Assault and Batteries


High-tech horror: Widespread cell-phone violence against women in Iraq and the Congo.

The downside of the 21st century’s high-tech age is lower than you can imagine: Cell phones and cell-phone technology are prime culprits in a growing epidemic of rape, beatings, and murder of women in the Congo and Iraq.

A war over “coltan,” a crucial ingredient in the manufacture of cell phones and other electronic devices, has helped cause the ongoing tragedy of rape and murder by the millions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The DRC horrors far outstrip even Darfur as a tragedy, as I noted in June 2005.

Go to Seeing is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights and the News, the website of Czech-Canadian Katerina Cizek‘s documentary film series of that name, to read “Cell Phones Fuel Congo Conflict.” . The series explains how the fight over coltan, only one of the treasures in the resources-rich Congo, is directly responsible for much of the savage war in which millions have died and hundreds of thousands, at the very least, have been raped and otherwise brutalized.

Eve Ensler, famous for the Vagina Monologues, is one of the few Westerners to latch onto the rampage against women in the Congo and try to publicize it. Incongruously, her monologue on the violence, gleaned from a trip there, can be found in Glamour. Here’s the second paragraph of Ensler’s in-your-face August 2007 article:

How do I tell you of girls as young as nine raped by gangs of soldiers, of women whose insides were blown apart by rifle blasts and whose bodies now leak uncontrollable streams of urine and feces?

Meanwhile, in Iraq, cell phones as finished products are prime weapons — in a high-tech fashion — for brutalizing women.

Amanj Khalil, a young journalist for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, described on May 2 one recent incident in Iraq’s northern Kurdish area:

Salma trusted her boyfriend enough to speak freely with him about romance, love and even sex.

But she has paid a high price for her candour. Salma, who asked that her real name be concealed because of the sensitivity of her story, is hiding in a women’s shelter in the northeastern city of Sulaimaniyah, her body battered and bruised.

Her boyfriend recorded their intimate conversations on his phone and passed them onto her family through a friend when she refused to marry him. Salma’s body still bears the scars of her family’s response. The 28-year-old’s hand was fractured during one of the beatings from her brothers, father and uncles.

“They started to beat me without even letting me speak,” she said. “They beat me so severely that I fainted several times.”

Salma’s just one of many Iraqi women being brutalized in a high-tech way by lower-than-low scumbags.

It’s worse in the Congo. Natural disasters, like the cyclone that ravaged Burma, are one thing. Manmade disasters are another. And no manmade disaster is as unnatural as what’s going on in the DRC, surely the rape capital of the world.

Here’s a grim fact: In the Congo, “vaginal destruction” has become an official term of medical art used by beleaguered doctors and nurses to describe war-related injuries.

Western governments and the mainstream press usually, but not always, ignore the DRC. (Certainly, Western corporations don’t ignore it the country’s rich natural resources.) So you have to go elsewhere to find out about the situation. Thanks to the Web, the upside of high-tech, you can.

One of the best pieces, and I’ve referred to it previously, is Sarah J. Coleman‘s June 2005 article on Beliefnet, “Congo’s Conflict: Heart of Darkness.” Her lede is worth repeating:

How do you measure the horror in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Add up all of the American deaths in every single war we’ve fought in since 1776, including World War II and the Civil War (1,540,665). Now add to that the estimated deaths from the recent tsunami (169,752 confirmed dead, 127,294 missing). Next, add to that the estimated death toll in the conflict in Darfur (400,000). Then, add to that the victims of genocide in Rwanda, one of the most horrific slaughters of the 20th century (937,000).

Add all of the deaths together — and you still have a smaller number than the 3.5 million people who have died in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since 1998.

The toll’s up to an estimated 5 million now — that’s the scope of the Holocaust. Read Stephen Lewis‘s April 12 speech at Ensler’s V-Day Celebration in New Orleans.

Lewis really got down to it in September 2007, quoting from “The Shame of War: Sexual Violence Against Women and Girls in Conflict,” a March 2007 major report from IRIN, the U.N.’s excellent and free global news service:

“As a result of the systematic and exceptionally violent gang rape of thousands of Congolese women and girls, doctors in the DRC are now classifying vaginal destruction as a crime of combat. Many of the victims suffer from traumatic fistula — tissue tears in the vagina, bladder, and rectum.

Additional long-term medical complications for survivors may include uterine prolapse (the descent of the uterus into the vagina or beyond) and other serious injuries to the reproductive system, such as infertility, or complications associated with miscarriages and self-induced abortions. Rape victims are also at high-risk for sexually transmitted infections.”

I won’t apologize for the graphic nature of this, because we need to face the unexpurgated facts.

The Congo violence is the biggest war tragedy, but of course it’s far from the only manmade disaster. Among the many battlegrounds of violence against women is Kurdish Iraq. That northern region of Iraq has long been thought to be the most civilized area of the war-torn country (aside from the increasing number of skirmishes between Turkey and the Kurd separatists). But Salma’s story is far from unique.

Here’s the intrepid reporter Khalil again to give the broader view of cell-phone-induced violence in Iraq:

Mobile phones have become a new threat to young women’s safety in Iraq’s northern region, members of parliament and women’s rights campaigners warn.

Men are using them to take photos and record audio and video clips of women and girls who are breaking social codes by having sexually explicit conversations or intimate relations with their boyfriends. In many cases, the conversations and videos have been widely distributed, damaging women’s reputations and, in doing so, putting their lives at risk.

In 2007, nearly 350 women were the victims of violence in mobile-phone related cases, according to statistics compiled by women’s organisations and the Sulaimaniyah police directorate. In 2006, 170 cases were recorded.

However, experts believe that the actual number of incidents is much higher.

Can you hear me now?

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 7, 2008

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