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Walter Astrada

Rape, weapon of war in Eastern Congo

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In the eastern part of The Democratic Republic of Congo, tens of thousands of women and young girls are being raped with impunity and extreme brutality by all sides in the conflict, civilians, militiamen, armed groups, foreign-armed groups and members of the Congolese Army.

In most cases, many men rape women at the same time, what is know as ‘gang rape’. Not only are the women raped, but also their vaginas are mutilated with guns and sticks. In many cases, the women are raped in front of their children, their husbands, families and neighbors. This shows that rape is being used as a weapon of war to punish or dehumanize the women themselves, or to persecute the community to which they belong.

According to the United Nations, in the province of South Kivu local health centres report that an average of 40 women is raped daily, as a rule of thumb in such situations says the UN, for every rape that is reported, as many as 10 or 20 cases might be unreported. 14.200 women and young girls were registered as being raped between 2005 and 2007 in South Kivu. Complete statistics of the scale of rape in North Kivu do not exist. According to December 2007 United Nations figures, around 350 rape cases were reported every month in North Kivu.

Behind these alarming figures are individual women whose dignity, autonomy and health are constantly under threat. The consequences of rape are devastating; survivors regularly suffer from emotional disorders and mental health problems for the rest of their lives. They also have extensive damage to their reproductive system including miscarriages, infertility, difficult pregnancies, pain in their fallopian tubes, and, fistulas, causing leaking of urine and faces. Rape also increases their risk of contagion with HIV/AIDS, not to mention those who meet their death.

Likewise, there is such stigma associated with rape in Congo – where female virginity is prized and the husband of a rape survivor is considered shamed – that rape survivors are routinely shunned by husbands, parents and communities.

Legal assistance is rare and inadequate in Eastern Congo, where impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence remains a major issue.



Walter Astrada was born in 1974 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  He started his career as a staff photographer at the local, La Nacion newspaper.  After a formative trip through South America, he joined the Associated Press in Bolivia and later in Argentina, Paraguay and then the Dominican Republic.

From March 2005 until March 2006 Walter worked as a freelancer for Agence France Presse in the Dominican Republic and was represented and distributed by World Picture News.  However, in March 2006 he moved to Spain from where he is working as a freelancer.  During 2008 and 2009 he covered Eastern Africa out of Uganda. Currently he is based in Madrid, working on a long-term project about violence against women. Since February 2010 he is represented exclusively by Reportage by Getty Images.

Walter won 3 World Press Photo, The Bayeux-Calvados award for War Correspondents, NPPA-BOP, ‘Photojournalist of the Year’ and ‘Best of Show,’ the PGB ‘Photographer of the Year’ and ‘Picture of the Year,’ World Press Photo and PDN annual, among others.


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34 thoughts on “walter astrada – rape, weapon of war in eastern congo”

  1. Walter, what a great set of photos, depicting one of the most atrocious weapons of war that is used: Rape. This particular country and this situation has held my attention and prayer for a long time. I find it unfathomable that this is allowed to happen and for so long now. I may have missed it in your descriptions but I didn’t see one of the worst parts of this is the rejection from families of women who are raped by these thugs. To me that is as bad as being raped, maybe worse. To be rejected and shunned by family because war thugs raped you in the name of war. I saw a documentary on HBO I believe about this subject. Very brutal. The woman doing the film actually got to talk to the creeps and they said they had to have this release due to their being gone for so long from their wives in this war. War! This isn’t war. This is an excuse to brutalize and rape without being brought to task for your actions. Well done on the photos Walter. There is a lot more to tell though about the cultural aspects of this and how women are treated in this regard.

  2. Apart from the fact that its a very powerful story, told with great sensitivity.
    And the fact that all the pictures are alive.
    And that it conveys that which it sets out to admirably.

    It also also reminds me that ‘if it aint broke it dont need mending’.
    Very good journalism and great photography.


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  4. These photographs fill me with anger and despair. In nature and especially among primates, brutal violence among members of the same species does occur es evidenced by studies of rampaging chimpanzees viciously killing members of rival troops, or even members of their own troop. The motive is always over food, territory, or sexual partners. It’s disturbing but on some level, there is an evolutionary imperative, even if it’s simply the will to pass DNA forward to the next generation. When populations become stressed to the point where the level and nature of the violence is pathological to the point of becoming self-destructive, it signals the beginning of the next phase of evolution: extinction. I look at these pictures and just can’t understand how a society descends to such a level of dysfunction that it rapes its own into oblivion. Maybe it’s the combination of the effects of colonialism with xenophobia when tribal cohesion is replaced with chaos.

