For women in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo’s second city, a curfew may help fight the coronavirus, but for many, it comes with a dread of burglary and rape.
Residents in DRC’s economic capital have reported a string of housebreaking and sexual assaults, some by armed men in uniform, since the authorities imposed a nightly confinement on December 18.
Seven women, including two sisters, told AFP last week that they had suffered a break-in and been raped during the 9pm-5am lockdown.
“It was 11:05 pm when I heard knocking at the door,” says Dominique, using an assumed name and still in shock as she described what happened on the night of January 10.
Men smashed a window and forced the padlock on her home in Kalubwe, on the outskirts of Lubumbashi, she said.
The gang wore police uniforms, according to the 26-year-old mother and teacher, although neighbours who also came under attack corrected her, saying the men were in fact clad in military gear.
“I gave them 300 dollars (247 euros),” said Dominique — a vast sum in a country where average per-capita income is less than $3 per day.
The burglars ordered Dominique to undress. In tears, she described being raped by three members of the gang and trying to fight them off.
“They believed I was dead,” she said. “They left to go next door.”
“I was in the living room,” said her neighbour Patricia, also using a pseudonym and pointing to a broken window at the entrance to her home.
“The bandits asked for money. Mother gave them 60 dollars. Then they asked: ‘How many women are in this house?'”
“They tore my dress, they beat me,” said the 22-year-old student.
Robbed in late December in a different neighbourhood, Marie and Emmanuel (not their real names) described how the attackers started to play with their seven-month-old daughter, threatening to hurl the baby to the ground.
“When we followed them, they beat me up. They had their way with me,” Marie said.
Her sister, who lives with the young couple, was also violently assaulted.
– Crime wave –
Crime is a chronic problem in Lubumbashi, hurting the middle classes or poor people in the outlying areas far more than wealthy Congolese and expatriates, who live in high-security villas.
In July, local civil society groups issued a report saying that the province of Upper Katanga, where Lubumbashi is the main city, was in the grip of an unprecedented three-year-old wave of “urban crime, followed by robbery, rape and murder.”
Whether crime has worsened since the curfew is hard to say — any evidence is anecdotal, in the absence of reliable figures.
The nightly restriction was decreed across the country of 80 million to slow the spread of Covid.
The DRC, a country the size of continental western Europe, has recorded about 21,000 cases of the virus since March, mainly in the capital Kinshasa.
Provincial police chief Louis Segond Karawa acknowledged that “acts of delinquency” had been occurring during the curfew.
“There are always black sheep, we can’t deny it,” the police general said, responding to reports of men in uniform committing such acts and saying they would face “severe punishment” if caught.
Karawa also said there were “several isolated instances of rape,” which he saw as a “blackmail” tactic by burglars.
– Losing faith –
But some of those who spoke to AFP said a lot of violence in Lubumbashi was never recorded.
“Filing a complaint is useless,” sighed a man in his 50s, who had been attacked in Kalubwe district.
“You have to pay 20 dollars to register a complaint,” said a civil servant in the ministry of land affairs.
Adding to the sense of lawlessness, 20 people died in September, including two policemen who were beheaded, when a militia group calling for the independence of Katanga attacked Lubumbashi.
More than 20 women prisoners inside the city jail when a riot there broke out were raped repeatedly over three days until the authorities regained control, Radio France Internationale (RFI) reported.