International Justice Monitor

A project of the Open Society Justice Initiative

EXPERT DESCRIBES TRAUMA AMONG CENTRAL AFRICAN RAPE VICTIMS

An expert on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on Monday described to the Jean-Pierre Bemba trial the trauma patterns among the Central African individuals who were victims of sexual violence perpetuated by the accused’s troops. 

Dr. Adeyinka Akinsulure-Smith, a counseling psychologist with New York University who has conducted clinical and psychological assessments of three victims of sexual violence in the Central African Republic (CAR), today became the second prosecution witness in the war crimes trial of the former Congolese vice president. 

Dr. Akinsulure-Smith told the trial presided over by Judge Sylvia Steiner that she has been licenced to practice in New York, U.S.A, since 1998, and that she had conducted clinical and psychological assessments in the CAR at the request of the prosecution and victims participating in the trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Previously, she has worked with victims of sexual violence in the Sierra Leonean armed conflict, as well as with other traumatized individuals from other countries. 

About the violence in the CAR during 2002 and 2003, the witness said there was extensive sexual violence that involved mainly women but also men. “The types of sexual violence involved multiple gang rapes, at least two or more perpetrators towards an individual,” she said. “The type of sexual violence involved anal, vaginal, oral penetration and witnessing acts of sexual violation against another individual.”

The expert said that some of those raped were as young as 12 years old.

“In your professional opinion and experience, what is the effect of sexual violence during war on victims?” asked trial lawyer Petra Kneur.

“Extensive,” replied Dr. Akinsulure-Smith. At the individual level there are severe psychological and physical consequences. There are also family and community repercussions, namely those that affect not only the individual but also their community and their families.

The physical effects could be extensive, she said, and could include tissue tears in the vaginal, bladder, and rectum area. There could also be other extensive injuries to the reproductive system, including complications associated with miscarriages for women who become pregnant.

“In terms of the psychological consequences, those are the ones that are much more difficult to document. Many patients say ‘the physical scars heal but the emotional scars stay with me’. We see extensive PTSD, depressive symptoms, and anxiety related symptoms,” said the expert.

She said for women who had been subjected to sexual violence there was also “the stigma of having been used, being seen as damaged goods if you will.” She explained that “in addition to the physical and psychological consequences, there is also the shame, guilt, and blame of the victims. That is what I saw in talking to people in Bangui and I also in Sierra Leone.”

Prosecutors at the ICC charge that members of Mr. Bemba’s personal army – the Movement for Congolese Liberation (MLC) – used rape as a weapon of war when they went to the CAR to help then president Angé-Felix Patassé to ward off a coup attempt.

Although Mr. Bemba was not personally in that country, prosecutors argue that he is criminally responsible for the rape, murder, and pillaging carried out by his troops. This is because he failed to punish or stop the soldiers from committing these crimes, even though he was purportedly aware that they were being committed.

Dr. Akinsulure-Smith continues her testimony tomorrow morning.

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