  5. sadly, & quite obviously; the world is badly unequal.

    photographs alone don’t capture emotion. brilliant photography includes heartfelt emotion. this contribution exudes emotion.

    well done

  6. I can only echo everyone else here.

    Men with guns and uniforms…..greed, ignorance, brutishness, stupidity

    Congratulations Walter, this is very strong work. I’m so glad to see this in colour, it is so much more real than black and white.

  7. This one leaves me in awe – awe of many things.

    First, a horrible kind of awe – that we humans are capable of such dark, evil cruelty and, although this is far away in Africa, I have no doubt that, given the right set of circumstances, it could happen right here in my neighborhood and in yours.

    Second – awe at the courage of victims, such as Mama Masika, who experiences something horrible beyond anything I can comprehend. Not only does she not let it destroy her, but goes on to counter evil with good.

    Third – awe for Walter Astrada, who has put safety, security and comfort behind him to masterly tell so important of a story.

  8. Jamie Maxtone-Graham

    Breathless after viewing this. Where words are inadequate, the photographs speak.

    The opening image of the woman with her infant facing the phallic vehicle of war…….!!

    What is wrong with men/man/kind that sex and violence co-exist so intimately.

  9. Thank you for this Walter. We will always need photographers like you: educators. The images are very moving and also (of course) tragic, though unfortunately not nearly as tragic as the horrifying stats in your essay. The numbers blur: one woman gang-raped in front of her family should be enough to galvanise whoever needs to be galvanised among the rich and privileged nations. But obviously thousands, millions, are not enough. Your contribution will no doubt help here, which is excellent. It is also excellent to see these women helping themselves and other victims, surviving on the front line of one of our species’ oldest stories: the story of our self-destruction, self-loathing, bottom-of-the-barrel, scum-sucking territoriality: feral creatures pissing on lampposts (creatures, but not animals: humans are infinitely worse than animals).

    As I said, this is an old story (the ‘oldest profession’ was never that of a prostitute, but a soldier). And I don’t condemn soldiers (my father was one), because we’ve always needed them to protect us from certain ‘other’ kinds of soldier/mercenary. And of course the lines always blur in places. The worst scumbags are the ones who promote and encourage conflict without getting their hands dirty. I never fail to be dazed by our species’ atrocities. I cannot be ‘awed’ by them, since they are so much a part of our history, but I can be moved to anger and hopefully act on this.

    So what can WE do, to support those who are going against the trend of our species, the survivors and helpers of survivors? Where do we send the aid, or spread the word (not that we can do this as effectively as you have with your photography)?

  10. un tarabajo muy bueno!
    lo siento por escribir en espanol pero el ingles no se me da muy bien.
    me canta las fotos. es un ensayo estupendo.
    simplemente de estar por aqui y ver todo esto es tremendo. creo que nadie como persona nadie queda
    igual ( madagascar)
    muchisima suerte y sigue por delante
    un saludo

  11. “Maurizio Giuliano, a United Nations spokesman in the Democratic Republic of Congo, said Friday that it was unclear on which side of the Congo-Angola border the women had been attacked, and that the United Nations was calling on both countries to investigate promptly.

    “What worries us is that rape seems to be becoming endemic in several parts of Congo,” Mr. Giuliano said, also referring to recent rapes in the eastern Kivu provinces. “We fear it’s becoming part of the routine.”

    Mr. Giuliano needs to step past fear and into action as a member in an organization (UN) that can supposedly do something about this. Thanks for posting Panos, I think.

  12. walter,


    el corazón fue hecho para ser roto…

    no puedo decir otra cosa …. como ustedes saben, valoro este trabajo, toda su periodismo y estoy agradecido de continuar para continuar y persistir ….

    la brutalidad de nuestra especie, de nuestras guerras, nunca de nuestras vidas en contra de los demás deja de asombrar con el tamaño y la profundidad de la que es horrible brutalidad ….

    es un horror …. una atrocidad ….

    y, sin embargo, en medio de toda esta miseria y el sufrimiento, que son capaces de encontrar un mosaico de estrellas … ya sea por los agujeros de bala de una tienda de campaña o del flash rayos de sol en contra de una lente de cristal o en la luz de un niño ….

