Targeted Rapes To Spread HIV/Aids Started In Uganda

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[Publisher’s Commentary]

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in the Democratic Republic of Congo and has decried the use of rape as a weapon in Congo’s conflict.

On August 5, 2009, The New York Times published a front page story by Jeffrey Gettleman, the newspaper's East Africa bureau chief, that included for the first time photographs of male rape victims in the conflict. While the rape of men –women have traditionally been the victims of this crime—might be a new phenomenon in Congo; in Uganda it started as early as the 1990s and I remember trying to convince The New York Times to pursue the story at the time.

Ironically, the Times, to its eternal shame, could have broken the story about this diabolic use of rape as a weapon of mass infection 16 years ago.

In 1992 after I completed journalism training at Columbia University, I met with several editors at The New York Times, including the foreign editor, the deputy foreign editor and the managing editor. My plan was to return to Africa and set up as a stringer there. I met with The Times’ editors hoping to work out a deal.

I also met with Donatella Lorch; The New York Times was sending her to be East Africa bureau chief. Lorch was then a minor legend, having reported from Soviet occupied Afghanistan, and moving amidst the Taliban, who were then U.S.-supported.

My own passage into the corridors of The New York Times was paved with my masters paper at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia; "Darkest Times In Africa." My paper documented the evolution of African news coverage in The New York Times dating from the 1860s right through the 1990s; including the period when the reportage was outright racist.

In addition to Times news clips in microfilm in New York libraries, I had gained access to The New York Times archives where I discovered very dirty laundry—offensive racist letters exchanged between editors of The New York Times and reporters sent to cover Africa from the 1950s right through the 1990s. Later, I used some of the material for my book, "The Hearts of Darkness, How White Writers Created The Racist Image of Africa," (Black Star Books 2002).

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It was on the basis of my masters’ paper that I caught the attention of editors at the Times. After all, the paper documented the role that Times editors and reporters had played in African reportage; some decent, many ugly and offensive. Nevertheless, I never travelled to Africa to become a stringer. I honed my journalism here in New York instead.

Yet, when I met Donatella Lorch, I told her about a big and chilling story I had been following from Uganda, that had not yet been dealt with by any of the major media outlets, including The New York Times. That story was about the deliberate spread of HIV/Aids by Yoweri Museveni’s regime, which had unleashed government soldiers known to be HIV-positive, to rape people in Uganda’s Acholi region. That’s the region in Uganda which was then resisting Museveni’s regime; and still is, today.

I told Lorch that I had already done much of the reporting by telephone here in New York, calling contacts in Uganda, and that I had interviewed a Ugandan doctor, then visiting New York City, who also confirmed the diabolical policy. The doctor told me he was convinced there was a policy to spread the disease because for the first time men were also being raped by the government soldiers. I also gave Lorch a copy of a videotape of a documentary that a German crew had shot which contained interviews with some Acholi males who described their ordeal. Even then, I could tell that she could not relate to such a seemingly outlandish story. In fact I recall her saying –and at least I took it to be a joke at the time, “Maybe the Ugandan army is recruiting more gay soldiers into the army.”

Yet, some of the victims later reportedly committed suicide out of humiliation. After all, in some of the remote parts of Acholi, anal intercourse between men was practically unheard of.

Another reason why most outside media outlets, including The New York Times, were unwilling to touch the story is that often corporate media mirror official U.S. policy and Uganda under Museveni was considered to be an “ally.” Uganda at the time was also being celebrated for its open and aggressive policy to combat and contain Hiv/Aids. Later, it was revealed that some of the reported achievements were exaggerated and funnelled to Western media outlets by well-paid public relations firms.

In fairness it wasn’t only The New York Times that ignored the Uganda targeted-and male-on-male rapes story. I tried to interest countless publications, including The Village Voice and The Nation. I remember once writing to Andrew Sullivan, now a famous blogger and commentator when he was editor of The New Republic. I recall him writing back something to the effect: “I don’t believe you.”

Inside Uganda, an Acholi politician, Tiberio Atwoma Okeny, was one of the few who publicly accused the Museveni regime of using targeted rapes, including of males, to spread Hiv/Aids to punish Acholis for their perceived support of insurgency against his regime. Okeny was arrested and charged with sedition and treason.

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It's not by accident that rebellion has lasted for more than 23 years in Uganda's Acholi region. Partly it’s because Joseph Kony, who leads the Lord's Resistance Army, is inplacatable; partly, because Museveni, like Kony is a die-hard militarist who lives by the sword; but mostly, it’s because Acholis remember the diabolical crimes unleashed by Museveni's army, including targeted rape of males --in addition to females-- to spread Hiv/Aids.

Moreover the maccabre policy has worked, when combined with the confinement of two million Acholis in concentration camps, only now easing. Northern Uganda once had the lowest HIV infection rates in the country; by 2004 it was twice the national average and according to a report in local media there by 2009 it was 11.9% while the national average was 6.4%

Today the Congo is in the news and the focus of stories about the use of mass rapes as a weapon in its ongoing conflict.

Consider this: In all the years that Congo suffered mayhem and collapse under the late dictator Mobuttu Sese Seko, even during its worst years, mass rape was never favored by the brutal and repressive government troops in what was then Zaire.

What changed? What was new? The Congo was invaded by Uganda and by Rwanda twice. The first invasion was in 1996; that was a popular invasion because it led to the overthrow of the detested Mobuttu.

The second invasion, of 1997, was very unpopular. Uganda, and Rwanda, both sought to install a pliant leader in Congo after Laurent Kabila –father of current president Joseph Kabila—exerted too much independence from his former benefactors who had installed him.

With the help of Angola and Zimbabwe, the senior Kabila thwarted an outright takeover.

Uganda ended up occupying eastern Congo, including the Ituri region; Rwanda occupied the part of Congo that covers Goma and leads into Rwanda.

It was during this occupation --resisted by the Congolese, much as the Acholis had resisted Museveni's army in northern Uganda-- that mass rapes became a weapon against Congolese and men were raped for the first time. The occupying armies also looted Congo's natural and mineral resources, as documented by the United Nations and by Human Rights Watch.

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Indeed, in 2005, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) found Uganda liable for what amounts to war crimes and crimes against humanity in Congo and ordered $10 billion compensation for Congo. What’s more, on June 8, 2006, The Wall Street Journal reported that the International Criminal Court (ICC) also has launched its own investigation into the crimes committed by Uganda troops and sponsored militias.

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The behavior of Rwanda’s troops –and its own sponsored militias—shouldn’t come as a surprise: Many of its fighters had been members of Uganda’s national army before the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded Rwanda in 1990 and seized power there in 1994.

Last week, when The New York Times story documented how out of hand targeted rapes, including of males, has become in Congo, I could not help but remember my attempts to convince Donatella Lorch and Times editors to pursue the Uganda rape stories 16 years ago.

If Gettleman and the Times really want a fuller understanding of the Congo atrocities, then the reporting must start from Gulu, Uganda.

The Ugandan story is yet to be fully told and many victims await interviews.

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