Widely sought treasures lie within the borders of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which are being looted by government powers, both domestic and foreign. These political pirates depart from the Congo communities in a blaze of glory, leaving local civilians in ashes to deal with the repercussions of the desiccation of their homes. Women of the Congo tread on soil overflowing with shining diamonds and glistening gold, yet their lives are valued less than a rusty copper penny. “The Testimony,” a short film directed and produced by two Yale alumni from the class of 2010, documents the trial of 39 Congolese soldiers for the systematic rape of hundreds of their own civilians.
A typical Congolese woman works as a farmer from dawn to dusk, tilling the land under a blanket of tropical heat. Then, they are wives from dusk to dawn, cooking and cleaning while their husbands nap. Women work 24/7 without rest or break in the unyielding role of mother, the undisputed yet unacknowledged central pillar of the home. Throughout the past two decades of violent unrest in the country, Congolese women have filled another role: the spoils of war. Soldiers, whether rebels or the country’s official armed forces, go into service with the stated intention of civilian protection. They fight for their cause, but if they fail this mission, as the Congolese Army failed when they were forcibly driven out of Goma by M23 rebels, these same soldiers too often take out their aggression and darkest frustrations through rape and physical assault on the very women and children they were sent to protect. Unique among other countries in the way its women are used as “weapons of war,” the Congo was recently described by a former U.N. official as the “rape capital of the world.”
“He said he can’t share me with the soldiers because they might’ve left microbes in me,” a woman interviewed in the film said of her husband after she was sexually assaulted by soldiers. Congolese husbands often abandon wives and children after a rape occurs. To them, their family has lost all social value. “If you or those kids get as much as 10 cents from me from this day on, I’ll be a dog,” said one such man.
In December 2013, 39 of the accused rapists filled the seats of a court in Goma, unrestrained and unattended. Concealed by a black veil and an illusion of protection, individual women of Minova, a town near the city, risked their own and their families’ safety to stand before the court and testify against their assailants, all 39 of whom were sitting freely just a few feet behind. The trial lasted 13 hours. The atmosphere of the court room was heavy. The path to the restrooms made it so that the soldiers on trial were frequently walking unescorted, directly behind the assaulted women and girls, their own vision blocked by the veils. “If we gave you $50, would that be enough to cover it?” the judge asked a woman, whose home had been invaded by soldiers. The money was offered as compensation for the cost of a stolen suitcase. The rape that occurred just moments before the theft went unacknowledged by the judge.
When the atrocities in the Congo were finally brought to the world’s attention in 2012, the fear of global scrutiny and a last-ditch effort to save face by the Congolese government brought the trial to life. For the first time in the country’s judicial history, women were going to have the power to speak and testify for themselves in court. The people of the world had said they were outraged and demanded justice for the women of the Congo.
On the day of the trial, no one but the filmmakers came to document the proceedings. None of the millions of enraged onlookers or government powers came to actually see that the women of the Congo got justice. As the sun set on the end of the trial, the court came to an unexpected decision, witnessed and captured solely by “The Testimony’s” camera, that only two of the 39 would face punishment.