    para poner fin al sufrimiento y, sin embargo dentro de esa locura, de alguna manera han de detención de la verdad real, que estas mujeres y los niños no son efigies de sufrimiento, pero real, heridos, y que aún viven los seres humanos ….

    una vez más, los tambores … la mente salta oído y pierde su ritmo ….

    abrazos amgio,


  13. Powerful work, numbing. Marcus Bleasdale wrote that he shows his photographs from the Congo (The Rape of a Nation, shown here on Burn) to politicians and decision-makers whenever possible. Walter, I hope your harrowing essay gets compulsory viewing by every politician. Such atrocities do not happen in isolation. To my knowledge the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has no significant manufacturing capability, no means to produce weapons or ammunition; so someone must provide them. The DRC is rich in minerals, gold, diamonds etc. so it’s no great leap of the imagination as to how such thugs get supplied.

    Live Aid showed that the public in the Western World has great compassion and empathy for fellow humans who suffer due to no fault of their own. Sometimes the situation seems overwhelming. The link between such atrocities and our comfortable existence does exist – in the sense that materials exported from the DRC feed, perhaps indirectly, such horror. I don’t think aid is the answer here. perhaps an embargo on materials from DRC? Being a photographer I see photographs like these, I see essays that show children having to spend their nights in towns to avoid being kidnapped and used as child soldiers but the newspapers and television are hardly shouting about it are they? If a child in the West is kidnapped the media are all over the story. I haven’t seen “African Child Kidnapped – Forced To Be Child Soldier” or “Congo – Rape Used As Weapon” as a headline recently.

  14. ………makes one just want to go there and take pictures of misery and brighten things up ….”Don’t be sad look at the photo see how pretty things can be made to appear”

  15. I think it’s wonderful that Burn can serve as a platform to share this kind of work, which is decreasingly present and perhaps non-existent in print publications. As others have mentioned it is important that photographers and journalists continue delving into such topics.

    We live in a largely sick world where power and greed continue to take their tolls on the less fortunate.

    Thanks Walter and the Burn team.

  16. Walter, congratulations. I’ve seen this essay before and it’s really good. I’m happy to see the introspective stuff (I mean the good ones) that I see in Burn normally, but I much prefer this: the real deal.

    I’m also happy to see that some attention is going to Congo, easily the worst humanitarian crisis of the last decades and easily one of the most overlooked.

    Nevertheless, I think Burn should put in in the ‘In the Spotlight’ category together with Nachtwey. A guy with 3 World Press Photo is hardly an ‘Emerging Photographer’.

  17. Walter, excelente historia. Triste por cierto, pero hay que contarla, como lo hiciste con la serie de “Undesired” que aparecio en MediaStorm hace unos meses. Esta interesante tu punto de vista acerca de las mujeres.

    Abrazo (argentino)

  18. Such awful lives these women are forced to live.
    Walter, to me, these images communicate a very strong message – but they make me feel a bit helpless.
    I cannot help these women. I wish there was a way I could, but it’s too big of a problem. Is there any hope for these women? Is anyone going to stand up to the men of Congo? The US has been taking it upon them selves to fight in the middle east for years to “free the people” why have they made no effort to fight in the Congo to truly free the people there? I think we all know why, there is no money in it for the US.

    Walter, I applaud your efforts. Stories such as these need to stay fresh in the eyes of the public if something will ever happen to stop this violence. Yourself and others such as James Nachtwey are crying for action to be taken, but I fear local politics are too important for those who really need to hear and see these things.

    Stay Strong.

  19. Walther, let me comment by linking to a similar story, yet with different perspective: Margaret whom I interviewed in the same period, same part of Congo – was not just a suffering victim. She was raped etc – but she fought back and she is now recovering and trying to build up a future for herself and the fruit of the rapes: a beautiful daughter.
    As photographers, we should never forget that people are not just victims – they also have a dignity
    See for yourself here: http://www.noedhjaelp.dk/her_arbejder_vi/afrika/congo_drc/laes_mere/krig_mod_kvinderne
    Please ignore the text around in Danish, the video is in English
    Peter Hovering
    journalist and photographer

  20. Johannes Kick

    Very important work.
    The Essay is very powerful and shows us the dark side of humans soul.
    Those pictures a important to show the world what is happening over there and you have done it very good.
    I can not understand how people can do such things and why… it makes me sad…
    Thank you

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