Published: October 5, 2009
CONAKRY, Guinea — Cellphone snapshots, ugly and hard to refute, are circulating here and feeding rage: they show that women were the particular targets of the Guinean soldiers who suppressed a political demonstration at a stadium here last week, with victims and witnesses describing rapes, beatings and acts of intentional humiliation.
In a cellphone photograph given to The New York Times, soldiers surrounded a woman on the ground on Sept. 28 in Conakry, Guinea. Several images appear to show attacks on women.
One photograph shows a naked woman lying on muddy ground, her legs up in the air, a man in military fatigues in front of her. In a second picture a soldier in a red beret is pulling the clothes off a distraught-looking woman half-lying, half-sitting on muddy ground. In a third a mostly nude woman lying on the ground is pulling on her trousers.
The cellphone pictures are circulating anonymously, but multiple witnesses corroborated the events depicted.
The attacks were part of a violent outburst on Sept. 28 in which soldiers shot and killed dozens of unarmed demonstrators at the main stadium here, where perhaps 50,000 had assembled. Local human rights organizations say at least 157 were killed; the government puts the figure at 56.
But even more than the shootings, the attacks on women — horrific anywhere, but viewed with particular revulsion in Muslim countries like this one — appear to have traumatized the citizenry and hardened the opposition’s determination to force out the leader of the military junta, Capt. Moussa Dadis Camara.
Diplomats said the violence had irreversibly undermined Mr. Camara’s standing with other countries.
If internal opposition continues to grow, Captain Camara may be forced either to leave power or to tighten his grip with an even more authoritarian government.
Bernard Kouchner, the foreign minister of France, the former colonial power here, said his country could no longer work with Captain Camara, and urged “international intervention.”
The exact number of women who were abused is not known. Because of the shame associated with sexual violence in this West African country, victims are reluctant to speak, and local doctors refuse to do so. Victims who told of the attacks would not provide their names because they were afraid of retribution.
But the witnesses were adamant. “I affirm, in categorical fashion, that women were raped, not just one woman,” said Mamadou Mouctar Diallo, 34, an opposition leader who said he had been severely beaten himself. “I saw many rapes.”
Three women who said they had been attacked described their ordeal in an interview this past weekend. “We didn’t know the soldiers were going to harm us,” said the middle-aged woman who said she could not sleep at night. She spoke slowly in a darkened room, seated on a bed with two other women. They were in a villa in a district at the edge of the capital here.
“We heard gunfire,” she said. “I tried to flee.” With weapons going off, suddenly “it was like a henhouse.”
She ran, but a soldier barred the way.
“He hit me,” she said. “And he tore my clothes off. He ripped my clothes off with his hands.”
Then, she said, “he put his hand inside me.” The soldier hit her on the head with his rifle, requiring stitches, she said. She also had large welts from the beating.
“We are traumatized,” she said slowly, looking down.
Mr. Diallo said he saw at least 10 women raped at the stadium.
Describing one such assault, he said: “I saw a woman who was stripped naked. They ripped off, they tore off her clothes. They surrounded her. They made her lie down. They lifted up her feet, and one of the soldiers advanced. They took turns.”
One woman interviewed at the suburban villa here described how a soldier had ripped her robe off with a knife. She had a large cut on her backside, where a soldier had stabbed her with his knife, and deep bruises on her shoulders.
The third woman said she had been whipped by a soldier. “When I went out, I saw one of the soldiers lying on top of a woman,” she said. “A lot of women were raped.”
Corroboration of the attacks came from at least one foreign aid organization in the Guinean capital. Jerome Basset of the Conakry mission for Doctors Without Borders said his team had treated three rape victims and three other victims of sexual violence in the hours after the demonstration.
Brutal repression of antigovernment demonstrators has occurred in Guinea before, notably in 2007, when security forces shot several hundred people demonstrating against the repressive regime of Lansana Conté, who preceded Captain Camara
Rape is a fairly common tool of military repression in Africa, but large-scale violence against women has not been a previous government tactic here. “This time, a new stage has been reached,” said Sidya Touré, a former prime minister who was also beaten at the stadium and said he had witnessed brutalities there. “Women as battlefield targets. We could never have imagined that.”
Captain Camara, asked in his office at the sprawling military camp here last week whether rapes had occurred, responded: “I wasn’t at the stadium. These are things people have told me.” He has repeatedly disclaimed responsibility for the killings at the stadium, blaming opposition figures instead.
He reiterated these disclaimers in an interview broadcast Sunday on Radio France Internationale, even as Mr. Kouchner, the French foreign minister, said in a radio interview that “group massacres aren’t internal matters.”
Opposition figures here said that they were discussing further ways of countering the government, and that they would not be stopped by last week’s bloody repression.
A diplomat here, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the subject, said Saturday that “the writing is on the wall for the junta, certainly vis-à-vis the international community, and I hope vis-à-vis the local community.”
Meanwhile, the sexual violence, along with the number of people unaccounted for after last week’s crackdown, continues to trouble many here.
“They especially tore into the women,” said another former prime minister, François Lonsény Fall, who was also at the stadium. “They were seeking to humiliate them.”
“We want a force of intervention to protect us from the ferocity of the Guinean Army,” Mr. Fall said.