Friday, November 6, 2009

African view: Guinea's rape horror

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, commentator and National Public Radio correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reflects on her conversations with survivors of a brutal crackdown on opposition supporters in Guinea.

Some reporting assignments stay with you. You just cannot shake them off, even when you think perhaps you have.

That has been the case with Guinea this time round.

The date, 28 September, was repeated by just about everyone I spoke with there - women and men - etched in their memories as if they had been branded. It is etched in mine too - and yet I was not at the main stadium in Conakry on that day. I did not witness the shooting of pro-democracy protesters or the public rape and sexual violence of women in and around the stadium. But I witnessed the fall-out. Rape is surely horrific, but becomes even more so when the images of alleged crimes are recorded on cell phones, because the alleged rapes happened in the middle of the day, in public.

Wailing outrage

The sometimes grotesque photos are then splashed on the internet, a record of the humiliation and shaming of women, making the violations even more painful. We are told it was mainly the "berets rouges", Guinea's presidential guard - with still unconfirmed reports that they were aided by hired guns, mercenaries from neighbouring Liberia - who committed the atrocities, targeting with their weapons the thousands who had gathered to hear opposition leaders denounce Guinea's military regime. First came the killings - then the brutal sexual assaults. Witnesses and survivors say the troops forced themselves on women of all ages in and around the stadium - students, professionals, market women, opposition campaigners - even grandmothers. Guns, bayonets, knives and other weapons were used to rip off their brightly coloured boubous (traditional West African gowns) - even their trousers. And some of those weapons were used to sexually violate them.

I had a sorrowful and emotional meeting with some of these women who said they had been subjected to all manner of abuse - and others who said they had been forced to witness men and women being shot and assaulted. You would think that the women might have been too frightened to talk in these circumstances, fearing retribution from their tormentors.

A lucky escape

They all kept saying, "C'est du jamais vu, c'est du jamais vu," meaning: "We've never before in our lives witnessed such a thing in Guinea." Guinean women have a robust reputation and a history of challenging the successive authoritarian regimes and poisonous military governments that have dominated the country's 51 years since independence from France. And the women I met wanted to talk. Some wept openly, wailing even, as they retold their experiences. Others were quietly determined. Without exception, the women all told me that, this time, there must be no impunity; that the soldiers who violated their dignity, so publicly, must be punished.

One woman was so angry, so outraged, so shamed - as she said herself - that her legs began trembling and then her whole body, as she recalled what she called a lucky escape - "by the grace of God". She said she managed to get out of the stadium, but was followed to her hiding place by a group of men in uniform. "At that moment, I said a final prayer," she confessed, "because I believed my last hour had come." But one soldier said, "Forget it, leave her alone," and they took off. She said she was shaking, wearing only an underskirt because her wraparound cloth had been torn off her. She managed to flag down a taxi, but began trembling all over again when she saw a soldier board the same vehicle. She said she prayed that he would not recognise her as having been among those at the stadium. He did not, she said, and hopped down from the taxi before she did. Only then was she able to calm down and take a deep breath and finally made her way home. I felt hot tears rolling down my cheeks as I tried to keep my microphone steady, recording her and other women's ordeals.

It is not the first time I have interviewed survivors of sexual violence, but it has generally been in a war setting or a conflict zone. This time, we were sitting in the heart of Conakry, right in the city, which the Guinean military had turned into a virtual combat zone. Yes, these women could be me, I could be them. It had me thinking that this kind of brutal assault is increasingly becoming a tool of repression, a way to try to keep women silent and submissive. But the women of Guinea will not be silenced.

Tune into the BBC World Service at 0830 GMT in East Africa or 1030 GMT in West Africa on Saturday 7 November 2009 to listen to Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reporting for

from Guinea. The programme can also be downloaded as a podcast.

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