GOMA, Congo (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saw first hand on Tuesday the violence against women and children in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and demanded the government to do more to protect civilians.
Clinton spoke in the eastern Congolese city of Goma, capital of North Kivu province which aid groups say is the most dangerous place on earth for women and children.
“We are very concerned about civilian casualties, both deaths and rapes, and other injuries from the military action,” she told a news conference after meeting President Joseph Kabila.
Congo has hailed a military operation against rebel groups as a success, but the rebels targeted by the Congolese army and U.N. forces have killed hundreds of civilians in reprisal attacks, displacing thousands more.
Kinshasa and the United Nations’ biggest peacekeeping force, consisting of about 17,000 troops, are struggling to stabilize the east of the vast central African country after decades of dictatorship and a 1998-2003 war.
Clinton, who has made raising awareness of violence against women a priority during her visit, met victims of sexual violence and urged Congo and the United Nations to punish perpetrators.
“The atrocities that so many have suffered distils evil into its most basic form,” she said.
“Those who attack civilian populations using systematic rape are guilty of crimes against humanity,” she told a meeting of aid workers.
After meeting Kabila, Clinton visited Mugunga, a squalid, sprawling camp for displaced people outside Goma where about 18,000 people have sought refuge.
Clinton, who announced $17 million in new funds to help victims of sexual violence, made a brief tour of the camp and told its inhabitants she was working to end their plight.
“I told President Kabila we want to help end the violence so that you can go home,” she told Chantal Mapendo, head of a women’s group in the camp.
Mapendo replied: “What we really want you to do is bring hope and peace to our country.”
Later, Clinton told reporters a harrowing story of one woman she spoke to whose stomach was ripped open with a razor blade in her eighth month of pregnancy by attackers and the baby killed. The woman was rescued in the forest by medical workers but had suffered serious injuries.
“It was an incredibly emotional and overwhelming experience,” Clinton said, choking up.
Clinton addressed the question of the trade in minerals including considerate and coltan, which are dug in eastern Congo for use in consumer electronics such as mobile phones and whose sale funds armed groups in the region.
“The international community must start looking at steps we can take to try to prevent the mineral wealth from the DRC ending up in the hands of those who fund the violence,” she said.
In Goma, tens of thousands of displaced people are packed into camps and vulnerable to attacks. The United Nations has accused all sides of human rights abuses in Congo, including mass killings, rape and lootings.
Medical workers told Clinton that young boys were also a target and that an eight-year old male had been raped a day earlier in the Mugunga camp.
“The problem is impunity,” said Giorgio Trombatore of the International Medical Corps.
Last month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at least 200,000 cases of sexual violence had been reported in eastern Congo since 1996.
There was some scepticism over whether Clinton’s visit would make much difference to Congo.
“All we have got is a pile of business cards,” said women’s advocate Christine Schuler-DeSchryver of previous visits by celebrities and diplomats to Goma.
“I do not want to over-promise. I am not here to leave a business card, but I do not have a magic wand either,” Clinton said in response.
Editing by Michael Roddy
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