it and you lose everything. When you have witnessed how touchy members of traditional societies are when they feel the tiniest slight to what they perceive as their honor, you can understand how utterly ruined they are after every conceivable taboo has been broken in front of them. It goes beyond the sheer psychological shock of the abomination : in modern societies there is a safety net that can help in mending a broken life and starting again – medical, psychological, professional and financial help – but in the chaos of eastern Congo there is nothing of the sort. Losing all social links is a catastrophic event as bad as the physical effects of the violence. In practical terms, survivors of rape face abandonment by husbands, discrimination by the whole community and a very bleak future.

John Holmes, the UN emergency relief coordinator remarked : “It’s the scale and brutality of it, it’s the use of it as a weapon of terror. It’s the way it’s done publicly, for maximum humiliation. It’s hard to understand”. Actually, when put into the context of a systematic use for social destruction it makes a lot of sense. With a heavy medical burden unsupported by any health care, with overwhelming shame and no psychological support, with sexually transmitted diseases and a destroyed reproductive system that voids all prospects of bearing children, women not only lose their role as pillar of their community but they also become a constant reminder of the humiliation, a vehicle for the hopelessness. And their former community that rejects them suffers just as heavy a blow to its cohesion.

Again, the key point is that those horrendous violences are not reported to be the product of the random urges of some isolated criminally perverse elements – they are part of a systematic campaign against entire populations. The yet to be open case should not waste time targeting the lowly executioners : if the phenomenon is as widely spread as reports suggest, then it cannot exist without approval and active support from their military hierarchy. Some major war criminals are out there, still free to roam and take profit from the continuing suffering of the population. And we have not even started to denounce them, so it is not even worth mentioning doing anything against them.

Sadly, we are not interested in doing anything to stop the crisis in Congo : a meaningful intervention would be hugely expensive and last a generation. In all honesty, I am not ready to pay for that, nor are you – so we simply look away. From a Realpolitik point of view that may be a sound strategic decision. But from an humanitarian point of view the least we can do is not to let the horror stare us down when we look at it in the face.

If you wish to help, you can promote awareness of the humanitarian situation in Eastern Congo, or for a more direct impact you can get in touch with the Panzi Hospital whose action in the treatment of sexual violence has been exemplary.