By Katie Nguyen
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Girls as young as 18 months are being raped and left with horrific injuries in eastern Congo after being stolen from their homes at night, a charity said on Tuesday.
The children, many of them under five, have been treated at the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, South Kivu province, which has helped thousands of women and girls raped during 15 years of conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Naama Haviv, executive director of Panzi Foundation USA, said 34 infants and young girls from Kavumu had been treated at the hospital in the last two years.
"While we've seen very significant violence against women and girls in Congo, what's new and particularly devastating about this crisis is that it is centered in one community. It seems that children are specifically being targeted," Haviv told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"The perpetrators are breaking into the homes at night and stealing away the girls, violating them sometimes over a number of days, sometimes just that night, and often times returning the children to their homes and to their parents," she said by telephone from Los Angeles, California.
Haviv said it was not clear who was behind the attacks or what was driving the violence.
Outcry over the rise in child rapes prompted medical staff, lawyers, teachers, non-governmental groups and the parents of victims to meet at Panzi Hospital at the weekend.
"The parents of the survivors were asked if they wanted to cover their faces and mask their identity to keep their privacy. But they said 'No', they're tired of hiding and what they are is angry. They want people to know this is happening," Haviv said.
"The chief of pediatrics at the hospital shared photographs from waist down of the damage being done to these children, as young as 18 months old. It's horrific. Their bodies have literally been destroyed."
In a statement, Panzi Hospital quoted the parent of a three-year-old victim as saying: "What we want is peace and security.
"We ask that the government does everything so our children stop being raped. The police, MONUSCO (the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo), the local authorities are all aware of what's happening to us but so far they haven't done anything," he said.
The statement quoted Jeanine Mabunda, presidential adviser on sexual violence in Congo, as saying that: "When it comes to rape, no one is above the law."
She also called for courts to be set up where rape had taken place. "Justice should be brought to the victim's door," Mabunda was quoted as saying.
The Panzi Hospital is run by internationally renowned gynaecologist Dr Denis Mukwege who has helped shine a spotlight on the epidemic of sexual violence in Congo.
(Reporting by Katie Nguyen, editing by Emma Batha)