Sexual violence is on the rise as armed groups continue to move across the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) North Kivu Province, officials say.
Since mid-November, the provincial capital, Goma, has been a site of battle, with rebel group M23 taking control of the city on 20 November. Following negotiations with neighbouring countries, M23 relinquished control of the city on 1 December, and the Congolese national army, FARDC, is back in charge.
Days after FARDC troops arrived in Minova, 54km southwest of Goma, in late November, local women began to show up at local hospitals with injuries sustained from rape.
The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported on 4 December that the Minova Hospital had recorded 72 cases of rape since the latest wave of violence started. UNICEF has provided the hospital with four post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) kits - equivalent to a total of 200 doses - to prevent victims from contracting HIV following their possible exposure to the virus.
"There are more than 10 [FARDC] battalions here [in Minova], and they are raping the women," said Nestor Bulumbe, who has worked as a medical professional in the area for 17 years.
Bulumbe's Kalere clinic alone has attended to 26 women, some of whom were gang-raped. His wife said that she attended the funeral of an 80-year-old woman who was raped by three men and died as a result.
"By day, they [the soldiers] raped them in the fields and by night they entered their houses. There is no discipline; smoking hemp, drinking, behaving very badly," Bulumbe said of the soldiers, adding that, of the many armed groups that had come through the town in the past 17 years, FARDC "are the worst".
A spokesman for the FARDC, Col Olivier Hamuli, told IRIN that several soldiers suspected of rape and theft were arrested late last month in Minova and are being transferred to Kinshasa for trial.
The new commander of DRC’s land forces, Gen Francois Olenga, called a meeting of senior officers in Minova last week, at which he called for respect for the army code of good conduct and human dignity.
Earlier in the year, rights group Human Rights Watch accused M23 of committing a number of war crimes, including rapes.
The rebel group’s spokesman, Vianney Kazarama, has rejected the accusations in the report and criticized its authors for not including names of alleged victims or other evidence by which the allegations could be verified.
|SLIDESHOW: Sexual violence on the rise in eastern DRC|
According to a 4 December report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), reports of serious protection incidents in the region have continued, “including lootings, rapes, summary executions and recruitment of children”.
"On the night of 1-2 December, violent looting, including rape, by armed men occurred in Mugunga III IDP [internally displaced person] camp [west of Goma], highlighting the extremely worrying humanitarian and protection situation in North Kivu," the report said, noting that UNICEF treated 12 survivors of rapes that occurred that night.
M23 began withdrawing from Goma the morning of 1 December, an operation which the UN Stabilization Mission in DRC (MONUSCO) says is now completed.
Yawo Douvon, the country director of CARE International in DRC, said: "Reports from our field staff and partners show a rising number of cases, especially in those areas that have experienced armed clashes. Many of these cases of rape and violence cannot be treated because of the deteriorating security situation."
In Goma, funding and supplies have not been reaching the hospitals.
"The situation is complex and confusing... The operating environment is currently not safe for humanitarian aid workers," Douvon said on 29 November, two days before the M23 officially pulled out of the capital as urged in recent peace talks.
According to UN figures, at least 140,000 people have been newly displaced by recent violence in and around Goma; this number is in addition to the estimated 841,000 people who were already displaced.
In a 21 November statement, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos expressed concern at the plight of civilians fleeing the violence in and around Goma. "Insecurity is preventing the delivery of the most basic humanitarian assistance that people need, and many of the communities hosting them are already overstretched," she noted.
* This report was updated on 7 December with comments from FARDC and M23